The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music still sends ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, its influence can be felt everywhere. Atonal chords crop up in jazz. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalism has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.

The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.

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