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The Rest Is Noise

Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross
22-minute read
Audio available
The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

The Rest Is Noise (2011) takes you on a musical journey through the twentieth century, from the game-changing work of Johann Strauss and Igor Stravinsky to the minimalist compositions of John Cale and Philip Glass. Author Alex Ross puts modern classical music into eye-opening perspective, chronicling the revolutionary changes and how they were influenced by the tumultuous events of the 1900s.

  • Music buffs and fans of classical music
  • Anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century
  • Scholars of contemporary art

Alex Ross has been The New Yorker’s music critic for over 20 years. His writing has earned him multiple awards, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. The Rest Is Noise is his first book and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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The Rest Is Noise

Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross
  • Read in 22 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 14 key ideas
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The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross
Synopsis

The Rest Is Noise (2011) takes you on a musical journey through the twentieth century, from the game-changing work of Johann Strauss and Igor Stravinsky to the minimalist compositions of John Cale and Philip Glass. Author Alex Ross puts modern classical music into eye-opening perspective, chronicling the revolutionary changes and how they were influenced by the tumultuous events of the 1900s.

Key idea 1 of 14

Under the long shadow of Wagner, modern classical music took a bold step forward with the work of Johann Strauss.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, music lovers across Europe were still under the spell of Richard Wagner. By 1900, the composer had been dead for over 15 years, but his operas had been so lavish and grandiose that they’d become the height of entertainment.

In Bayreuth, Germany, when Wagner debuted his four-part opera series known as the Ring cycle in 1876, royalty and the upper crust of culture from around Europe attended, including other composers such as Tchaikovsky and Franz Liszt. The event was such a remarkable occasion that the New York Times ran stories on it for days. Wagner was essentially the blockbuster producer of his day.

The next generation of composers, who were hitting their stride at the start of the new century, had grown up under Wagner’s considerable influence. This included giants of Austro-German music such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Strauss can be seen as a leading voice in shaping the music that was to come in the wake of Wagner’s grandiose and opulent work. Strauss’s 1896 work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, essentially announces a new dawn arriving, the music rising and shimmering as it uses the natural harmonic series. Trumpets play C, G, and then a higher C;  the intervals between the notes conform to natural ratios on the frequency spectrum and so sound pleasing to the ears. If you’ve seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ll immediately recognize these “rising” notes; during the opening scene of the film,  they’re memorably used to herald a new beginning for mankind.

On May 16, 1906, Strauss’s new operatic work Salome was performed in Graz, Austria, and it heralded a new direction. Like Zarathustra, Salome grabs the listener from the very beginning, but this time the choice of notes and progressions is used to an entirely different end. Within the first few seconds, the listener is subjected to a scale that starts off in C-sharp major, but quickly changes to G-major – a completely unrelated key, causing immediate dissonance. What’s more, this quick switch involves the interval of a tritone, which is also known among music scholars as diabolus in musica, or “the devil in music.”

Human ears don’t respond well to the tritone, since it juxtaposes two very different harmonic spheres. Because of Strauss’s liberal use of such dissonances – musical devices which go against traditional musical harmony – Salome  was received with shock that was either of excitement or disgust, depending on the individual.

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