It’s All Noise: a review of Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an instant hit. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2007; it was a finalist for many prestigious literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction; the cover copy is littered with praise from critics, historians and musicians, everyone from Osvaldo Golijov, Rishard Taruskin and Emanuel Ax to Colin Greenwood and Björk. Nearly every one of my professors and colleagues highly recommends it. And to be sure, it deserves its reputation as an eminently-readable overview of the history of music in the twentieth century. 

However, as I’ve been re-reading The Rest is Noise, a couple passages stuck out to me as feeling deeply odd or confusing. It was as if Ross was revealing something to us here, dropping the pretense of being a well-reasoned critic for a moment. For a while, I thought I was being contrarian––my instinct is usually to be skeptical when I hear nothing but uncritical praise for something. But as I read some reviews and meditated on it, I came to a nearer understanding of what my problems are with The Rest is Noise. I may not have found the center of the issue, but I can at least gesture towards it and look inwards from the periphery. 

I

I first sensed that something was awry in this excerpt where Ross describes the “politics of style” that emerged in the 1920s:

Yet, as in the salons of Paris, this discussion about music and modernity took place within an unreal ecosystem that was removed from daily life. The audience at the new-music festivals was a motley gathering of elites—culture-building captains of industry, American heiresses looking to acquire European status, snob aesthetes with no pressing responsibilities, members of the new leisure classes. Ordinary people could not book a hotel for a week in Venice or Zurich. The audience at the average symphony-orchestra subscription concert was more socially diverse; those in the upper galleries made modest wages and came out of a simple love of music. But most preferred to hear Brahms.

This passage may seem like a populist defense of “ordinary people” against the “snob aesthetes” who eagerly attend new music festivals, but to me it reeks of condescension. It raises the question, if you take the tastes of “ordinary people” to be the deciding factor of what music is important or worth discussing, why not simply write about Brahms? Why wield the music of the canon as a cudgel against new composers, when your book is ostensibly about new music? 

I found it strange that he would capitulate to such anti-intellectual critics of classical music. I also have a hard time believing any of the “ordinary people” he invokes here would be swayed by this passage. Ironically, he seems to be describing himself when criticizing Copland’s music: “ ‘the people’ remain an airy abstraction” 

The fundamental tension here is hard to ignore. His defensiveness of safe, conservative music from more challenging, radical voices is framed as a defense of “the people” against elitist academics who write music for sport or intellectual exercise rather than for the public. But at the same time, his own understanding of “the public” and their tastes is extremely limited. His mischaracterizations of jazz, rock and hip-hop betray how little he seems to understand the music that “the people” actually listen to. 

II

Nicholas Lezard wrote glowingly of the book for The Guardian: “The Rest is Noise performs the remarkable trick of making what may be considered abstruse musical matters widely accessible.” Where I diverge in opinion from Lezard is that I didn’t find Ross’ understanding of the big picture particularly compelling. Ross is great at the accumulation of detail: he always has some interesting anecdote ready for each composer or musician he talks about. He clearly has combed through thousands upon thousands of well-research biographies looking for the little moments of humanity and insight. A favorite of mine was the story of Igor Stravinsky sitting against the stage to watch Charlie Parker, and Parker, instantly recognizing the composer, immediately quoting The Firebird in his solo on “Koko.” 

In another review in the Guardian, Stephen Poole praised Ross’ original interpretation of cold-war history via its music: 

In the rubble of Berlin, the Germanic tradition came to be regarded as irredeemably tainted. In a way, Ross suggests brilliantly, the whole subsequent course of modern music was set during the late 1940s by the Psychological Warfare division of Allied Supreme Command, which decided that the Germans needed “reorientation”. One of this mission’s cultural effects was to encourage a new musical aesthetic of anti-populist intellectualism among the young composers invited to the summer schools in Darmstadt, while the “denazified” stars of the old regime such as Furtwängler and Von Karajan carried on as before.

