Listen To This
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
Giddy clauses, sonorous exposition, tart and tangy descriptors clustered like grapes across the latticework of his paragraphs: if you want to read what’s best in contemporary music journalism, you must perforce encounter the work of Alex Ross. From Gershwin to Radiohead, from Mozart to the advent of recorded music, Ross includes every available pitch into the scope of his score. Given society’s unbridled technological mores, it’s as characteristic as it is user-friendly of Ross that his new collection of music writing, Listen To This, comes equipped with its own online audio guide. Can’t dredge up a sample of that 16th century Spanish chacona, featuring the fatidical cycling of its ostinato bass line, in your local record shop? Open a web browser and, at once, have your longings satisfied. The braided delights of contemporary culture and classical music form the core thematic strain in this new collection of essays and its richly ornamented sidecar of a website.
Ross, a New Yorker staff writer since 1996, authored the 2007 book, The Rest Is Noise, an overview of music in the 20th century, which, after much fanfare, found a comfortable home on coffee tables across America. By virtue of his knowing voice—a blend of soirée banter, sorcerer’s conjurations, and square-jawed New Yorker conveyance—Ross spoons up the humanity, the folly, and the grit behind the music he refuses to call “classical.” (He calls it the music). In his conspicuously personal quest to wrest the staid, stolid, and static takes on classical music (e.g., that it is a monolithic, overly didactic entity) from today’s audiences and readers, Ross’s writing attempts to bring its history back down to earth without dispelling its magic. Laying bare the juicy, the unflattering, and the downright not-safe-for-work (NSFW) in the evolution of Western music, Ross also adequately conjures what is sublime in the ineffable sequence of sounds that characterize, say, a Brahms sonata. Smash the unflinching marble busts of Beethoven and Bach, Ross’s writing seems to suggest, and replace them with portraits by Francis Bacon and Chuck Close.
Weaned on the essentials of classical composition from an early age, Ross also addresses several top-shelf popular artists in his writing, notably, Bob Dylan and Sonic Youth, defining their sounds against and in terms of the notion of a classical tradition. An important difference in Ross’s writing, as compared with many journalists commenting on pop music, stems from his instruction in composing and conducting. His technical background in music allows him to dissect motifs, passages, themes, and strategies in popular song that many of his peers might pass over in silence. Discussing Radiohead’s Amnesiac track, “Pyramid Song,” Ross writes: “a string section played glissando harmonics, a texture that Stravinsky’s Firebird made famous, while [drummer Phil] Selway laid on a shuffling rhythm that defies description, because, as he said, ‘there is no time signature.’” In his 2001 piece on the band for the New Yorker, “The Searchers,” Ross makes it clear that his enthusiasm for Radiohead exceeds a mere love of technical analysis. He attended a string of seven of the band’s summer shows on two continents in preparation for the piece, and his considerate, focused zest for the band is present in every passage.
Biography is also a pervasive matter of interest in Listen To This. Ross insists on a mythbusting program whenever possible. On Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the author is eloquent and refreshingly acute:
Mozart inhabits a middle world where beauty surges in and ebbs away, where everything is contingent and nothing pure, where, as Henry James’s Madame Merle says, an envelope of circumstances encloses every human life.
In a breathless, fact-filled piece on that famous Austrian, “The Storm of Style,” Ross arbitrages the divergent takes on Mozart’s biography, his character, and his relationship with his father, Leopold, for a better-balanced depiction of the “antic” boy-genius of popular lore. “Perhaps Leopold’s greatest gift to his son,” he writes, “was the instruction to compose with both musical insiders and the general public in mind…The new image of him as a kind of improvising perfectionist is even more daunting than the previous one of God’s stenographer.”
Listen To This makes important inroads into the mountain of classical repertoire, employing a tidy, New Yorker-approved presentation that is geared towards the reader of cultural commentary, if not necessarily towards that almost mythic tribe, laypeople. It is at once an anecdote-laden survey of certain core figures in 20th century orchestral composition, such as Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Steve Reich, yet it spends time touching on other genres from candy pop to punk rock. In its pages, Ross produces profiles of touring chamber groups, like the St. Lawrence Quartet, avant-garde megastars such as Björk and relatively unknown (though markedly international) conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Ross also spends worthwhile time considering the current “crisis in music education” in his essay, “Learning The Score,” which begins with a brief profile of the struggling, but strong-willed music program, helmed by Hassan Ralph Williams, at the Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. The piece comes down with appropriate ire at President Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which Ross deems “debilitating,” but it also notes the “standoffish mentality” of traditional classical-music culture, which has formed the basis for many music education programs in America.
Ross examines the grassroots revival effort of classical music education in the United States, carried out by individual teachers, progressive orchestras, and smaller groups such as Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island. But every grassroots campaign needs its writers, its liaisons, and its torchbearers, and in this regard, Ross’s work itself naturally plays an important part. “The effectiveness of ‘outreach,’” he writes, segueing into a look at the work of Wynton Marsalis, “depends on the charisma of the person reaching out.” This is true, to be sure. And in this light it is especially lucky for musicians and music educators working today that they have such a charismatic voice as Alex Ross conducting his own version of this outreach in the pages of Listen To This.