by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & The Rest Is Noise & r & by Alex Ross & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s a title, The Rest Is Noise has the literary pretentiousness appropriate to its author's day job: classical music critic for the New Yorker magazine. But Alex Ross' variation on Hamlet's dying words also fits the book's subject of 20th-century music. Certainly much "classical" concert music of the last 100 years amounts to noise when compared with the mellifluence of Mozart or the stateliness of Bach. But a "rest" in music is a period of silence -- the aural opposite of a note. Ross' title also alludes to the moment in the 20th century when composer John Cage wrote his influential 4'33", a composition during which the performers make no intentional sounds, and silence becomes musical noise.
Cage's composition is discussed midway through Ross's 500-plus-page book, between a section devoted to Hitler's influence in the concert hall and an examination of Stravinsky's conversion to atonality. Ross rightly situates Cage at the middle of the sea change in 20th-century music. In the first half, European traditionalism struggles with the Machine Age. In the second half, music leaps philosophically ahead of the real world and begins mapping out the dilemmas of the 21st century.
That Ross can portray the 1900s by discussing the century's music is no surprise: He's a beautiful writer and a perceptive critic. But The Rest Is Noise impresses me most in its refusal to reduce music to political and social meaning. Genius is a watermark that withstands the writings and erasures of history, and even as Ross traces the influence of world events on the era's composers, he always grants them the independence of artists. That doesn't stop him from setting Shostakovich's musical development alongside his political persecution. And he seems to relish ferreting out Benjamin Britten's pacifism and alleged pedophilia in his compositions. But generally, Ross acknowledges the power of music to shape the world as much as the world shapes music. His sensitivity makes The Rest Is Noise both a portrait of 20th-century genius and a history of a time when music abandoned its old order and started making some serious noise.