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Alex Ross Listens to the 20th Century's 'Noise'

by Linda Kulman
Jan 1, 2008

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

For decades, classical music has been pronounced dead — or at least dying. New Yorker critic Alex Ross sets out "to assault" that notion in his ambitious first book, The Rest is Noise.

"No, classical music did not glide to a halt sometime around 1900," he says. "It was beginning again in a new key — or a lack of key. And it began all over again numerous times as the century went on, as composers were constantly reinventing the language of music."

Ross, an award-winning critic, is known for the accessibility and sense of humor he brings to his subject, both at The New Yorker, where he has been since 1996, and before that at the New York Times, where he was a music critic for four years.

His blog, therestisnoise.com, shows him to be democratic in his tastes and human in his approach, with an ear for the odd bit of irony. When Mstislav Rostropovich died in early 2007, for instance, Ross described the conductor and musician as "an overwhelming life force in the form of a cellist." The day before, he saluted Dr. James R. Richards, the author of the ASPCA Complete Guide to Cats, who, he explained, "died in a motorcycle accident ... trying to swerve out of the way of a cat."

Bracketed on one end by a performance of Richard Strauss' opera Salome and at the other by John Adams' opera Nixon in China, The Rest is Noise is the history of the 20th century told through its classical compositions. The book, which Ross says he began working on sometime near the end of the last century, accomplishes the difficult task of giving a sense of immediacy to the multidimensional medium of sound through the altogether different medium of prose.

In its review, the New York Times says: "Rilke once wrote of how he learned to stand 'more seeingly' in front of certain paintings. Ross enables us to listen more hearingly."

This reading of The Rest Is Noise took place in November of 2007 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, DC.

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