What is the intended audience for The Rest Is Noise?
While I worked on the book, I kept two different audiences in mind. I certainly hoped that readers well versed in classical music would find the book rewarding. But, even more important, I longed to introduce this rich, complex world of sound to those who have little or no acquaintance with it. No great musical knowledge is required, although I do periodically use a few simple technical terms (see glossary).
How did you become interested in the subject?
I grew up listening exclusively to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical music, from Bach to Brahms. I even tried to write my own pieces in quasi-Viennese style. Only when I got to college did I realize that the world of music was far bigger than I knew. I fell under the spell of Richard Strauss's Salome, the early atonal works of Schoenberg, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. They flung open all kinds of doors in my mind. A little later, I exulted in the wild sounds of the post-World War II avant-garde: Ligeti, Xenakis, Stockhausen. They eventually led me to the free jazz of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman and to the avant-rock of the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. In a sense, the book replicates that journey of discovery. But I’m also fascinated by music's role in the wider culture and in twentieth-century history. The main story of The Rest Is Noise is the volatile, ever-changing relationship between composers and the society around them. If I could boil the book down to two words, it would be: Composers matter.
What does the title mean?
It's a reference to Hamlet's last words, "The rest is silence." I had in mind the widespread perception that classical composition devolved into noise as the twentieth century went on. What may sound like noise on first hearing may reveal hidden beauty if you give it a second chance.
Is the book named after the blog?
No, the blog is named after the book. I came up with the title The Rest Is Noise in 1999. I started the blog in 2004.
How long did it take to write the book?
I researched the book in 2000 and 2001 and began writing toward the end of 2001. A first draft was done by the end of 2004, but it turned out to be vastly overlong — nearly twice as long as the published version. So I spent two more years cutting it down to size. I finally completed the book in January 2007.
What about [overlooked composer X]?
I wrote in my introduction: "There is no attempt to be comprehensive . . . Much great music is left on the cutting-room floor." I was determined to produce a readable narrative that wouldn't overwhelm the uninitiated reader with too many names. I had no wish to produce a sequential encyclopedia. So I had to make some agonizing decisions about whom to include and whom to omit. Many composers I personally revere — Carl Nielsen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Silvestre Revueltas, among others — receive short shrift. Essentially, I found that certain composers' stories worked better than others in advancing the principal theme, which is music's relationship with surrounding historical events. I hope that readers will go on to explore the many significant figures whom I mention only in passing or leave out altogether.
Why waste so much time on ugly atonal music at the expense of beautiful, accessible tonal scores? Why lavish attention on spurious tonal music at the expense of powerful, uncompromising modernism?
I've heard both questions. This book gives equal time to the so-called "progressive" and "conservative" camps in twentieth-century music and seeks out common ground between them — noticing, for example, that Morton Feldman loved the seemingly retrograde Jean Sibelius, or that American minimalism grew out of La Monte Young's admiration for the super-refined twelve-tone music of Anton Webern.
Why not give more attention to popular music?
I listen to pop music all the time, and I’ve written several long articles on favorite artists such as Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and Björk. In the earliest stages, I thought of trying to write the history of popular music alongside the history of classical composition. I quickly realized that such an undertaking would be foolhardy. Having grown up with classical music and discovered pop only later in life, I lacked the basic knowledge to do such a thing. Nor did it seem remotely possible to cover such a vast subject in a single volume. However, the exchange of ideas between classical and popular artists is another major leitmotif of my story, whether it's Duke Ellington listening to Debussy or Steve Reich taking in Coltrane or George Gershwin inhabiting both spheres at once.
Why isn't a recording included with the book?
I believe that the Internet provides a better way for people to hear musical illustrations. A CD would hold 80 minutes of music at most — a smattering of movements and short pieces. The Audio Guide I've set up on this site lets you hear hundreds of samples, adding up to dozens of hours of music. I've also supplied numerous links to websites where more info can be found: archives such as the Schoenberg Center in Vienna, dedicated sites for living composers, digitized manuscripts at various libraries. And, thanks to YouTube, I've been able to embed a number of videos of historical footage and live performances.
What's your background and musical training?
I was born in 1968 in Washington DC, the wayward son of two geologists. I started playing piano at age ten and started composing at around the same time. I studied with the composer Russell Woollen, a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, and also with the composer-pianist Denning Barnes. In addition, I played the oboe in school orchestras. I gave up composing while I was at college, although I did take a class with Peter Lieberson. My main musical activity at college was at the campus radio station, where I presented several programs devoted to twentieth-century composers and began writing music criticism. My first regular gig as a critic was at the record-review magazine Fanfare; my first articles in a general-interest publication were for The New Republic. I moved to New York to become a fifth-string critic at the New York Times in 1992, and the following year I wrote my first piece for The New Yorker. The magazine hired me full time in 1996, and I've been happy ever after.
Are you working on your next book?
I've made plans for two new books. One, slated to appear in the fall of 2010, will be a collection of my New Yorker articles on classical and pop music, although it will contain a good chunk of brand-new material. The title is Listen To This, after my 2004 essay. The second book, titled Wagnerism, will survey Richard Wagner's effect on philosophers, politicians, writers, painters, poets, architects, and popular culture. It's a project on the scale of The Rest Is Noise, and it may take me a few years. Both books will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Fourth Estate in the UK.