More than anything, it seems like Poole was enraptured by Ross’ prose, since the latter can brilliantly turn a phrase to express the imaginative power of music. Ross’ mixed metaphors, however, often carry some questionable connotations. He does also rightly point to Ross’ problems with working jazz into the history of music in the twentieth-century: “It is almost as though non-‘classical’ musicians throughout this story are presumed to be idiots savants, their innovations only considered real once they have been appropriated by ‘classical composers’ presenting them to a concert-going public.” 

His attempts to weave hip-hop into his historical schema is even more problematic, leading to such baffling assertions as, “Public Enemy’s ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ is the Rite of Spring of black America.” As a long-time fan of both Public Enemy and the Rite of Spring (Fear of a Black Planet may be one of my favorite albums of all time), this analogy makes little sense. There are some compositional similarities––the layering of rhythmically and tonally distinct phrases in the opening of The Rite may remind one of the Bomb Squad’s production. But such a brazen assertion does a disservice to hip-hop, and by extension black culture as a whole, by forcing the genre to aspire to the artistic heights of white artists working nearly a century beforehand. 

This is perhaps unsurprising, since the history of hip-hop bears almost no relationship with the history of Western classical music. The origins of hip-hop are in deejay culture, block parties in the Bronx and the “toasting” of Jamaican music, not to mention many specific figures such as poet Gil-Scott Heron––no Stravinsky in sight. Examples of direct hip-hop influence on classical music are few: Gabriel Prokofiev’s Turntable Concerto and Daniel Roumand’s Hip-hop Studies and Etudes come to mind, though there are dozens more out there. Of course, any serious musician knows that hip-hop is a global phenomenon and indisputably the most important musical movement of the last fifty years. It would be negligent for any music critic to ignore hip-hop, or to have such a banal understanding of it that they may as well ignore it altogether. 

I won’t go so far as to use the R-word to describe Ross’ understanding of black music––it’s hardly my place to say what is and isn’t racist. But regardless of whether Ross crosses some arbitrary boundary and enters the territory of gross, elitist racism, it is at least worth some thoughtful consideration, and maybe some snide looks in Ross’ general direction.

I should also note how few women appear in the book as important figures in musical history. This is a problem with musicology and music history more generally, so I won’t fault Ross too much for this oversight. Nevertheless, this is another shortcoming of The Rest is Noise ensuing histories of twentieth-century music ought to address. 

III

Composer Douglas Wadle twenty-page essay on Ross’ book helped solidify some of my nagging criticisms that I felt upon reading it, but had a hard time articulating. I highly recommend reading his review for a more critical perspective on The Rest is Noise. The ensuing section owes a lot of Wadle’s article. 

Ross devotes too much of the book towards polemics against the avant-garde. To Ross, any composer who scorns “the public” as an audience is elitist and pretentious; likewise, any composer who attempts to appeal to “the masses” unsuccessfully is a condescending city-dwelling populist. He firmly occupies the aesthetic middle-brow, where any strong aesthetic convictions are considered gauche. No coincidence that he’s the music critic at the New Yorker, the most middle-brow publication in America. 

The avant-garde that started with Schoenberg didn’t reject the audience altogether: they created the music they wanted to create, allowing in a self-selecting audience of open-minded people. The thing is, a more selective audience isn’t necessarily more “elite” or more “pretentious” than any other. Even before his plunge into atonality, the Viennese public had been increasingly critical of his music––Schoenberg had to reject the mass audience if he was to create the music that spoke to him most deeply. To me, this is what the liberal conception of artistic freedom means: artists free to create whatever they wish, audiences free to find anything that suits their tastes.

He also seems to characterize “radical” composers and thinkers as a bunch of uppity utopians who push things too far to the left for his liberal sensibilities. Theodor Adorno, as frustrating and elitist as he can be, is still one of the most prescient critics of musical modernism. Of course he wasn’t only a music critic but an essential figure of twentieth-century cultural studies, penning foundational texts like The Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer) and Minima Moralia. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Ross: you would think Adorno was simply a stodgy old dogmatic Marxist, taking his ideas directly from Moscow with nothing valuable to say. Maybe Adorno’s obvious distaste for Stravinsky turned Ross off of him. 

