On The Rest Is Noise

16Jan09

In which The Gay Recluse recommends a book about music.

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When we finished The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross’ survey of twentieth-century (classical-ish) music, our feelings were mixed; not about the book, which — as we are hardly the first to point out (Google it!) — works brilliantly on many levels. It’s really beyond our comprehension (and remember: we worked in a record store) how anyone could have digested so many strains of music and then presented them in such a carefully ordered manner but without any condescension, so that our interest never flagged, though we were unfamiliar with large swaths of what he describes. He writes about the most challenging music with a neo-Romantic enthusiasm — and deep optimism — that’s frankly disarming (think Benjamin), so that even a misanthropic curmudgeon like us was sighing with admiration at the lyrical prose as we flew through the chapters and sections as if they were pages in a novel. (Ross also has a great blog.)

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Although there are clearly some composers (and schools of music) he doesn’t admire as much as others, he shows most everyone (except for maybe the early Pierre Boulez, whose cold-hearted didacticism makes him a bit of a post-war villain) a level of respect and admiration that practically had us rushing out to explore not only the the lesser-known works of say, Stravinsky, Cage, Sibelius or La Monte Young, but also the worlds of say, free jazz or microtonal symphonies, which — it’s fair to say — would not be our usual inclination.

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As much as this book is about music, Ross is always careful to tie musical history to parallel developments in art and literature — even architecture — so that we have a sense of what’s driving the composers (unconsciously or not) as they move from one (musical) revolution to the next. He’s also very sensitive to the fact that most if not all of the major composers he writes about are men, and that many of them were gay, and how this may or may not have effected their standing (but he’s careful to bring women into the narrative whenever possible, mostly in his discussion of the present). Perhaps most important, there’s a constant theme of geography in the book, and we become keenly aware of the landscape — mountains, deserts, forests, and villages (along with the surrounding people and their traditions) — from which the music arose; more than anything else, this gives the book soul, as if we were reading not about a series of individuals (and their disparate works), but being shown the contours of a larger map — albeit a constantly mutating and kaleidoscopic one — on which we all have our place. No artist here is an island, with the implication that — as readers (and fellow humans) — neither are we.

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It was this revelation that led us to consider our own past with more than some regret as we remembered growing up in the AOR/FM-rock wastelands of 1970s suburban Pittsburgh, where our musical diet consisted primarily of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and The Who. Though our mother hoped to interest us in classical music — she was always joining record clubs and trying to drag us downtown to the symphony — our father was ambivalent; unstated was the certainty — and this tacitly recognized by society (albeit on a level at which we were not even cognizant) — that it was WAY too gay for us to pursue with even a fraction of interest. Although we “branched out” in high school and college, and gradually worked our way through just about everything from the Zombies to the Shaggs to Spacemen 3 and Galaxie 500, even after we moved to Brooklyn and started a band (and worked in a record store, wtf), we remained in a musical ghetto, where anything classical was essentially smuggled in through unauthorized channels. So in this respect — given our late-blooming interest in opera — it was somewhat disheartening to read about so much interesting music from which we had largely walled ourselves off, and for the most regrettable of reasons. (“Sorry Ma, we have a game that night.”)

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We think of our younger self and the countless others who remain in the same position, and how many of them — unlike us — will never give themselves the chance to escape. In this respect, The Rest is Noise struck us as something of a manifesto; it’s not so much promoting the idea that you have to listen to this or that piece of music, because in the end, it’s all part of the same fabric; but rather it’s a mandate to open our ears (and mind) to the world around us, with the implication that nothing short of our humanity hangs in the balance.

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5 Responses to “On The Rest Is Noise”

  1. 1 ephemerist

    Wow. I really need to sit down and read this book. I’ve been meaning to, but you’ve sold me.

  2. 2 c.

    I have found music to be a fundamental anchor of my own sanity, not to mention spirituality — an experience you reinforce nicely with your review.

    I’ve not read the book, but do read Ross’s columns. The New Yorker seems to attract writers who are ultra-skilled at what you praise: lucid, engaging, and incredibly informed distillations of human/cultural experience.

  3. Hmmm interesting. where I will find that music?

  4. 4 uncle c

    I like the tie in with music and geography. Mahler seems to make so much more sense here in the foothills of the sierra than it did in the crowded valley. watching a hawk fly above the tall trees is what mahler is all about. Too bad he never heard the inner music.

  5. i love Alex’s work, I knew him back in the late 90’s very nice guy, real down to earth…super smart and interesting….


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