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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Reviewed by John Lawrence, B.A.(Hons.)
Am J Psychiatry 2010;167:1540-1540. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10091249
View Author and Article Information
London, United Kingdom

Book review accepted for publication September 2010

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Accepted September , 2010.

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

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Most people who may be interested in this book likely listen to music, perhaps play music on an instrument, or might sing, but they read relatively little about music, whether it be classical, jazz, or popular. As part of their cultural lives, people often collect a number of books on 20th-century painting, but I suspect that music lovers have few books on parallel music topics. For most of us, if we read anything about music, it is in program notes of concerts or occasional newspaper articles, and these are occasionally augmented by documentary-style television programs. Hence our knowledge of music is often fragmented or nestled in pockets around composers that we particularly love.

In this book, Alex Ross provides what he calls an approach "from multiple angles; biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves." This makes for an intelligent, readable, and exciting account of the interplay between composers and musicians and the cultural milieu in which they lived. It is a book that can widen our horizons, deepen our understanding, bring us closer to the composers, and above all, open our ears! It has already swelled my record collection and accelerated my interest in contemporary music.

Linked to this is a point that Ross makes about classical music: while exhibitions of 20th-century paintings, including the most abstract works, will attract viewers in large numbers, the appearance of work by Schoenberg, Weburn, Henze, or John Cage will likely reduce ticket sales. This makes concert organizers ensure that their works are always on programs that also include more acceptable music from the classical or baroque.

Although Ross's book is partly a history of the development of 20th-century music, its aim is not to be scholarly or to offer the reader overly detailed, technical analysis of music form. Rather, Ross places the lives of the composers and the development of their music within the national, cultural, political, and economic context in which they lived and worked. The book does offer some musical analysis to make clear how composers expressed meaning. However, Ross does not offer his own opinions about what he likes.

Ross sketches the personalities of composers, along with the influence of some of those around them, such as their wives, families, friends and colleagues, and competitors. For example, he writes of Mahler and Strauss as follows:

"Mahler was 46, Strauss 41. They were in most respects polar opposites. Mahler was a kaleidoscope of moods—childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing. In Vienna, as he strode from his apartment near the Schwarzenbergplatz to the Opera House on the Ringstrasse, cab drivers would whisper to their passengers, ‘Dear Mahler!’ Strauss was earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical, a closed book to most observers. The soprano Gemma Bellincioni, who sat next to him at a banquet after the [Salome] performance in Graz, described him as ‘a pure kind of German, without poses, without long-winded speeches, little gossip and no inclination to talk about himself and his work, a gaze of steel, and indecipherable expression.’"

The book shows that music developed in ways that were intertwined with and in response to developments in art and philosophy. Duchamp remarked that what changed in 20th-century art was the way that we looked at an object, not the object itself. In music, the way we listen to sounds, including noise, also has become increasingly central. In a 2004 poll of artists, the Duchamp's pissoire (a urinal as an art object) was voted the most influential work of 20th-century art. It would be an interesting question (if it has not been answered already) to know what composers and musicians would vote as equally important in their field. Perhaps, if the criteria were how we listen, it would be John Cage's completely silent piece entitled 4'33."

Music in the United States brought to the foreground musicians and composers who were black or Jewish, and both learned from and inspired each other. With jazz came a new genre of music, creating new audiences and radiating its influence on music across the world. Alongside it grew musical theatre and the American songbook, unsurpassed for encapsulating in a popular idiom the manifold vicissitudes of romantic love.

Ross shows that the 20th-century, with the explosion in the world population, two world wars, consolidation of European countries, and emergence of third-world countries, alongside the political and economic hegemony of the United States, was also supremely a century of music. Musicians for the first time had access not only to centers of teaching, but also to mass audiences, particularly because of the invention of recording machines, starting with the phonograph cylinder to the present compact discs. Alongside this, musicians had access to a large number of listeners through radio, film, and then television. This meant that music, from its composition to its distribution, became an industry and was produced on an industrial scale. Audiences became not simply listeners, but consumers. I think that this is less a cause for worry and more a chance to broaden and deepen our understanding and experience. Music is increasingly available and much of it, in its performance, is of high quality. And what this book can help us resist is the deprivation that comes with anxiously sticking with what we know and only listening to what we believe we like.

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