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Outside the Boxes: A History of Modern Music That Does Not Respect Convention

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THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century
By Alex Ross
Farrar Straus Giroux. 624 Pp. $30.

The shelves of music libraries groan under the accumulation of histories of 20th-century music. But they are a dispiriting collection, partly because their implicit claim -- even if they dodge the actual term -- to be “history" is obvious nonsense. How can you write a history of something that is still going on?

The answer has usually been to stick to a set of preordained categories, often decreed by composers or academics, with unappealing titles like modernism, neoclassicism, serialism, etc., and let anything and anyone that doesn't fit them (jazz, Sibelius, Gershwin, film music) go hang. Happily, Alex Ross, who writes about music for the New Yorker and maintains one of the best-informed music blogs on the Web, has avoided this trap. The most striking thing about “The Rest Is Noise" is its refusal to conform to the standard headings and judgments beloved of historians of modern music and its energetic mixing of technical, stylistic and even chronological categories.

Ross clearly realizes that music doesn't evolve in rigid boxes. And there's no doubt that pigeonholing has been the evil genius of the music of the last century. It was pigeonholing that produced Arnold Schoenberg's repetitive or “serial" technique -- which he famously claimed would prolong German musical supremacy for 100 years. It was pigeonholing that temporarily sidelined Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius and others (because they didn't go serial or atonal). And it was pigeonholing that gave birth to the politicization of musical styles in postwar Europe (Pierre Boulez announcing that non-serial composers were “useless") and America, where the left-leaning Aaron Copland went populist in such works as “Billy the Kid" and “Rodeo," and after the war was investigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his pains.

All along, of course, this restrictive impulse has given us jazz, pop, world music, classical and all the other entrenched categories of the Google age, to the paradoxical point where “music" now means anything but Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and company (which is probably why Ross has carefully excluded the word from his title).

“The Rest Is Noise" explores all these various boxes and -isms in an evenhanded and approachable way, with the absence of dogmatism that is the mark of a true enthusiast. The conventional picture of so-called modern music, in which various figures of admitted stature gradually drop off the train of progress as it proceeds on its not particularly merry way, is quietly abandoned in favor of something closer to what happens in an actual station -- a constant, unpredictable to and fro of people and incident, unexpected meetings, conversation and argument, pushing and shoving: a sort of perpetual postmodernism (another word that, significantly, Ross does not use).

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