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“I’ve just finished listening to The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross’s history of 20th century music. My library’s copy of the audiobook had two blank CDs and one CD that constantly shifted between perfect clarity and noise. If I assumed intent instead of incompetence, this would have represented 20th century music nicely. But the remainder of the book was marvelous -- entertaining, instructive, soul-expanding. I’ll pick up the hard copy to get the parts I’ve missed.
Reading about music is sometimes like listening to architecture. This audiobook only recites the text, so the problem of medium not encompassing the message remains. But on his website Mr. Ross has done an excellent job of assembling audio clips to accompany the book, so that a reader can listen to what the author is writing about.
Still, a basic appreciation of European music, its structure and prior history, is probably necessary to fully appreciate Ross’s achievement. For that, I recommend Robert Greenberg’s Teaching Company lectures, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, the most effective music appreciation course I know of. He’s a bit over-the-top in his presentation, but he integrates music clips with clear instruction that will enhance the listening experience of any prospective European classical fan. And he ends right where Ross begins. If you listen to Greenberg’s lectures on The Symphony, you’ll appreciate Ross’s book even more. Greenberg’s lectures are available at several DC-area libraries, so perhaps you can borrow them for free in your area.
As I was listening to The Rest Is Noise, I e-mailed my college classmate Justin Davidson, cultural critic for New York Magazine. Turns out he was guest-blogging on Alex Ross’s site at the time. Small world.
Another interesting feature of Ross’s book: among the rock artists that he praises, he singles out Sonic Youth, and I found his observations personally validating. When I’ve heard Sonic Youth, I’ve been impressed by their architectures of noise, but I would have been hard pressed to explain the distinctions between their efforts and the discordant crunch and feedback of an untalented indie wannabee. Now, I understand a little better why Sonic Youth sounds so interesting to me.
Most importantly, Ross’s book has inspired me to listen further to recent works. I don’t expect to like everything in 20th century music; some of it will seem goofy no matter how much it’s explained to me. But I will understand the music and its connections to things I do enjoy better -- e.g., Stockhausen and “A Day in the Life.””
tmdoyle2 wrote this review Tuesday, May 13, 2008.