Book Review: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

The Rest is Noise
Alex Ross
640 pages. Farrar, Strauss, Girous, 2007. $30

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“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” said French poet Charles Péguy. This sentence, which begins chapter 11 of The Rest is Noise, may sum up the entire book, and the music of the twentieth century. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker (and blogger: his web site is also called The Rest is Noise ) has written a comprehensive study of classical music after the 19th century, which looks less at the music itself than at the political and social context surrounding composers, as well as their inter-relations. Not that the music doesn’t count, but Ross focuses more on the “why” than the “what”.

Beginning with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906, an event that “illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change,” Ross sketches out the complex history of modern music. In what, at times, is more a series of articles than a single coherent narrative, Ross looks at all the main currents of musical thought and fashion, and gives the reader an excellent understanding of why certain composers wrote the music they did. For music does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the cultural context of the times. Modernism didn’t just happen overnight, but can be seen as an organic result of what came before. From Wagner to Mahler, the seeds of twentieth-century music had been sprouting before the beginning of the century. Of course, no arbitrary boundary, such as a date, can separate musical styles, and Ross shows just how music evolved around the cusp of the twentieth century.Ross flits around in time and space, grouping composers by location and affinity, sometimes going forward, sometimes moving backwards in time, to give a bird’s-eye-view of the music that was being created. From Germany to France, from the United States to Russia, he looks at the many styles of classical (as well as, briefly, jazz and rock) that grew and morphed into the next style. Yet to this reader, something strange results from this type of analysis. This narrative suggests just how much this music depended on fashions, fads, on the desire, among some composers, to be different for difference’s sake (it “begins in mystique and ends in politics”). While I appreciate much music of this period, I remain perplexed by the respect given to, for example, severe atonal music, which offers no satisfaction to the listener.

Reading Ross, I get the feeling that much of this music was created more as a counterpoint to other, earlier tonal forms of music, and less out of some desire to write music that pleases. With a variety of systems and gimmicks, many composers simply let the music write itself: Schönberg, perhaps, with his twelve-tone series, or Cage, with his embracing of randomness, are two such examples. Reading about the systems and tricks of these and other composers does not make me want to hear what they wrote.

At times, Ross tries to actually describe the music he is discussing. This is strange; reading something like, “The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases,” or, “the strings play restlessly swirling lines while the brass carve out the whole-tone chords.” He also gives blow-blow descriptions of some works, such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In a way, this is like describing the color blue to a blind person; there’s no way to give an impression from music through words on a page. And that’s probably the weakest part of this book: even though it’s not intended to make you hear music, you simply want to as you read about all these different composers. Ross has included a playlist at the end of the book, Suggested Listening (unfortunately hidden between the notes and index), and his web site contains excerpts from many works that you can listen to.

Ross’s writing shines when he writes about the few composers who, if pages are any indication, seem to move him most: Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Britten. These three get much deeper treatment than others, with Sibelius especially getting a thirty-page biographical essay. (This could be seen as anachronistic, since Sibelius’s music, while being written in the twentieth century, is certainly rooted in the 19th.) His analysis of music during Nazi Germany, and during the United States in the Cold War period, are especially interesting for their historical information. Yet sometimes it seems that the politics is more important than the music, and, without hearing what’s being discussed, this analysis becomes academic.

At times, it’s not clear how much Ross actually likes the music he’s writing about; he is very detached, and gives few qualitative opinions. But it’s clear that he knows his subject, down to the details, and the interesting juxtapositions of biography and politics make this an extremely interesting read, especially to understand these composers in context. This is a long book, but, at times, I wished it were longer. Ross, on his blog, mentioned how much had to be cut from his manuscript, and it’s a shame that there’s not more. Especially since some composers get short shrift, or are ignored entirely. Charles Ives, perhaps one of America’s most unique composers, gets just a couple of pages, and such names as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Hovhaness barely get a mention. He also manages to totally ignore the vibrant musical culture of twentieth-century Scandinavia, which has seen, since Sibelius, a number of world-class composers.

Nevertheless, this book is a delightful read, and it deserves a place on the shelves of any music-lover who is interested in the history of the twentieth century and how it influenced music. While it’s only words about music, it can help listeners understand the complex relationships between composers and their times. After reading this, it’s time to go out and listen.

Note: on September 23, it was announced that Alex Ross received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Congrats!

Reading Moby-Dick

Call me obsessive. Some time ago – never mind how long precisely – I thought I would read Moby-Dick and see the watery part of the world through Herman Melville’s eyes. I wanted to discover another author from this period, of which I am very fond. The early part of the 19th century, also called “the American renaissance”, saw the likes of many of America’s greatest authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and others, who are among my favorite writers. While I have read many of these writers, I had not yet explored Melville. Moby-Dick, being one of the summits of 19th century fiction, therefore stood before me as a monolithic work, one that, I felt, would take some preparation.

But something about 19th century authors can make their works difficult to penetrate, at least without a solid understanding of the times and the context of their writings. My reading experience, both of fiction and history, had armed me well to fit the text into the times, but I wanted to know more, to get the most out of this book that is said to be so great.

Several people I know have read Moby-Dick, and they told me how boring they found it; their experiences generally dated back to high school, a time of less patience. It’s clear that as a teenager it could be hard to understand not only the style of the writing, but the overall structure of the book. So, my obsession led me to read not just Moby-Dick, but also Melville.

