The rest is noise

I have recently read Alex Ross’s book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates serious music, especially the music student who is being introduced to the Twentieth Century canon. I have read many music history books like this, and I must admit at first, the title put me off. I thought, “here goes another historian who will be exclusive with the difficulties of contemporary music.” Gladly, I was wrong. Ross is gracious with the full canon of contemporary composers and gives everyone their due. For me, it was a satisfying feeling to read about the composers that I have appreciated but of whom are given a passing glance in other history books. These books, like that of the high art coffee table variety, are usually dominated by well-known composers, and the historians, while going through the motions, sift through their worn out writing with the same, safe, predictable history. Ross not only has his perspective from his research, with fifteen years in writing this book, he gives color to the composers private and public lives. He writes about how they functioned within their musical and political culture. But more importantly, Ross is a music lover and a fluent, informed listener. And as a historian, he is able to articulate on a formal level what is happening in the music and why it is significant. Ross begins his story with Strauss and Mahler and ends it in the late 1980s with John Adams. There is enough biographical information on each composer that the reader gets a sense of the artist. For example, Ross writes about how Strauss (a Jew) lived under Nazi Germany and his relationship with Mahler and Schoenberg. He does the same with Shostakovich and Prokofiev under Stalin. Ross’s writing is succinct and lively throughout the whole book. He may give some composers too much biographical emphasis like Britten, and some too little attention like Varese, Berio, and Xenakis, (I was somewhat disappointed with this), but at least all the composers are given their due. Also Ross isn’t afraid to personally criticize some composers like Boulez, who comes off as an elitist tyrant, setting the agenda for serious music after the war. Ross’s writing gives a cultural and historical context for each composer and  why their music is significant. For example, he will give the reader an idea how other composers reacted at the time to Schoenberg’s 12 tone row, and not just a glib historical fact. Ross’s focus moves from political and personal to more serious matters, giving the reader a nice well-rounded ride. In other words, his story isn’t didactic or stuffy. There are no suspicions here, just a matter of fact voice tone and clarity in historical perspective. Ross fully tracks the continuing drama of the position of atonal music in modernism.  After you read the book, you’ll  know what Ross means by his title; he is writing about all that is important in serious twentieth century music and the rest is noise. As an afterthought, Ross has a short suggested listening list. You can find these well known examples at the library. Also, if you are not familiar with the pieces that are discussed in this book, you can find them played on You tube.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Trip of the tongue


I like Elizabeth Little have a love of languages.  In Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages , the author travels around the United States investigating different languages.  We all know about Spanish and perhaps we also know about little eddies of different languages in different parts of the country but this book takes us on a deeper tour.  This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of languages in United States, instead it is a tourist’s view of language.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Native American language.  Although sad, it was interesting, and she illustrates how different the languages and the cultures were when European settlers interacted with Natives.  She also talks about Basque in American culture, one language that is unique in the world because linguists still can’t find where exactly it fits in the language family tree.  In America, its influence is small but surprising.

This book reminded me a great deal of Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.  Both books layer ideas on the landscape of the United States.  Elizabeth Little adds the layer of language and people, while Sarah Vowell lays history on the landscape.  Then both books add a layer personal experience and self depreciating humor on top.  Both books are very fun to read and full of interesting facts.

Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages Elizabeth Little, 2012 Bloomsbury

Biting the wax tadpole

As an English major, who studied a boatload of German, a respectable amount of Spanish, a little Latin and a tiny bit of French, languages always intrigue me. So when I discovered Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, I was very excited.

This book could be called: Interesting Facts about Language. Elizabeth Little keeps it light and full of fun while making comparisons between languages around the world.  It is chock full of trivia about different languages.  The book has chapters about each of the parts of speech yet the book is accessible and enjoyable to read.

Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, Little, Elizabeth, 2008

Things I Learned from Knitting


Now, I am not sure if I read to many of her books in a row, but Things I Learned From Knitting: …whether I wanted to or not was not my favorite of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s books that I had read so far.  There are a few things that are recycled from the other books (or vice versus). This is a super easy read, but not very much depth.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

recovering apollo


In this series of short stories, Recovering Apollo 8: And Other Stories, Kristine Kathryn Rusch begins with her forte: deep space hard science fiction.  I am usually not a huge fan of hardcore space science fiction.  But Ms. Rusch always catches me with her great character sketches and her human sized futures.  In the title story, we meet a man obsesses with space, and a boyhood dream to rescue the astronauts from Apollo 8.  The whole story is about the climax of the anti-climax. I somehow feel like I am following Geraldo into Al Capone’s Vaults. Yet unlike the vaults, I am not disappointed.  She manages to find the meaning in a dream slightly skewed.

There is a strangely heartwarming story about death personified. Again, she creates characters, uniquely human in bizarre circumstances.  In spite of the gruesomeness of the situation she creates, the characters read true and as a reader you can’t help but enjoy them.

Another story deals with one of her favorite topics: xenocide with aliens. However, this xenocide occurs on earth instead of in space.  It is told alternately between the past and the present between a cop who finds a huge amount of bones, and the last alien survivor.  Again the perspectives are great, full of truth and yet not preachy.

Recovering Apollo 8: And Other Stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch