The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

They say that a good book is like a good meal, and if that’s the case The Rest Is Noise is a fifteen-course feast that’s both incredibly satisfying and filling as well.

Alex Ross has not only been the music critic at the The New Yorker for over a decade now, but he’s also written for the New York Times and has been spilling his thoughts now on a blog that goes by the same title as his first book. He’s won numerous awards for his writing, and it’s easy to see why when reading his work. Everyone is a critic these days it seems, but I can’t think of anyone writing in such an approachable and yet informative way, especially about classical music.

The sub-title of The Rest Is Noise is “Listening To The Twentieth Century,” and that’s exactly what you get here, although it’s not simply a chronological rundown of all composers and their works over the course of the past 100 years. Instead, Ross intertwines the music and composers themselves with the politics and cultural currents surrounding the creation of their work. Of course, a major portion of the book is devoted to music created under the German regime during World War II, but just as much time is given to work created under both stifling power in Russia and more nationalistic influences that were going on in Britain and France. Other countries aren’t left out either, and American composers get a completely fair examination while other important artists (like Sibelius and Boulez) have massive sections devoted to their work.

While it is a book about the twentieth century and the classical music created within it, the first fifty years get the focus, which I suppose is only fair. Later on, artists like John Cage and Morton Feldman are discussed, and the book even moves into sections that talk about more modern composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Although the latter composers don’t get quite the amount of depth paid to them (other than Cage), the book is still an insanely encyclopedic type of tome, with both large-scale overviews and little bits of unique information scattered throughout.

The writing is multi-layered, with references to specific musical progressions that would delight not only someone with a more developed knowledge of composition, but also with a descriptive prose that conjures up a real sense of the music itself for those without. As someone who isn’t very well versed in music theory and composition, I found the double layers of exposition fascinating. For instance, here’s a passage where Ross discusses Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue:

The score famously begins with a languid trill on the clarinet, which turns into an equally languid upward scale, which then becomes a super-elegant and not at all raucous glissando. Having reached the topmost B-flat, the clarinet then saunters through a lightly syncopated melody, leaning heavily on the lowered seventh note of the scale. The tune dances down the same staircase that the opening scale shimmied up, ending of the F with which the piece began – a typical Gershwin symmetry.

As mentioned above, this book is a feast, weighing it at almost 650 pages with references. Depending on your specific interests, it may feel a bit too heavy in places, although there are so many interesting tidbits mentioned within that you’d probably feel guilty skipping ahead. If anything, it’s the sort of book that you’ll want to read once quickly, then put it away for awhile while you explore different music mentioned within (and beyond) before finally coming back to it at a later date and re-reading it all over again with renewed vigor.

Reading The Rest Is Noise has given me a completely renewed interest in classical music. If I may return to the analogy I mentioned in the first line, it’s as if I’ve eaten a fine meal and re-discovered the possibilities of great cuisine again. My collection already housed a good amount of classical music, but it has since grown even more quickly, as I seek out composers and specific compositions mentioned within the book and then spider off in different directions based on relational comparisons. As a rough starting point, Ross has included a list of 20th Century Limited playlist that he recommends to get going with. I’ve included that list here, with links to the respective recordings (and if not the exact ones mentioned by Ross, hopefully similar ones in terms of quality) at

As a music writer, reading a book so well-researched and written also has left me feeling completely inadequate. I’ve been writing about music for almost a decade now, and this is the sort of work that makes me look back on my own output and cringe. That said, it’s also inspired me to really reflect on my writing and try to figure out where I can make it better. That’s valuable in and of itself.

If you’re a lover of classical music, this book will be a sort of giddy treat for you, but even if you’ve never really fully explored the genre, you shouldn’t be frightened away. It’s certainly an involving read, but also one that can’t help but increase your appreciation.

(buy The Rest Is Noise at

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 16th, 2008 at 9:36 pm and is filed under books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross”

  1. something excellent » Blog Archive » Glenn Gould: The Complete Original Jacket Collection Says:

    […] in the midst of what I’m now calling my “classical reawakening” (spurned on by The Rest Is Noise, no doubt), this massive set by one of the great all-time performers (along with Richter and […]

  2. Andy Weston Says:

    I wonder what I would ask Mahler if I had the chance to travel back in time and meet him in person.

  3. perrita anal Says:

    I liked the post and your writing style. I’m adding you to my RSS reader.