The Rest is … Alex Ross

pbcover4.jpgNow that everyone is taking stock of the best books of 2008, I’m just getting around to reading one of the best books of 2007.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross.

As soon as I ordered it last January I wanted to open it, but in that old-school, protestant way, I put it off, reminding myself that I was reading two books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one or two by Jack Kerouac, a couple of French novels, not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (for the past two years).

Well, yesterday, I reminded myself that I had actually finished many of those books (though not the ones by the Dalai Lama; I have a bookcase full).

So why not just read it. And so I got started.

The Rest is Noise is a look at so-called “classical” music of the 20th century. It begins with Gustave Mahler, Richard Strauss (hint: he’s not the waltz guy) and Arnold Schoenberg and explores the music as it emerged from the times, and the writers — their personal relationships, how their work was received (or rejected), even their own personal struggles. Schoenberg, for instance, comes across as quite sensitive, concerned about the depths of poetry and even subject to personal depression, when I always thought of this abstract, whole-tone scale composer as emotionless.

From the opening words of the preface, Alex Ross rushes out of the gate with excellent, studied and meaningful writing. What a pleasure!! He really cares!!

Not only does he care, but Ross approaches topics in a modern way. If you’ve ever tried to read dry, fusty non-fiction … especially music critiques … then you know how easy it is to bore the reader to death.

It’s always been my personal approach in writing to invite the reader in, to invite the reader to care. And so with Alex Ross. He wants us to follow him; he’s not just showing off.

Though he could. It’s clear Mr. Ross not only adores music, but he understands how it works. With just enough description of chords, scales and harmonics, he allows us to see why music is daring, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with details.

If you’ve read the New Yorker, you know Mr. Ross as the magazine’s music writer. Not that he needs any qualifiers after this book!! (and not, frankly, that I hold TNY-er in esteem any longer, after that Obama parody cover, and an article last year trashing the Dalai Lama. Who trashes the Dalai Lama???)

So music lovers, treat yourself this holiday season to The Rest is Noise. And get ready to listen.

FD will return with Figuratively Speaking Friday.

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