on 3 December 2010
Alex Ross has one of those great jobs that seem to only exist in movies and/or in New York: he writes about music for the New Yorker. Then he goes all over the place talking about and reading what he's written. If he didn't write so well, so passionately and so engagingly it would be easy to hate him. And, by all accounts, he's a nice man too. Feck sake.
After the deserved success of "The Rest Is Noise" Ross has followed up with "Listen To This", which is essentially a collection of essays and pieces that he's written (mostly from the New Yorker). It's a really well collated collection and it displays his catholic tastes, from Bjork and Dylan to Brahms and John Luther Adams, and it also allows him to rove and range with an idea across the musical landscape: his long and engrossing piece on bass lines makes the book worth purchasing alone. But don't think this is a fusty exercise in musical elitism; Ross is extremely knowledgeable about music and he writes beautifully about structure, melody and composition, but his real gift is how he draws readers in and takes them on his journey too. His enthusiasm for his subjects is open and unguarded (but not uncritical) and he sweeps you along.
I'd been reading his pieces only every so often when I first read his great tale of his road trip with Dylan back in 1998. I was taken aback with how well he wrote about Dylan's music and his performances; I've been a Ross fan since then. Writing about music and musicians is fraught, at best. When it goes wrong, or more commonly when it goes flat and stale, it can be dreadful; when it works it really works. Good writing about music is unusual and the best of writers soar with the songs and melodies. And, most importantly, they send you back to the music. Ross is one of the good ones and you'll find yourself putting the book down to root through your records or cds or ipod to listen to something. And you'll find new stuff too: Ross' gorgeous description of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's singing of Bach Cantatas had me off to Amazon. And I wasn't disappointed.
Have a look at Ross' website where he has appended musical tags and tips for each chapter of the book.
And, in the meantime: read this.
on 9 February 2012
Alex Ross has spent most of his life dedicated to writing about classical music and does so with such a keen ear and consummate skill with words it doesn't really matter whether you are a classical music buff or not. It is a joy to read such a passionate and knowledgable writer sharing his thoughts on the subject with such enthusiasm and erudition, each sentence resonates with a vibrancy that makes you wish you had a greater experience of the classical music tradition.
Ross explores the relevance of classical music in a post modern world, the challenges it faces to engage a new generation and the stuffy elitist image that hampers that progress. As with its economic progress, China looks set to dominate that particular music scene in the future now that it has enthusiastically embraced the tradition, with millions of young people in the country already taking up instruments it can only be a matter of time before China becomes a major player on the scene.
The writer's love of music is not limited to classical, as he writes about going on the road with Radiohead and spends time with Bjork as she creates an esoteric musical masterpiece. It doesn't matter what musical genre Ross is writing about, he always perfectly captures every tone and texture with a precision that is a masterclass in musical reportage.
All the chapters are individual so that they can be read in any order like music articles, personally my favourite is the superb piece about Marian Anderson entitled Voice of the Century, this piece encapsulates all the qualiites that make Ross such a brilliant writer. If you love music and enjoy excellent writing on the subject, then I cannot recommend this book enough.
on 10 February 2013
I don't know why its taken me so long to find this as I loved The Rest Is Noise - the brilliance of Ross's writing about music is that whilst these are relatively academic pieces, they are understandable to the casual consumer of music who just wants to expand their knowledge. I particularly liked the essay on the effect that recorded media has had on music since the inception of recording in the late 19th century.
on 27 September 2013
I spent an unseasonably cold weekend camping in a cabin next to the Tamar Lakes, on the border between Devon and Cornwall. Any distress at the cold was made up for amply by two things - the beautiful scenery and (particularly) this book, which I had brought with me. I have always been a big fan of The Rest Is Noise. As a collection of essays, rather than as a grand narrative, this book has quite a different feel but it still moves and convinces.
One of Ross's assets is his fine disregard of genre boundaries. Another is his mysterious ability to empathise with creative musicians. This came through clearly in The Rest Is Noise where he showed unflagging interest in the creative motivations of a very wide range of composers - including some composers with deeply flawed characters and questionable political records.
For me the highlight of the book is the concluding trio of essays, about Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Brahms. The piece about Dylan is revealing and often very funny. That about Brahms is downright moving. Some of the insights may have come from Jan Swafford's superb biography of Brahms, but I have Ross's book to thank for encouraging me to read it. Even as a child, I somehow felt that Brahms's music spoke to me in a startlingly direct manner - Ross's comments may have helped me start to understand why his music has had such an effect on me, and continues to do so.
on 21 November 2013
Wide-ranging, from Dylan (a particularly insightful essay) to the appeal of Verdi. The opening, autobiographical, piece tells the unusual story of a young man educated in classical music gradually perceiving the worth of popular music. 'I want to write about popular music as if it were classical and classical music as if it were popular.' Definitely the most thought-provoking critic currently writing about music.