I HAVE MADE MY LIVING as a composer and conductor for over 30 years, standing in front of a symphony orchestra waving my baton or sitting before a blank sheet of manuscript paper gnawing a pencil, and I can say with all confidence that The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross is simply the best book about music that I have ever read. Ross clearly loves music, but so do many people; Ross's genius is that he can describe music. One can try for example, to ramble on about the Moonlight Sonata. Of course it's "pretty," "melodic," even "hypnotic," but most of us eventually reach a verbal Waterloo, where, defeated by Beethoven's power, surrender by saying simply: "Indescribable. It's music and beautiful. That's all you need to know."
Thankfully, Ross can do better. Using a distinctive palette of metaphors and similes, he makes familiar works seem altogether fresh, and renders those pesky, dense, and contemporary "difficult" pieces completely accessible - that dreaded word. Here is Ross on Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra (listen to a lo-fi version or download [link]):
The final movement is a phantasmagoric March for full orchestra, replete with thudding drumbeats and craggy brass fanfares. Notes blacken the page; instruments become an...read more