Michael Dirda reviews "Listen to This," by music critic Alex Ross

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 7, 2010


By Alex Ross

Farrar Straus Giroux. 364 pp. $27

There's a huge amount to admire in this collection of essays about music, but not quite enough to love. Alex Ross -- the widely honored author of "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" -- writes for the New Yorker, and sometimes it shows. All the pieces are marvels of research and reporting, but at least half of them feel a little solemn, over-edited and just mildly pedantic.

Some of this flattening almost certainly results from a reporting and writing style often associated with our country's most revered magazine: "According to The Guinness Book of Records, Vincent La Selva, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, is the only man ever to have conducted all twenty-eight operas of Giuseppe Verdi in chronological order." How many times in the New Yorker have we read an opening sentence structured just like that one? It could have been written by Janet Flanner or St. Clair McKelway back in 1937.

Ross's essays themselves embrace almost every aspect of music, and for this he deserves all honor. In particular, he cogently argues that we need to ignore the artificial boundaries between contemporary pop and classical, that we should pay attention to ambitious music no matter what its source or how it's marketed. As a result, "Listen to This" includes pieces on concert hall oldies but goodies such as Mozart, Schubert and Brahms but also on contemporary pop gods like Bob Dylan, Bjork and Radiohead.

As a writer, Ross seldom repeats himself. He profiles the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who championed contemporary composers during his tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic; reports on Western music in China; and re-creates life at Vermont's Marlboro Music under its current directors, the pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode. In other pieces, he reflects on the impact of vinyl records and later audio technology on performance practice, interviews young people bringing the chamber repertory to a poor neighborhood in Providence, R.I., and talks to John Luther Adams about his experimental sound and light installations: In Adams's "The Place," for example, "information from seismological, meteorological and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound."

In general, the more Ross lets himself into his writing, the better. In a winning introduction, he tells us about his early passion for Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and his devotion to Leonard Bernstein's "The Joy of Music" and "The Infinite Variety of Music," which he calls "the best introductory books of their kind." In nearly the last piece in "Listen to This," he declares his flat-out adoration for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. "She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard." (Full disclosure: I, too, worship at the LHL chapel. ) His pieces on Marian Anderson and the community music efforts in Providence are deeply moving. And he knows every sort of non-commercial music so well that, in a brief piece about Kurt Cobain, he can sum up an era with virtuosic ease:

"Alternative music in the 1990s claimed descent from the punk-rock movement that crisscrossed America in the seventies and eighties. The claim rang false because punk in its pure form disavowed commercial success, a disavowal that united an otherwise motley array of youth subcultures: high-school misfits, skateboard kids, hardcore skinheads, doped-out postcollegiate slackers. Punk's obsession was autonomy -- independent labels, clubs installed in suburban garages and warehouses, flyers and fanzines photocopied at temp jobs after hours. Some of the music was vulgar and dumb, some of it ruggedly inventive; rock finally had a viable avant-garde."

In truth, Ross can be so warmly enthusiastic about innovative musicmaking that he leaves you willing to try even the most arcane composers, people who make Gyorgy Ligeti and Philip Glass look like Handel and Bach. And, given his passion for the digital -- he speaks of transferring the "Complete Mozart Edition" to his iPod -- Ross offers a "free audio companion" to his book at www.therestisnoise.com/listentothis, where you can find "streaming samples arranged by chapter, along with links to audio-rich websites and other channels of direct access to the music." This, too, obviously enhances the usefulness of "Listen to This."

Nonetheless, Ross's prose needs an injection of bluegrass or rockabilly; it needs to swing a little, to lose the Olympian tone. At times one even yearns for something like the primal screams emitted by the St. Lawrence Quartet during performances of R. Murray Schafer's Third Quartet. In his more biographical or historical pieces, Ross trudges dutifully through a life or a musical idea, while citing dozens of scholarly books along the way. Myriad references and sources abound in his endnotes: He carefully lists the dates of all the Radiohead concerts he attended. At such moments Ross sometimes calls to mind a driven but slightly insecure A+ student. In his most ambitious piece, "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues," he traces the recurrence over 400 years of a characteristic note pattern, one that evokes "the gait of a lost soul." It reads like a somewhat showoffy term paper, but then I couldn't quite follow large parts of it.

The ordinary person is also likely to bristle, at least a bit, at the casual mention of weeks in China, months following Dylan around, attendance at concerts in Berlin and Alaska and everywhere in between. One note says, "I interviewed Bjork in Reykjavik in January 2004; in Salvador, Brazil, in February; in London in April; and in New York that summer." And how did you spend your 2004?

Alex Ross is still a relatively young man, just entering his 40s. He's enjoyed much -- and much-deserved -- success, capped in 2008 by a MacArthur Grant. He clearly works geekily hard, and all the pages of "Listen to This" are unquestionably insightful and informative -- but they'd be even better if Ross or his editors allowed his sentences out on the dance floor a little. As it is, they're too correctly dressed and polite to win the reader's undying affection. For real zing in writing about music, you'll need to go back to the great but also gloriously crotchety and idiosyncratic George Bernard Shaw, B.H. Haggin, Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem and Robert Craft, as well as Greil Marcus and Amiri Baraka. Every one of these writers took risks, and sometimes made a fool of himself. Like most of the artists and critics who matter, they all adopted pianist Artur Schnabel's superb motto: "Safety last."

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