Somewhat belatedly, I wanted to add my voice to the rising -- and not in the slightest bit atonal -- chorus of praise for my old friend Alex Ross and his amazing book, The Rest Is Noise, which just made the Times' list of the ten best books of 2007, as well as about a dozen other best of 2007 lists. I've known Alex since I was twelve, so call me biased, but I think the book has established convincingly what a lot of people have been thinking for a while now: that Alex is the best American music critic of his generation -- and not just classical music critic. (He has a great pop ear as well, for all forms of media, and actually turned me on to about half the TV shows that I celebrated in Everything Bad Is Good For You.)
The subtitle of the book is "Listening To the Twentieth Century" and in the opening pages, Alex explains that his goal is ultimately an account of the century "heard through its music." But to my mind The Rest Is Noise is something slightly different, and maybe just as interesting. It's the history of a certain related set of sounds -- atonal, twelve-tonal, serial, dissonant, random -- that were more or less nonexistent in Western musical culture circa 1900 that became, if not dominant, then at least ubiquitous by the end of the century -- in classical compositions, Hollywood scores, indie rock, and countless other venues. In other words, it's the story of the rise of a certain sonic appetite for noise that would have been unimaginable to the ears of the late 1800s but that is commonplace today, in both low and high culture and all the middlebrow realms between.
What I find so fascinating here is the way Alex tries to explain how those sounds came into being -- by reaching out beyond the usual biographical explanations about rogue geniuses and rivalries between them, though he has plenty of great stories along those lines as well. In reaching for that explanation, Alex does in fact pull in much of the twentieth century: political upheaval, technological developments like the tape recorder, the tragicomic Hollywood migrations of the World War II era European intellectuals. He also dives down in several arresting passages into the neuropsychology of noise and harmony, explaining how the brain translates acoustic waveforms into such emotionally charged events.
About a third into the book, Alex has a telling line where he says: "The fabric of harmony was warping, as if under the influence of an unseen force." I think of The Rest Is Noise as an attempt to bright that force to light, and in bringing it to light, explain the way in which the force is actually composed of multiple intersecting elements, many of them working on different scales of cultural experience: from neurons to individual biographies to technological innovations to World Wars. This approach is one about which Alex and I -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly -- have been sharing ideas over the past decade. It's the approach I used in explaining (with much less erudition) the forces behind the Sleeper Curve in Everything Bad Is Good For You. I've called it various things, including systemic criticism or "long zoom" thinking, but to really understand the model in action, your best bet is reading Alex's book.
The other reason to read Alex's book is that he's got a mesmerizing ability to translate music into verbal imagery. Take this one description of Schoenberg's Six Little Pieces for Piano: "It is built on a hypnotic iteration of the interval G and B, which chimes softly in place, giving off a clean, warm sound. Tendrils of sound trail around the dyad, touching at one point or another on the remaining ten notes of the chromatic scale. But the main notes stay riveted in place. They are like two eyes, staring ahead, never blinking." Practically every other page has descriptions this intense and visceral; you constantly want to put down the book and load up iTunes to hear all the elements that Alex has brought into your consciousness. (Thankfully, he's assembled an extensive listening guide of samples online.)
My other favorite little tidbit from the book: in the mid-sixties, while struggling to build a career for themselves as composers, Philip Glass and Steve Reich "briefly formed a company called Chelsea Light Moving and eked out a wage carrying furniture up and down the narrow staircases of New York walk-ups." That's just awesome. I am so totally going to go out and start a band called Chelsea Light Moving.