The estimable Mr. Claus brought me a copy of Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise for Christmas, which I’ve just finished. I’m not the literary or musical critic this book deserves, but I can offer a bit of a personal appreciation.

Here are seven things I like about The Rest Is Noise:

1. Political nuance – there is no uncomplicated good or evil in this book, just progressions of events told with remarkable evenhandedness. As befits a history of the twentieth century, everything is relative. You can infer a few things about Ross’s preferences, but they are never presented as unmitigated truths.

2. Narrative strategy - Ross uses the following narrative structure repeatedly: a] introduce composer(s), [b] introduce cultural context, and c] trace the impact of composer and culture on one another. Sometimes a and b are reversed for variety. It’s a very effective and illuminating approach. It’s especially nice to have composers’ impacts expanded beyond their peers, which is how music history is usually presented.

3. Personal resonance – I’ve always been a subscriber of the “be careful what you wish for” school, and this book is, among many other things, a confirmation of my worst fears: one story after another unfolds as a tragedy of a composer getting, more or less, exactly what he wanted.

4. Clear-sightedness – Ross understands and accepts that the road to professional success in music is often paved with political shenanigans and dumb luck. Stories of each composer’s rise to prominence are presented frankly, without vitriol or sugarcoating.

5. Humility – for someone with such outstanding narrative gifts, Ross resists the urge to create a false meta-narrative, to explain everything that happens over the course of a hundred years as a reflection of a unifying central hypothesis. That humility works in the book’s favor, resulting in a story that operates much like a piece of music or poetry: we are left with a broad array of powerful impressions from which to draw our own conclusions.

6. Poetic threads – instead of providing a meta-narrative, Ross gives us poetic threads: artistic lineages that connect people, events, and concepts across the decades and the continents. And just when you think he’s stretched a thread to the snapping point, his needle pierces again, and all the loose strands are stitched together.

7. Favorite line – speaking of poetic threads, here’s Ross describing what La Monte Young did to Webern’s textures: “Twelve-tone writing became something like Tai Chi, combat in slow motion.”

If there is an overarching theme, it’s Ross’s desire to place Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus in roughly the same position with regard to the twentieth century as Goethe’s Faust held in the nineteenth century. To the extent that the correlation holds true, I can only hope that the twenty-first century learns to read Mann with a bit more delight and a little less terror.

In any case, thanks, Mr. Claus — you’ve done it again.

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