To do this, I bought the three Library of America editions of Melville’s works: the first volume contains three “South Seas” works, Typee, Omoo and Mardi (Typee and Omoo are “true stories”, says Melville; it is more likely that they are based in truth and embellished substantially). The second volume contains Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, all novels. And the final volume contains, in addition to some “uncollected prose”, Melville’s post-sea novels, Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence Man, some short stories, including Bartelby the Scrivener, and the posthumous Billy Budd.

At the same time, I wanted to learn more about Melville’s life, and purchased the interesting yet not over-long Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant. (The two-volume biography by Hershel Parker seemed a bit much at this stage.)

So, armed with all this, I set out to read Moby-Dick; along the way, I discovered much more than I bargained for.

Melville was a strange man, prone to depression and bouts of incredible literary production. He wrote his first seven novels – or about 3,000 pages in the Library of America editions – in about six years, an astounding rate of production. This writing seems to have been an explosion of pent-up creative energy, which, in fact, more or less dried up after 1857 (or about a dozen years after he started writing). The first six books came from his experiences sailing around the world: from 1841-1844, Melville sailed on a merchant ship, a man-of-war, and a whaler, and all three of these ships are settings he uses in his novels (Typee, Omoo and Mardi feature ships, but mostly take place on islands in the Pacific; Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick are centered, respectively, around a merchant ship, man-of-war, and whaler).

But all this is actually moot, when considering reading an author’s works, especially in a spurt of élan, similar to that which Melville experienced while writing them. I read the first six books in about a month, which, for some 2,800 pages of text, is fast, even for me. I was drawn into Melville’s world, and his style, so much so that I almost could not stop reading. These books are not beach reading material, but once I became familiar with the rhythms and tones of Melville’s writing, I wanted more, and kept on reading through his personal narrative of his life.

When I finally got to Moby-Dick, which was the “great white whale” of my personal quest, as well as Captain Ahab’s, I felt I understood not only Melville’s writing, but also his need for using writing as a cathartic process. For many aspects of Melville’s life were dark and disturbing, from his relationship with his father to that with his mother; from his family’s descent from the bourgeoisie to that of small-town ennui. Herman Melville was not a man who could be pinned down in one place, and, after his experience before the mast, he needed to express himself but break through all limits. The great white whale was, for him, more than just a metaphor of life and death; it seems to have been an expression of his own desire to write, to create, to go beyond the simple life he was living at the time.

Yes, parts of Moby-Dick can be seen as boring, but readers generally don’t understand the literary context of the times. This was the period when novels were being born in the United States, where fiction often contained fact; the long chapters on cetology in Moby-Dick, which serve as counterpoint and punctuation to the action in the book are structurally similar to the moralistic and expository sections of other novels of the period. Some people suggest that you skip these chapters, but this would do great wrong in taking out what could be seen as the spermaceti of the book. Melville does not merely wax intellectual in these sections, but provides the subtle background for the great climax of the book. As Ahab struggles with his quest, so Melville fights to construct an edifice of Leviathan proportions, and his foundations need to be solid.

Naturally, no one could write a book like this today. Exposition of the sort that Melville used to explain about whales is considered a great heresy in modern literature; combining this sort of fiction and fact would, today, be the sign of an uncultured scrivener. But exceptions prove rules, and Melville’s great achievement was providing a totally-encompasing whole, in which readers who knew nothing of whales, whalers and whaling, could become immersed in a story that acts on many levels. The beauty of Moby-Dick is this intense plunge into not only the narrative of Ahab hunting the whale, but also the tiny details of shipboard life, the oft excessive discussions of different types of whales, and the portrayals of the different personages who peopled the Pequod.

Now that I have read Moby-Dick, I still have a third volume of Melville’s works to read. While I know that Moby-Dick was the zenith of Melville’s writing, and closed (though not entirely) his writings about life at sea, I look forward to the later works with the same pleasure that I moved ahead through these first six books. Herman Melville was certainly one of the great writers of America’s 19th century, and deserves to be known for more than just a story about a whale; he deserves greater recognition for the universe he created through his books, and the intensity that he transferred from his life to his writings.

Henry David Thoreau and the Walden Mailing List


The Walden mailing list is dedicated to Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 to May 6, 1862). It is named after his best known work, Walden, a recounting of a period of time he spent living “deliberately” next to Walden Pond, outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau was a writer and philosopher, as well as an activist. As he wrote, in Walden,
“it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”

We offer the list as a place to discuss:

  • The pleasure that Thoreau’s writing provides us and the relevance of his ideas to life in the 21st Century.
  • Books about Thoreau’s life and works
  • Other authors from the period called The American Renaissance, particularly ones whose lives or literature moved Thoreau. (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, etc.)
  • Living deliberately
  • Nature writing and environmental concerns
  • A place to meet others who share your interest in the world of Henry David Thoreau.

Note: this list was initially created in 1996, and was housed on a server which has since disappeared. For that reason, the first five years of archives were lost. The list was moved to Yahoo.com in late 2001, and it was then moved to Google Groups. Archives are available for the Yahoo mailing list from 2001 to 2014.

To subscribe to this mailing list, go to the https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/walden-list at Google Groups.

If you want a very good annotated version of Walden – arguably one of the finest books written in the English language – see this review.

Thoreau Links

The riverText café: Brian Thomas’ site, which notably houses If Monks had Macs
The Thoreau Society: Perhaps the best Thoreau site, with e-texts of almost all of his works, biographical info, scholarship, and lots more.
Henry David Thoreau online: a comprehensive site about Thoreau, with e-texts of many of his works
The Thoreau Reader: annotated works of Henry David Thoreau
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: definitive editions of Thoreau’s works
Ken Pedersen’s Walden CD: music inspired by Thoreau
Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson: my website dedicated to Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading mind behind Transcendentalism