Listen to This
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Music fans are free to like what they like, while music critics, if they’re worth anything, have to be able to explain why they do or don’t like something in a way that might convince someone else. In that sense, Alex Ross is a true music critic and worth quite a bit. He is highly regarded because of his skill at explaining why he likes what he does, and why the reader might consider liking it too.
Ross’s first book, The Rest Is Noise, a history of 20th-century classical music, was a critical and surprisingly popular success, the kind of thing that gives hope for the continued value of criticism. His new book, Listen to This, collects and adapts essays previously published in the New Yorker, some of them newly revised. Although the book’s range is broad, and at times the ideas may drift away from a core of concentration, there’s nothing scattershot or ad hoc about it. Ross writes clearly and vividly about music and the personalities who make it; he communicates technical and structural ideas well, although in a way that assumes the reader has some basic knowledge of music theory; and it’s clear that he cares about the subject. The implicit sense that music fundamentally matters to everyone is a great and important strength of the book.
The big ideas come first, with the declaratory statements of “Listen to This: Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop” and “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History.” The first is both a statement of intention for the book and an advocacy for an open-eared, open-minded approach to listening, couched in Ross’s own experience of coming rather late to popular music. The emphasis is on listening beyond the trappings of the social and cultural conventions of “consuming” certain kids of music, the mysterious and off-putting etiquette of the concert hall, the reverse snobbery of popular taste. As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good,” and if it sounds good to you then don’t worry about whether you’re supposed to like it or how it fits into what you consider your lifestyle.
The second essay is one that Ross has been touring on: a relatively long discussion of musical forms through the ages and across cultures, connected through the simple device of a descending bass line underpinning an instrumental or vocal melody. Ross hears a musical thread from a popular baroque dance form that was also incorporated into more abstract music, most notably by Bach, through the use of the bass by Purcell and other composers to convey lamentation, to the same musical and emotional quality in the blues. In person, and via his website, he illuminates this through many musical examples, from the 17th century baroque to traditional Romanian music to Tchaikovsky, Robert Johnson, and Led Zeppelin. It works because Ross is right—the historical thread is there. It’s a perceptive, learned, and attractive idea.
An earlier version of “Bass Lines of Music History” appeared in the New Yorker, and that one was better—tighter, more forcefully argued, and more revelatory. The version in the book is longer and less focused, and wastes too much space making the argument through lists of pieces rather than through musical connections, dissipating much of its purpose. This same problem crops up in Ross’s profiles of Radiohead and Björk, which turn out to be the two weakest pieces in the collection. The problem is not that Ross isn’t a capable pop music critic “of their mosaic”—his piece on Bob Dylan is quite good, and his elegy for Kurt Cobain is one of the finest descriptive analyses of the style and meaning of pop music there is—but that, in developing some rapport with the artists, he becomes a fan of their personalities, no longer a critic. I owe Ross a partial debt, because the Radiohead piece, “Orbiting: Radiohead’s Grand Tour,” encouraged me to listen to the band, but reading it again with my own knowledge of their music left me a little embarrassed. They’re an interesting group of musicians, but not everything they say, everything they wear, every glance, aside, and personal tick is oracular. Ross is just as charmed by Björk’s personality, her quirky intensity and elfin dancing in the streets, and misses the substance of her work. Despite her fashionableness and friends in important places, she is just a progressive rock musician with a varied output; Gling-Gló, in which she wrings every musical phrase to death, does not “suggest that she could have had a major career as a jazz singer.” In both these pieces, Ross also lets his interlocutors get away with the easy, clichéd denigration of classical music as stiff and esoteric that he decries in the book’s title essay.
But the rest of the book is good to very good. Ross is at his best when he brings us along on his own journey of discovery, as in his profile of the composer John Luther Adams and his exploration of music in China at the time of the summer Olympics, or in writing about what it means to be a working classical musician, as in his pieces about the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Marlboro Music. The last of these is a lovely essay that is both personal and critical, where great musicians like Mitsuko Uchida are treated like the real people they are, not artistic demigods. Although jazz is clearly a huge gap in Ross’s knowledge and experience, he writes intelligently about Cecil Taylor. But the very best pieces are his writing about dead European composers like Schubert, Brahms, and Verdi. The Verdi piece, about how his music works, how it is best sung, and how that particular style and tradition of singing is very hard to find these days, is assembled from a few different pieces and reviews, and is the kind of thing that excites, informs, and opens the ears even of readers who know the composer’s operas from recordings and the stage. There are so many more absorbing pleasures in the book than the smaller disappointments above, so many things that will have you reaching for Brahms, looking up Schubert, thinking that you really do need that extra recording of La Traviata. On the first page of the title article, Ross writes, “The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world,” and at his best, Ross persuades us that the music he is writing about is the best music, and that we should listen to it.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.