Sound and visions

<strong>The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century</strong>

Alex Ross <em>Fourth Estate, 62

Bestselling books on classical music tend to be salacious exposés of monstrous egos or jeremiads on the death of high art. The Rest Is Noise is neither, though its pages are peppered with monsters and deaths, both real and imagined.

The author Alex Ross is, to borrow the San Franciscan critic Lisa Hirsch's phrase, a "let the flowers grow" writer. He is scrupulously fair in his concert reviews for the New Yorker, all fact-checked to the hilt. And, optimistic that classical music can still "communicate experiences of singular intensity", Ross is the anti-Lebrecht.

It is not necessary to have a PhD in the mathematical music of Milton Babbitt to enjoy this book. (Ross describes it as "so Byzantine in construction that one practically needed security clearance to understand it".) A swift skim of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus, might be useful, but Noise has more in common with Peter Watson's history of 20th-century ideas, A Terrible Beauty, than it does with The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ross could have opened with the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, first in a long line of "scandal concerts". Instead, he takes as his starting point the 16 May 1906 performance in Graz of Salome, at which Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg and a young artist named Adolf Hitler had gathered to hear Strauss conduct his opera.

Though Ross points out that we have only Hitler's word that he was there, the collision of personalities at that performance neatly supports the premise of his surtitle. Any book on 20th-century history will be amply furnished with villains and visionaries and Ross is galvanised by the tensions between them.

Having sauntered moderato through the first 33 years of the century - Paris and Vienna, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Weimar's obsession with serial murder, "music for use", and Finland's lonely genius, Sibelius - he covers the next eight at a propulsive allegro. Hitler and Stalin dominate the central third of the book as Ross juxtaposes the capricious artistic policies of the two dictators with the semi-socialist ideology of Franklin D Roosevelt's Federal Music Project, the motion picture industry's brief fascination with the émigré composers whose style wars continued in the Hollywood Hills, and J Edgar Hoover's FBI investigation into Benjamin Britten.

What follows - Darmstadt, minimalism, spectralism, the symbiotic exchange between pop and classical experimentalists - is a prestissimo survey of postwar music in all its loops and loopiness. Ross is more pedagogue than polemicist, even-handed in his treatment of invention's triumph and folly, and sympathetic to the ageing Shostakovich. Though many of his subjects are spoiled children, direct criticism is restricted to Pierre Boulez, who in Ross's history of the Darmstadt School is a Gallic version of Rick from The Young Ones, loudly denouncing this or that tonal work and its composer as "fascist" while carving a lucrative career as a celebrity conductor. In a compromised century, angels are rare: Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman and, perhaps, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Noise ends where it began, with a work that many thought unlikely to become core repertoire - Adams's Nixon in China. Here is Ross on the Act II ballet "The Red Detachment of Women": "The music mixes second-hand American pop with second-hand Strauss and Wagner, at one point mashing the Jokanaan theme from Salome into "Wotan's Farewell" from Die Walküre. It's a half-charming, half-repulsive simulacrum of totalitarian kitsch."

This is a typically strong passage. So, too, are Ross's descriptions of the north Californian landscape where Adams lives, and the salt marshes and seascapes of Britten's Suffolk.

Throughout the book there are perceptive analyses of individual works: Wozzeck (Ross believes the Doctor to be modelled on Schoenberg), Sibelius's Seventh Symphony ("a metallic smear of dominant-seventh chords") and Peter Grimes (the "Un-Anglian Affairs Committee"). You could contend with some of the observations. (To say Aschenbach "consciously risks his health to remain near the boy" in Britten's Death in Venice is to miss the point that Aschenbach also risks the boy's health by choosing not to warn his family of the cholera epidemic.) But this is an alluring and as sured page-turner.

Ross's nose for sour-sweet vignettes and pungent quotations is impressive. (Richard Strauss wails that he cannot understand what Mahler wants to be redeemed from; Schoenberg flies into a rage after the publication of Doctor Faustus; Carl Ruggles dubs the League of Composers a "filthy bunch of Juilliard Jews"; Steve Reich suggests the hook for In C to Terry Riley.)

So, too, is his ability to tickle the appetite with works rarely heard in the average concert season: Wolpe's Zeus und Elida, Hindemith's The "Flying Dutchman" Overture as Played by a Bad Spa Orchestra Sight-Reading by the Village Well at Seven in the Morning and Arseny Avraamov's Symphony of the Factory Sirens. Thanks to Ross, our chances of hearing them, be they good or bad, are now greatly improved.

Anna Picard is the music critic of the Independent on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet