Patrick O’Connor

Keeping Time

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Fourth Estate 624pp £20 order from our bookshop

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’. 

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Something of an 'eccentric billionaire’s hobby': reviews 'The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and… ,
    • "At the age of fifteen, drunk on stolen Chardonnay or stoned on pot at a swimming party, the thoughts that come imm… ,
    • For the latest Bookends, here's Alan Taylor musing on his stint as an assistant librarian. ,
    • A ‘pretentious ass and impotent arriviste’ who surrounded himself with ‘degenerates, hooligans, childish layabouts,… ,
    • . reviews 'Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life' by ,
    • "As Beevor shows, it was one of the most daring, dangerous and fiercely fought operations of the whole war. It was… ,
    • "The characters are very rich and very male, with astronomical ambitions. The potted biographies in this book sugge… ,