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 15 December 2010
If there is an underlying theme in this beautiful book this is the unity of music, classical and popular. The distinction between classical music as 'high art' and popular music as 'low art' is false. As Berg once aptly remarked to Gershwin, music is music. The author in providing an insight into the music of the Finn song-writer and singer Bjiork is simultaneously expressing criticism to both classical and popular musicians but also possibly expressing an ideal:'music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music. The creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again.'
The elements that comprise the book's fascination are the erudition of the author -music critic for the New Yorker - his unbound love for the subject, his charisma in writing exemplified in the compelling narrative and the unimpeded flow of the prose, his personal interaction with the living musicians presented in the text and his uncanny ability to sketch the personalities of musicians - live and dead - appearing in the book and to provide a profound insight into the character and characteristics of their music.
The book organized in three parts combines revised New Yorker articles, with one long piece written for the occasion. The first part comprise three aerial surveys of the musical landscape, encompassing both classical and pop terrain. The first chapter is a kind of memoir turned manifesto. The chapter 'Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues' is the new thing - a whirlwind history of music told through two or three bass lines. 'Infernal Machines' brings together thoughts on the intersection of music and technology. The verdict is positive on Technology in that it democratizes music.
The second part traces a dozen or so musicians living and dead:composers, conductors, pianists, string quartets, rock bands, singer-song writers, high-school band teachers. These essays generally excellent, some masterly are self-sufficient and consequently they can be read in any sequence and not necessarily in the order they appear in the book.
The final part describes three radically different figures - Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Johannes Brahms who touch on things almost too deep for words. I found the essay on Dylan particularly fascinating and intriguing and possessing an elusive personality. Dylan is seldom talked in musical terms:his work is nalysed instead as poetry, wisdom or causing bafflement.
Somehow I feel the urge to conclude the review with three Dylan songs of the several that appear in the text:
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled round his diamond finger
At a Baltimore society gathering.
Me, I'm still on the road, heading for another joint
We always did feel the same, we just saw from a different point
Tangled up in blue.
A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walking on by the arcade
As the light burst through a beat-up shade
Where he was waking up
She dropped a coin into the cup
Of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.
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.