A review of Listen to This by Alex Ross

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Listen to This
by Alex Ross
Farrar Strauss Giroux 
2010, ISBN 978-0-374-18774-3, $27.00, 366 pages

This successor to The Rest Is Noise (reviewed in Compulsive Reader) is also an unsightly production although a recent comment by the author expressed his satisfaction with the appearance of his first book so I may be overly critical.

The book provides a website for musical examples in support of his text. As much time is required to hear these samples as to read the book and the results vary in satisfaction. It is, however, an unusually rich experience to read the book and listen to the samples.

Without being a sequel to The Rest Is Noise, Listen to This provides a collateral exploration by a perceptive and accomplished writer. He begins with two kinds of bull session topics – What do we call the music that has a permanent impact as opposed to music of the moment, the often commercial or faddish music that is performed today and forgotten tomorrow? (No simple name exists and we may be left with the position that we know the first when we hear it.) And is it possible to write meaningfully about music? Although his two books prove that it is, Ross provides Horrible Examples of the dryasdust and the foolishly rhapsodic.

In his first essay he explores the ubiquity of a musical figuration – the chacona – that, because it is one that we relate to, is found in music of the past as well as the present. It is a characteristic and a virtue of Ross as a critic, writer, and thinker that he sees the continuity of all musical types.

Ross then examines the effect of musical recording on musical activity in terms of concert hall behavior, apparent decrease in individual mastery of musical instruments, and the equivalence, real or imagined, of live and recorded music. This is a balanced report of fascinating material.

He concludes Part One with a piece on Mozart. He proves that it is impossible to write about Mozart without rhapsody. He is unable to delineate Mozart and the associated questions without real contributions to an inexhaustible subject.

Part Two begins with a piece on Radiohead. This is a controversial group of rock musicians whose originality is not immediately obvious. The group has attracted both enthusiasm and detraction in equal measure.

But there is nothing controversial in Ross’s next subject, the conductor for many years of the L.A. Symphony Orchestra, Eka-Pekka Salonen. Vibrant, innovative, and gifted composer as well as brilliant conductor and master of outreach, Salonen has performed marvels and set the norm for others to follow. Ross chooses the most interesting moment of his career as he retires from conducting to composition. The sound samples are especially good for this chapter.

Ross does justice to the myth of Schubert; he also tries to bring forth the realities. He succumbs to the temptation to see the music in the light of the life, at best a doubtful procedure. The skill of the writer can carry much before it, but this is weak.

His piece on Björk has the advantage of the concrete and the seeable. There are mysteries here but they are the mysteries of the tangible, the creative mind grappling with and solving problems. It is a stark contrast with the murkiness of his piece on Schubert.

From Björk to classical music in China to Verdi – we slide about a lot. The piece on Verdi is interesting. In his original piece Ross showed what I felt to be a healthy repudiation of director-inflected productions in which we learn more about the eccentricity of the directors than about the intentions of the creator. In his book version he hedges on this and argues (weakly in my opinion) that the breadth of possible deviations is narrower for opera than – his example – Shakespeare. I think we have all seen too many horrible Hamlets and loopy Lears to accept this.

Ross’s bumpy ride continues with a comment on an inventive but slightly obscure string quartet followed by quick looks at several more popular musicians although some of these are obscure enough. He then undertakes a study of music education. As one would expect, thanks to the Bush administration, the arts, especially music, have led a diminishing role in an educational system that is one of the worst in the world. Ross describes successful ventures, some of which take place outside the confines of the scholastic world. His tribute to Marian Anderson is also a consideration of the interest (very little) African-Americans have for classical music. The last essay in Part Two treats of the musical retreat at Music Mountain. A glance ahead shows a similar mix of subjects. It is invisible to me why the book is divided into three parts. If Ross explained this, I must confess that it was at some moment when I was reading less carefully than I should have. I think of Caesar’s Gaul, but that doesn’t seem pertinent.

Ross ends his second part with a picture of the idyll that is Music Mountain at Marlboro. The fame of this has spread through the influence and quality of the broadcasts of its performances. Ross describes it as an enclave of peace and reason within our stressed and often idiotic world. And from this he turns as his first essay in Part Three to the gritty question mark that is Bob Dylan. He follows Dylan on tour. Like others, he can describe but cannot explain the twists of life and the creative vagaries of a singer who has gone iconic.

Whatever one feels about Dylan, one owes Ross gratitude for his bringing to one’s attention Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. This singer died in 2006 but left behind her recordings of great beauty and here Ross’s samples really do a great service and are well worth the reader/listener’s attention.

His concluding piece on Brahms is full of good things although one is dismayed that the blunt Brahms of our immediate perceptions is described to a remarkable degree as a subtle master of rhythmic experimentation. This may, however, explain why the Brahms of the solo piano, the songs, or the chamber work comes across more than the orchestral Brahms where, Ross claims, his rhythmic inventiveness is smudged beyond recognition.

But what at last do we have? A book whose parts are written with wit, perception, and grace, but whose parts never make a whole. This is far from being a vice, but Listen to This has not the virtue of The Rest Is Noise whose theme, modern music, formed a unity. Ross’s fixation with the chacona is interesting and makes a thread of sorts through the book, but in the totality of music it is a relatively minor thread, not one to bear as much weight as Ross gives it. His venture into pop leads to some of his murkier pages. One person’s breadth of taste to another is a lack of just discrimination. His choice of current performers for the most part exposes him to a specific danger – often the performer of the moment, despite all virtues to the contrary, proves at last to be merely of the moment. Yet such reservations may appear mere quibbles to many readers who will find, as I did, that this book is a worthy venture that will abundantly reward them.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer.

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