Frontier Psychiatrist

No, Seriously, Listen to This

Posted on: November 11, 2010

Listen to This by Alex Ross

I know next to nothing about classical music.  Sure, I’ve been to Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, watched the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in Central Park, and can hum passages from a few famous symphonies. But as my music library proves, my familiarity with and appreciation for classical music pales in comparison to my love of rock, jazz, and hip-hop. In other words, I am the archetypal reader Alex Ross says he wants to attract.

In his latest collection of essays, Ross argues that classical music and its contemporary heirs get unfairly ignored or maligned by people who embrace other forms of music and art. Listen to This argues for the vitality and relevance of classical music and situates contemporary music within the context of its legacy. Through criticism, reportage, and autobiography, Ross revisits old masters such as Mozart and Brahms, introduces new musicians outside the mainstream, and profiles pop icons such as Bob Dylan, Bjork, and Radiohead. As a whole, Listen to This Ross continues in the spirit of Ross’s first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, a collection that celebrates and demystifies contemporary composers whom even classical music fans dismiss.

As in the past, Ross writes from two personas: Armchair Critic and Roving Reporter. In the former mode he analyzes the lives and works of composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms. In the latter he travels to observe working musicians and composers in their element. Highlights of his reportage include: a visit to the Marlboro Retreat in Vermont, a grown-up version of band camp and a trip to Alaska, where the composer John Luther Adams has built a musical installation in which sounds are triggered by the elements. In both modes of writing, Ross animates the music with his analysis, humanizes his subjects, and sheds light on the elusive process of creativity.

The gem of the collection is one of two essays not first published in The New Yorker, where Ross has been a music critic since 1996. “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues” traces the use of musical forms throughout the centuries, from Renaissance madrigals to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” Along the way, he defends tradition, celebrates innovation, and establishes music as a conversation across space and time.

As he admits in the book’s introduction and first essay, “Crossing the Border…,” Ross discovered pop music late in life. He overcomes his handicap with his profiles of Bjork, Radiohead, and Dylan, musicians renowned or their cerebral approach. But he misses the mark with “Edges of Pop,” a series of sketches that includes pieces on Kurt Cobain, Frank Sinatra, and Sonic Youth. Here, Ross gets the basic facts, but misses both the heart of the music and its resonance in popular culture.

Then again, in his writing on pop music, Ross does what he asks readers to do with classical music: step outside their comfort zones. On the day I returned Listen to This to the public library, I passed the CD racks and for the first time was inspired to flip through the classical section. Ten minutes later I checked out several artists and works Ross mentions in his book, including  Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet andMistuko Uchida playing Schoenberg. The next day, while listening to a record by a new indie band, I was surprised to hear the centuries-old descending bass line Ross discusses in “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues.” While neither experience made me an instant expert or a sudden convent to classical music, both speak to the way a piece of writing can resonate after you read the last word, echoing in your ear like the last note of a piece of music.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. For an audio guide to Listen to This, see The Rest is Noise. Alex Ross is reading at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Monday Nov. 15



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