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…and the Guardian first book award goes to…

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Alex Ross, winner of this years Guardian first book award (Guardian)

Alex Ross, winner of this years Guardian first book award (Guardian)

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross was named this year’s Guardian first book at a ceremony in central London last night.

The overwhelmingly in-depth history of 20th century music, embracing classical through to contemporary, was the undisputed winner of the £10 000 first prize.

Chair of the judging panel, Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead, said: “In some quarters this book has been seen as not having a popular appeal. Our prize – which, uniquely, relies on readers’ groups in the early stages of judging – proves that, on the contrary, there is a huge appetite among readers for clear, serious but accessible books.”

Another judge said: “Where Ross lifts his book above the ‘expert’ and impressive to the ‘good read’ category is in the way he wears his learning lightly, never clutches for false or contrived ways of explaining music, and never dumbs down in order to explain.”

Waterstone’s reading groups up and down the country also helped with the judging process. One member said: “Every time I felt overwhelmed by the technicalities, along came a sublime metaphor or simile that would light up the prose.”

The Guardian’s website describes Ross’ book as ‘a lifetime’s enthusiasm and learning distilled into a rich narrative of musical history, setting the works of Mahler, Schoenberg, John Cage and the rest into their cultural and political contexts – but also giving a vivid sense of what the music he describes actually sounds and feels like’.

It goes on to say: “Of all the artforms, modern and contemporary classical music is often seen as the most rebarbative. Ross brushes aside the mythology of 20th-century music’s “inaccessibility” as he charts its meandering histories. Along the way, fascinating connections are made: hip-hop has more in common with Janacek than you might think; Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin were tennis partners; Gershwin, in turn, was an ardent fan of Alban Berg and kept an autographed photo of the composer of Lulu in his apartment. If there is an overarching idea to the book, it is perhaps contained in Berg’s pronouncement to Gershwin: “Mr Gershwin, music is music”.”

The current music critic of The New Yorker Ross, 40, was born in Washington DC. He was an enthusiastic teenage musician but it wasn’t until studied English and history at Harvard when he became interested in journalism and became a student broadcaster. Ross began writing music criticism after university and was appointed to his current role at The New Yorker in 1996. He also has a blog which he uses to great effect in transmitting his work around the globe.

The media reception of for The Rest is Noise has been phenomenal. The New York Review of Books said: “by far the liveliest and smartest popular introduction yet written to a century of diverse music”. The Economist noted: “No other critic writing in English can so effectively explain why you like a piece, or beguile you to reconsider it, or prompt you to hurry online and buy a recording.”

Former Observer music writer Nicholas Kenyon said: “At a time when people are still talking about 20th-century music as if it were a problem, here is a lucid and entertaining book about what I regard as some of the greatest music ever written. It’s a wonderful way to advance the cause of 20th-century music to an ordinary, intelligent general reader. It’s the ideal mix of enthusiasm and information.”

The judging panel for this year’s Guardian first book award was made up of novelist Roddy Doyle; broadcaster and novelist Francine Stock; poet Daljit Nagra; the historian David Kynaston; novelist Kate Mosse and Guardian deputy editor, Katharine Viner. Stuart Broom of Waterstones‘ spoke as the representative of the retailer’s reading groups.

The other books shortlisted for the award were Mohammed Hanif‘s A Case of Exploding Mangoes; Ross Raisin‘s God’s Own Country; Steve Toltz‘s A Fraction of the Whole (also put forward for the Man Booker prize) and Owen Matthews’s Stalin’s Children.

Previous winners of the prize have most notably included Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (2005) and Zadie Smith‘s White Teeth (2000).

See Ales Ross talk about The Rest is Noise in an interview below:

Words: Dean Samways

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