Read: New Alex Ross Collection



“Prose so
rich yet readable, so full of ideas and delightfully engaging that reading his
work is like listening to the music”:
The New Yorker music critic’s new volume of essays, Listen
To This, published last week by Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, ranks among this year’s most essential music books.


By Steve Pick


Alex Ross is probably the luckiest and most deserving music
critic in the world. He has reasonably close to carte blanche to pursue
whatever interests he has in a regular column in The New Yorker, which he has written since 1996, when he was 28
years old. Because it’s The New Yorker,
he has the space to explore the music in depth, to mix deeply informed musical
understanding with a spectacular ability to capture the personalities of the
people who make it. Ross seems to have heard everything in the history of
Western music, and as he proved in 2007 with his first book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the
Twentieth Century
, he can make even the most complex and difficult
creations seem compelling and inviting.


Where the prior book was an original work spelling out the
history of 20th Century “classical” music, Listen To This (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) is a collection of
writings plucked mostly from The New
in which Ross jumps around from place to place and time to time.
There are chapters on Mozart, Radiohead, Schubert, Bjork, Verdi, and Bob Dylan,
not too close looks at such subjects as the state of classical music in China, the decline of music education in the U.S., and the
ways in which music has changed because of technology. Ross is that perfect
sort of music critic – already carrying a huge amount of knowledge in his head,
he’s constantly re-thinking what he knows in light of new evidence and
experience. If there’s one thing that can be said about Alex Ross, it’s that he
understands there will never be a final word on any of the subjects he covers,
but that there is always something new to be revealed.


As a result, whether you are a novice completely unfamiliar
with any of the music which fascinates Ross, or a life-long fan, his writing is
almost guaranteed to let you discover something fresh and intriguing. Ross takes
great delight in ribbing those who think Mozart, for example, is merely
something pleasurable, or worse, something capable of improving the IQ of
babies. For Ross, the opera “Don Giovanni” should put the listener in a mental
panic. It’s an existential nightmare, a “crucifixion without resurrection,”
which makes Mozart a more profound experience than just a relaxing background
for those looking to show off their good taste.


Almost alone among those who have written about Bob Dylan,
Alex Ross is extremely well-versed in music qua music. While of course he
understands the importance of Dylan as a lyricist, and even the ways his lyrics
mesh with the music, Ross comes up with the following description of a live
Dylan concert from 1997: “And he is musically in control. The band’s pacing of
each song – the unpredictable scampering to and fro over a loosely felt beat,
the watch-and-wait atmosphere, the sudden knowing emphasis on one line or one
note – is much the same as when Dylan plays solo. You can hear him thinking
through the music bar by bar, tracing harmonies in winding figures. The basic
structures of the songs remain unshakable. There may be wrong notes, but there
is never a wrong chord.”


Ross writes lovingly of the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt
Lieberson, who died at 52 of complications from breast cancer – it is
impossible to read this chapter without feeling the inexorable loss in the
world of a magnificent talent, even if you have never once in your life
encountered her music. You will most likely immediately go to, where Ross
has compiled an exhaustive selection of links to almost every piece of music
mentioned in the book, where you will find that Lieberson’s astounding voice
really does have the power, passion, and extraordinary control that Ross argues
convincingly was the “most remarkable” he ever heard.


There is one long piece completely original to this book.
It’s entitled “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History”
wherein he connects a particular rhythm, and a particular descending series of
notes throughout the last 600 years of popular music. The chacona was a folk
dance of 16th Century Spain which got picked up and
somewhat tamed by a wide variety of composers over the years, culminating in
spectacular fashion in a work by Bach. The lamento is a particular four-note
descending pattern which has steadily appeared, representing emotional sadness,
in music from all over the world. Ross shows how the same pattern which invoked
sorrow in Elizabethan court music turns up as the basis for Led Zeppelin’s
“Dazed and Confused.” In the process, he even manages to describe a half-hour
concert version of the song from the ‘70s in ways that make an old punk rocker
rethink the knee-jerk rejection of that period as decadent.


Bjork and Radiohead are interview subjects in separate
chapters, and Ross puts their music in contexts far different from the pop
coverage we’ve seen so often. He also includes features on Esa-Pekka Salonen,
long-time conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Mitsuko Uchida (along
with many other teachers and students) of the annual Marlboro Music intensive
study program. Ross is a master at finding telling anecdotes, delicious quotes,
and scenes which capture the spirits of his subjects.


Even if you’ve read every issue of The New Yorker, Ross has rewritten, sometimes extensively, many of
the pieces included in this book. His prose is so rich yet readable, so full of
ideas and delightfully engaging that reading his work more than once is much
like listening to the music he describes again and again. Just when you think
you’ve noticed everything, there is some little detail capable of unraveling a
whole new world of discovery. 


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