Alex Ross's history of 20th-century music covers an impressively vast terrain. But its preference for "popular" over "difficult" modernism means that it fails to grapple with the artistic battles of the periodby Stephen Everson / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (4th Estate, £20)
In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, provides what he describes as an account of “the 20th century heard through its music.” Quite what that should amount to is not obvious, at least to me, but certainly Ross manifests a great knowledge, and understanding, of 20th-century music. He is a writer, and a listener, of wide-ranging sympathies, and the terrain covered in the book is vast. Given its scope, it is no mean achievement that the book has any shape at all. He quite reasonably eschews any ambition to be comprehensive—”certain careers stand in for entire scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting-room floor”—but one is still often uncertain of his motivation for choosing particular careers or for selecting particular pieces as “key.” The result is that it is not always clear whether the works Ross talks about are chosen on grounds of pure musical interest, their importance in the history of 20th-century music or because of their cultural or political significance.
Copland, Britten, Shostakovich, Strauss, Sibelius and the American minimalists receive a great deal of attention, while Bartók, Ravel (extraordinarily relegated to the category of a folk realist) and Webern get relatively little. It may be that Ross thinks that Sibelius, to whose work he devotes a whole chapter, and Philip Glass are more interesting composers than Bartók and Webern: an argument for that view, even if not convincing, would have been of interest. But no such argument is given, and the reader must infer what he can from the vagaries of Ross’s decisions about which composers and works he is going to discuss at any length.
Perhaps to talk of the “vagaries” of Ross’s choices is unfair, for in fact they seem to reflect a deeper bias that is never quite made explicit. He says in his preface that he stands opposed to an approach to the history of 20th-century music that looks for progress in its “heroic battles with the philistine bourgeoisie.” He has no truck with a taxonomy that distinguishes between works that have something new to say and those that don’t, finding that the latter “often happen to be those that have found a…