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Books: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Classical music took a tumble during the 20th century, says music critic Alex Ross. Less than 100 years ago, European concert premieres were mobbed, composers were esteemed as near gods, and the canon they were expanding was almost universally recognized
 

T

he Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30)

Classical music took a tumble during the 20th century, says music critic Alex Ross. Less than 100 years ago, European concert premieres were mobbed, composers were esteemed as near gods, and the canon they were expanding was almost universally recognized as one of the glories of human achievement. Today, even the relatively few people who can name more than one contemporary composer often don’t want to hear anything those composers have written. Listeners should open their ears, Ross says. Though serious composers may never again merit a mass audience, many of them have learned, “in the freedom of their solitude,” to “communicate experiences of singular intensity.” No writer working today is better suited than Ross to make this case, said Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun. In 11 years as The New Yorker’s classical music critic, he has offered “living proof that a smart, curious listener can find pleasures and challenges in new music.” His first book extends his gift for “authoritative enthusiasm” to “a whole century’s worth of music.” Even non-listeners can enjoy the result. Ross “grasps music on a profound, composer-like level,” said Zachary Lewis in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. His descriptions help us hear everything he’s heard. Better yet, he has presented classical music’s march into the cultural hinterlands as a phenomenon “vitally related” to broader social and political developments. The journey from the 1906 debut of Richard Strauss’ scandalous opera Salomé to the 1987 debut of John Adams’ “equally bold” Nixon in China becomes a lens on recent Western history. History itself, in fact, gets much of the blame for the elitist, contrarian impulse in 20th-century music, said Kevin Berger in Salon.com. Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal experiments in the 1920s may have been straightforwardly anti-bourgeois, but the flight from conventional harmony seemed almost a moral necessity after Hitler’s and Stalin’s embrace of Wagner and Stravinsky. Ross condemns none of the difficult music that resulted and predicts friendlier sounds to come as classical music absorbs more world sounds and engages in a healthy dialogue with pop. Thanks to Ross, more of us will probably be listening. “The Rest Is Noise is the biggest cultural boost classical music could hope to receive.”
 

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