That is so last century

I’m in the middle of reading The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. Subtitled "Listening to the Twentieth Century", the book threads together the disparate creative movements of classical music in the last century and puts them in a political and socio-economic context. That description sounds academic, but Ross manages to make the story feel incredibly human.

It’s all too easy to abstract Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Steve Reich and Arnold Schoenberg as vessels from which great works pour forth. The last time I really thought about the lives of these composers was when I was trying to remember enough for the midterm and final exams in my music history class some 15 years ago.

The Rest is Noise has been mentioned a lot on a number of arts-themed websites I monitor. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have known about the book otherwise. (Ross also maintains a weblog of the same name.) And as I’m reading it, I think, "Wow, I really ought to let readers in on this."

But then that gives me pause to consider.

I’m really enjoying this book because I have encountered Stravinsky, Bartók, Reich and Schoenberg in my listening. I did study their lives and works for midterms and final exams. Would the experience of reading Ross’ book be the same for people who hear the influence of these composers — e.g. the soundtrack to the TV show Lost — but not the composers themselves? Do you really need to know the difference between Alban Berg and Anton Webern, let alone Alban Berg and John Adams, to understand the history?

I’d like to think Ross’ enthusiastic and vivid writing paints a descriptive enough picture to allow the world at large to "get it". I guess it would be the same X-factor that would question whether, say, a Pitchfork reader who comes to this site can glean the differences between Shiina Ringo and UA.

And it’s my hope that people coming to this site for the low-down on Utada Hikaru and Number Girl will come away knowing a bit more about some obscure band from the ’80s or a classical composers they never encountered before.

All that to say I’m enjoying the book to the point where I’m setting aside time to read it — I’m actually turning the TV off, which is a very unlikely thing for me to do. (Have I mentioned all the ways TiVo lets me do other things than be tethered to the futon?) I don’t think I’ve ever done that for a book before, even from my favorite authors.

I suspect Ross at the very least will get receptive readers curious about the music about which he writes, if not getting them to break the piggy bank and seek it out for themselves. I didn’t think much about Jean Sibelius save for the music notation software which bears his name. Yesterday, I used the rest of my monthly eMusic quota to get some Sibelius symphonies and string quartets.

Non-sequiter alert: I prefer Sibelius over Finale. Finale is the most clunky, antagonistic user interface I’ve encountered, and I don’t understand its market dominance.

The Rest is Noise is available in hardcover. The thrift-minded will have to wait a few months for a paperback edition.