I am a bit late to the game in picking up Alex Ross’ Pulitzer Prize winning “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and can’t say enough good things about it. Ross is the chief Music Critic and an Editor for the New Yorker magazine and has pulled together a seminal primer for ‘reading’ the evolution of culture in the 20th century through the music that formed our lives and times. Ross stakes a claim early in the introduction that “twentieth-century classical composition…sounds like noise to many…yet these sounds are hardly alien. Atonal chords crop up in jazz, avant-grade sounds appear in Hollywood film scores; minimalism has marked rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Sometimes the music resembles noise because it is noise, or near to it by design. Sometimes, as with Berg’s Wozzeck, it mixes the familiar and the strange, consonance and dissonance. Sometimes it is so singularly beautiful that people gasp in wonder when they hear it.”
I love this description and the way Ross is so spirited in his call for us to move from being passive listeners toward an engagement as full participants in the music that fills our iPods and cascades out of the windows and doorways of dorm rooms and bars, concert halls and the church sanctuary. As I wrote in a recent theological review of U2’s recent album “No Line on the Horizon”, music is something that shapes and ultimately frames not merely marking the memories *of* experiences we partake in, but literally *are* the experiences themselves. For many of us, music is as vital to what it means to be alive as anything else. We return to the songs that give us hope, provide companionship in the midst of lament, carve out space for reflection and lay out a map for our journey both in recovering our past and forging into the hope of a redeemed future. “We are born of sound” muses Bono in the song “Breathe” off “No Line on the Horizon” and I believe he is absolutely correct. To read The Rest is Noise to realize just how profound the birth of the twentieth century is and the genius that is found in the music we have been midwifed by into the life we now hold so dear.