Friday, January 28, 2011

Listen To This – Finding Meaning in the Music

listen to this“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Martin Mull

It is with this quote that Alex Ross opens his new book Listen To This. Ross, longtime music critic for The New Yorker, quickly robs Mull’s statement of its power. He rightly points out that “every art form fights the noose of verbal description.” His job as critic, as he sees it, is to “demystify the art” while still inviting us to bear witness to its wonders.

I read Ross’s first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, on the recommendations of a number of friends, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. His immense knowledge of classical music doesn’t weigh on the text. His storytelling thrives even amidst the densest of jargon. I came away from The Rest Is Noise thinking not simply, “Wow, there’s a lot of music I haven’t listened to,” but “Wow, there’s a lot of music I need to listen to.”

It’s fitting then that Ross’s latest is titled Listen To This. A collection of pieces from his New Yorker career, Listen To This sounds like it should be a mere book of reviews, recommendations from an esteemed critic. However, Ross’s gifts at contextualizing music and its creators elevate it to a must-read for musicians and music fans alike.

Ross opens Listen To This with a cannon shot off the bow of the very establishment he covers. “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name,” he begins the first chapter, “Listen to This.” It’s close-minded, he claims. He’d love to just call it “the music.” To Ross, the word ‘classical’ creates a troublesome gulf between generations of musicians – from Bach to the Beatles. “The best music,” he writes, “is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.”

Thankfully, Ross is no less effective at exploring contemporary rock than he is at describing classical music. Ross embraced pop music proper after years of being a stalwart classical fan, so it’s with years of deep musical understanding that he investigates pop icons. There was a delightful surprise in turning the final page of his essay on Mozart to find a backstage travelogue with Radiohead from 2001, and his treatment of Björk illuminated for me the decades of acclaim she’s received. Wisely, Ross also spends an entire chapter linking the seventeenth-century chacona to the walking blues and Led Zeppelin through the basso lamento (more on that here).

The basso lamento sneaks its way into nearly every chapter, providing a touchstone for the reader with little music theory knowledge. It’s hard to tell if Ross edited the term into a few of his essays for cohesion (the chapter on basso lamento was written specifically for Listen To This), or if he’s so attuned to the gesture that it’s just popped up in his writing for the last fifteen years. Reading the chapters back to back, it was hard not to find the term’s constant reprisal a tad obnoxious. Perhaps that was because Ross had explained the concept so well I was able to connect the dots on my own. Perhaps I should just acknowledge that these were essays published years apart and a little repetition isn’t awful.

A repeating thesis of Ross’s I quite enjoy is the impact of recording technology upon the creation and appreciation of music. He touched upon it in The Rest Is Noise and revisits the issue in the essay “Infernal Machines.” Our world is changing rapidly. New technologies beget new ways to make music, but they also change how we consume it. Ross elaborates:

“When we walk around the city on an ordinary day, our ears will register music at almost every turn…but almost none of it will be the immediate result of physical work by human hands or voices. Fewer and fewer people know how to play instruments or read music. In the future…reproduction will displace production. Zombified listeners will shuffle through the archives of the past, and new music will consist of rearrangements of the old.”

A tad doomsdayish, I’ll admit, but it’s hard not to see his point as you jam out to the latest Girl Talk album. Ross then describes in greater detail the role recorded music has played in the classical world. Quiet audiences enter the concert hall expecting a facsimile of “the solitary ritual of absorbing symphonies in one’s living room.” Decades of “definitive” recordings have contributed to a homogenization of classical performance styles; “virtuosity is defined as effortlessness,” Ross writes.

It isn’t all bad news, of course. He acknowledges the populist role the Internet plays in exposing listeners to music and the timeless quality of recordings. They enable us to visit performances from a different age and to create music that will be listened to ages from now. Hedging his bets, Ross quotes critic Hans Heinz: “The machine is neither a god nor a devil.”

Listen To This opens with the three broad essays I’ve mentioned, then goes on to discuss specific musicians in detail. Radiohead, Schubert, Bob Dylan, Brahms. But just as I was beginning to pigeonhole Listen To This as a series of (extremely thorough) recommendations, Ross presents the first of many curiosities: China’s burgeoning classical music scene. Using the 2008 Olympic ceremonies as a backdrop, “Symphony of Millions” explores how the East has taken up the classical torch dropped by the West - and how the East isn’t quite getting it.

Similarly, pieces on lesser known musical figures – a former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a music teacher in New Jersey, a pianist at Marlboro college – elucidate a variety of larger issues: the tense relationship between audience and ensemble, the state of music education in the United States, and the pitfalls of commercialized musicianship. No musical event lacks context in Ross’s exacting view of the art.

No mere historian, Ross’s writing brims with knowledge of and affection for the music he loves. On the scandalous chacona: “The devil did fine work: the chacona is perfectly engineered to bewitch the senses.”  On the finale of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony: “For all the world, it sounds like the stamping of a man reaching for the stars.” On occasion he displays his formidable wit, such as in this sly critique of Verdi critics in “Verdi’s Grip”:

“Nothing in Verdi is any more implausible than the events of the average Shakespeare play, or, for that matter, of the average Hollywood action picture. The difference is that the conventions of the latter are widely accepted these days, so that if, say, Matt Damon rides a unicycle the wrong way down the Autobahn and kills a squad of Uzbek thugs with a package of Twizzlers, the audience cheers rather than guffaws. The loopier things get, the better. Opera is no different.”

His knack for eliciting moving quotes from his subjects is no less impressive. “Song of the Earth,” his essay on minimalist composer John Luther Adams, ends abruptly on a reflective thought from the composer. Taking stock of his reclusive career in Alaska, Adams says, “A piece like In the White Silence is almost – I didn’t realize this at the time – almost an elegy for a place that has disappeared.” I turned the page expecting more; I found the next essay instead. Suddenly, Ross had left me as bereft as Adams.

Writing about music is difficult. It certainly shares challenges with dancing about architecture. But Ross makes reading about music as easy as listening to it. His insight, his expertise, and his compassion for the artists breathe new life into music that’s been around for, in some cases, centuries. “Listen to this! Now that you’ve heard that, now listen to this!” he urges. I will, I will! Let me just read about it first.