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Music Media Review Print

Alex Ross Expands His Musical Horizons

February 18, 2011 - Williamsburg, MA:

Alex Ross: Listen To This. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, © 2010, ISBN 978-0374-18774-3, Pp. xvi + 366, $27.00.

Alex Ross has been the classical music critic for The New Yorker for 15 years now. His previous book, The Rest Is Noise, Listening to the Twentieth Century was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in that year. For this latest work, he expands his focus well beyond a single genre and a single century.

The book is mostly a compilation of items that previously appeared in The New Yorker, in some cases combined, all revised in varying degrees, and updated where appropriate, together with a small amount of new material. It is divided into three parts, the first and last with three chapters each, and the central one with thirteen. These are followed by the notes, suggested listening, acknowledgements, and an index, with illustration credits and quotation permissions at the very end, rather than the customary beginning. For those reading with their computer nearby, there are streaming samples arranged by chapter at Ross' web site, and there's a playlist of 20 representative excerpts for iTunes under "playlist" at the site.

The title mimics the four chords that open Beethoven's Third Symphony, with all the various connotations that have been proffered for its meaning. Ross identifies certain musical figures that inform and permeate many musical compositions in all forms across the centuries. One of them the descending chromatic scale basso lamento, the "walking bass," shows up repeatedly throughout the book. It is the subject of the second chapter, "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues," and Ross has been touring giving a talk using the same title. This does not make the work into a unified whole from its disparate parts, however; it merely identifies a thread in the weave of the fabric.

Chapters on great classical composers of the past, such as Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, and Brahms alternate with ones on contemporary composers such as John Luther Adams and Esa Pekka-Salonen, contemporary performers such as Salonen and the St. Lawrence String Quartet with others from the past like Marian Anderson and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and rock musicians such as Björk, Radiohead, and Bob Dylan. A chapter is devoted to Marlboro Music, another to Music in China, one to Music Education, and another to the impact of recordings on classical music listening and attending. Each chapter demonstrates Ross' extensive reading and listening so that he could distill the essence of his subject and reveal what makes the music great.

Some have called the book a kind of memoir, but I would not. While it focuses on music and musicians that Ross knows and/or has met/interviewed, and he gives the circumstances of his encounters, the focus is always on them and on their music, which he is seeking to understand, not on their personalities other than to provide basic background information, and never on himself. He gives a synopsis of his own musical background in the first chapter to lay the foundation for his voyage of discovery. With a few exceptions, he does not tell whether or not he personally likes what he hears, though he does indicate from time to time what moves him. His choices themselves reveal something of his interests, but his focus is always on what is interesting in the music.

I would categorize the work as a kind of musical "bildungsbio," to coin a word, a variation on Bildungsroman, form defined as "a novel about the moral and psychological development of the main character." In this case, it is not a novel, and the main character is the author, who is objectively relating what he has learned about all sorts of music that he has encountered and explored in arriving at this point in his life. It is to some extent the analysis of his development as a music critic, of the expansion and honing of his listening skills. His writing style is fluid and lucid; his text reads easily and pleasantly. This is a fascinating read; it will expand your horizons, and perhaps hone your listening skills, too.