The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross - review by Patrick O’Connor

Patrick O’Connor

Keeping Time

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Fourth Estate 624pp £20

In his first book, the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross sets out to tell the story of 'twentieth-century classical composition'. The audience for serious, or classical, music has never been greater than it is now. Through recordings and broadcasting, virtually the whole repertory of Western music can be heard at the flick of a switch. You no longer even need to search for a disc. Go to the computer, type in Hildegard von Bingen, or Telemann, Prokofiev or Puccini, any name from Adams to Zemlinsky, and you can hear their music in one click. Yet as Ross points out in his introduction, there still exists a powerful resistance, even on the part of quite sophisticated listeners, to grapple with modernism in music. The same people who can happily queue up to view an exhibition by Picasso, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol or Tracy Emin, shy away from Schoenberg, Tippett, Cage or Birtwistle. Is this because, as Ross puts it, 'in the classical field it has long been fashionable to fence music off from society, to declare it a self-sufficient language'? Perhaps it is more that, as he also suggests, musical life has 'disintegrated into a … mass of cultures and subcultures'. While preparing to write this review, I attended a concert by the London Sinfonietta, which included Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. This piece, already over thirty years old, once inspired angry walk-outs. Now, a largely middle-aged, almost exclusively white, audience sat reverently listening to what Ross calls 'Reich's drama of harmony'. 

Ross chooses to begin his story with a performance of Richard Strauss's Salome at Graz in May 1906. The opera was only five months old, so this early Austrian staging attracted a distinguished audience, which included the composers Mahler, Schoenberg, Puccini, Zemlinsky and Berg. There were 'several crowned heads' present,

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