Ross makes the odd rhetorical move of associating mostly Jewish composers with authoritarianism, while excusing the clear and obvious ties and sympathies of composers he likes with Nazism and fascism. For instance, Sibelius spoke positively of Hitler, Stravisnky of Mussolini, and Strauss, though seemingly ambivalent towards Nazism as an ideology, was willing to work with the party to secure his career and keep his Jewish in-laws safe. 

Meanwhile, Schoenberg, a Jew who fled his naitive Austria prior to the Nazi invasion, is depicted as a curmudgeonly despot, denouncing artists who capitulate to the mainstream and enforcing his aesthetic values upon his students. This is factually wrong, since Schoenberg rarely spoke of his twelve-tone method in public––he mostly used it himself, sharing it with his open-minded students such as Berg and Webern. Additionally, Schoenberg’s writings which placed the twelve-tone method into a historical teleology of tonal music were more of a self-justification or a defense of his challenging music against his many critics than an indictment of composers who refused to see the light. John Cage and Lou Harrison were also students of Schoenberg, and their perspectives on the avant-garde couldn’t be further from their teacher’s. 

IV

To give Ross some credit, his reviews are often insightful and historically informed, providing a strong critical context for the music he discusses. He is not a critic whose reviews are only useful for the few choice adjectives performers and composers can excerpt for their bios and press releases. Though my knowledge of the full scope of music criticism out there at present is limited, I very often find myself coming out of his articles and books more well-informed on the music he discusses. One of my favorites is an essay on the overriding feeling of shame in German music after the war that led composers away from the tainted music of Wagner and Beethoven and towards increasing abstraction.

In a book like The Rest is Noise, he also shows a knack for fitting music into broader social narratives: the fin de siecle in Europe that birthed Modernism, the interregnum between the two World Wars, and the Post-War period of US hegemony and dominance. He also frequently ties in music with other art movements of their respective time and place, though for the most part in the text this amounts to excessive name-dropping of poets, painters and playwrights. Still, it does help to understand how music is only one part of these broader art movements, even if the relationships are tangential at best. (Debussy, for instance, hated the label “impressionism” foisted onto his music, and anyone who’s listened to Ravel for even a minute knows that his music is hardly impressionistic at all.)

This is the crux of how he constructs a narrative of music in the twentieth century: composers, or great men if you will, are the agents of music history, expressions of broad tectonic forces at play that we call modernism or postmodernism or neo-classicism or whatever else. I have some broader problems with this perspective on music history, mostly that it ignores or minimizes the efforts of millions of people who make such composer’s achievements possible. It also fails to synthesize musical traditions whose innovations are collective or anonymous and thus cannot be attributed to individual geniuses. Ross is not the only person to fall into this intellectual trap, so I won’t fault him too much for that. 

Ross also has some obvious limitations in his analytic methods, too: Wadle points out that he tends to write most enthusiastically about opera, where the music is intertwined with character and narrative and the emotional effect of the music is usually obvious. Anything more abstract or difficult is barely mentioned. (If I were writing about music in the twentieth century, I would have to mention the austere, haunting beauty of Webern’s Symphony or Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, or the extreme anguish of Krysztof Penerecki’s most radical music.) I think the most abstract piece he writes about at length is Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, and even there the context and origins of the music (Messaien wrote it in a POW prison camp during World War II) outshines the piece’s rhythmic, harmonic and textural richness. Ross, ironically much like Adorno, is a thoughtful and prescient critic of what little music he considers important and worth talking about. To him, the rest is noise indeed. 

V

I don’t want to dissuade people from reading this book. It’s well-written and a solid overview of a style of music I care deeply about, despite my frustrations with it. My criticisms have focused on the subtext and ideologies embedded into the book, not as much with the style or the accuracy of the facts presented. It is worth reading. 

Once I get around to reading Braudel and brushing up on my Marx and Benjamin, perhaps I can deliver a more nuanced analysis of Ross’ approach to music history, and offer up my own framework for how we ought to think of the thorny history of the twentieth century. 

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