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Listen to This by Alex Ross

Listen to This

by Alex Ross

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Alex Ross is a stellar writer, and I'm willing to bet he's a great musician, too.

This book of essays is based on articles he wrote for the New Yorker and the New York Times from the late 1990's, until 2011. The essays cover everything from the musical history of the descending chromatic bass line (also known as the "lament," and "the walking blues"), to Bjork and Radiohead, and Bach, Brahms, and Bob ... as in Bob Dylan. Along the way, Mr. Ross captures the many ways music communicates deeper emotions than can be expressed in words, as in his description of Peter Lieberson's song for his dying wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, "Sonnet XCII."

As with Mr. Ross's previous work, "The Rest if Noise," I have nothing but superlatives. If you love music, you'll want to read this book. ( )
  harrietbrown | Mar 21, 2014 |
A hit and miss collection, which isn't too surprising, given the range and my own peculiarities as a reader. The first, manifesto-like piece is very entertaining: say no to Classical Music, yes to demanding music, which is what a bunch of boring people call Classical Music! Then a piece on a short sequence which is used across all genres and throughout the musical hierarchy, deftly showing that our separations of popular from classical are more or less nonsense... which is also tremendously boring if you've already been convinced of that. From there Ross attempts to practice, rather than theorize about, this 'music is just music' idea.

He's at his best when writing mini-biographical journalistic pieces, as with his discussion of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bjork, and 'late' Brahms, but take that with a pinch of salt, because it might just be that I love Brahms and like Bjork and contemporary music while not being all that keen on, say, Sinatra and Schubert.

The weakness, as with almost everyone who tries to make the leap from classical writing/playing to 'pop' writing/playing, is that he treats pop as if it's a tradition in the same way that classical music is a tradition. The great sounds (string sections; piano sonatas) and composers (from Palestrina on down) are a given set of excellences. Pop music has no such tradition, but writers like Ross act as if the most well-known interesting pop musicians (Bjork, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain (soi disant)) are actually the most interesting, which is a long way from the truth. The best pop musicians, and the ones most worth writing about, don't end up with long careers or hit records; they're not very well known. They come up with a sound or two, a song or two, and then often--not always--fade away. I imagine that Ross could write about, say, the backroads of experimental metal and the niche sites of electronic music just as well as he does about Radiohead. Is there an audience for that? Perhaps not right now, but the music journalist's job is to create that audience. I'd love to see Ross write about the most interesting pop music out there right now, rather than just the groups he can get a New Yorker profile out of. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
A few interesting chapters, but less unified than "The Rest is Noise". Some chapters read like liner notes and really require the music to be playing. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Jun 22, 2013 |
Not an entirely easy read because I wasn't interested in all the music or musicians covered in this collection of essays. I did enjoy parts of it, like the first few essays, the sections on Bjork, Mozart, Radiohead, Bob Dylan and classical music in China. Thanks to an internet-linked guide of music referenced in this collection I also found some new pieces to check out and follow up. ( )
  h_d | Mar 31, 2013 |
Had I not read the author's "The Rest is Noise" before reading "Listen to This", I would probably have enjoyed "Listen" more and might given it four stars. But that's the problem with being the pretty good younger sibling of a dazzling first child: nobody judges you on your own merits. "Noise" is one of the few books that have really taught me a lot: it's also a beautifully written book, which pulls the reader along without the effort that usually accompanies the process of learning a lot.

"Listen" isn't in the same league as "Noise". Now, before going further, I should say that it clearly was not intended to be. "Listen to This", as Ross says, "combines various New Yorker articles, several of them substantially revised, with one long piece written for the occasion." The articles cover a wide range of musical topics, ranging in time from the Renaissance to yesterday, and in genre from the most popular to the most intellectualized. There is little structural linkage between one article and another, and it probably doesn't matter much if you read them out of order.

The articles are well worth reading, though some (not surprisingly) are on topics of more interest to this reader than others. But that is good feature in this sort of miscellany. Reading something about a musician or composer in whom the reader has absolutely no interest could (and in this case did) spark some interest, leading to a listen to one of the works in question, and to a broadening of horizons. The first essay stands, which traces a few musical figures through the whole history of "western" music, is of particular interest. It is also demanding, whereas some of the other essays are the non-fiction equivalent of easy listening.

As usual, Ross's writing is a delight; clear, supple, and unusually successful in conveying something about music (so much writing about music brings to mind the quote about dancing about architecture) Also, thanks and cheers for his website (http://www.therestisnoise.com/listentothis/) where you can listen to the music he discusses in the book.

In sum, this is a pleasant and perceptive collection of essays by a music critic who is always worth reading. Let's hope that something more major is waiting in the wings. ( )
1 vote annbury | Dec 7, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
The triumph of “Listen to This” is that Ross dusts off music that’s centuries old to reveal the passion and brilliance that’s too often hidden from a contemporary audience. It’s a joy for a pop fan or a classical aficionado.
Running through every piece is a spirit of adventure, common sense, joy and, ultimately, engagement. As when he suggests this approach to classical music: "The best kind of classical performance is not a retreat into the past but an intensification of the present."
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.
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This collection of essays showcases the best of Ross's writing from more than a decade at" The New Yorker." Whether his subject is Mozart or Bob Dylan, Ross shows how music expresses the full complexity of the human condition. Witty, passionate, and brimming with insight, "Listen to This" teaches us how to listen.… (more)

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