Can you name the music critic who can write as engagingly about Björk, the Icelandic rock singer, as he does about Brahms? You would be right if you answered, “Alex Ross.” Readers who love Björk or Brahms will find much to enjoy in Ross’s new book, Listen To This.
Alex Ross’s previous book was “The Rest Is Noise,” a history of, and a meditation on, the music of the 20th century. He compares the two books in this way:
“My last book unfolded on a big historical canvas, with political forces constantly threatening to overwhelm the solitary voice; this book is more intimate, more local, revisiting many times the abiding question of what music means to its creators and its listeners on the most elemental level. Above all, I want to know how a powerful personality can imprint itself on an inherently abstract medium – how a brief sequence of notes or chords can take on the recognizable quirks of a person close at hand.”
Ross has been the music critic for The New Yorker for the past 14 years, and all but one chapter of “Listen To This” was previously published in that magazine. The exception is the essay entitled “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues.” This details, in language that both the layman and the expert can appreciate, the history of the Renaissance chacona, “a sexily swirling dance that hypnotized all who heard it,” which evolved most famously into Bach’s complex and cerebral Ciaconna for unaccompanied violin. The other subject of the essay is the lamento, a chromatically descending figure in the bass line that portrays sadness and threads its way through the history of music, ultimately manifesting itself in the blues, the music of W.C. Handy and Duke Ellington, among others.
The title essay recounts his discovery of rock music at the age of 20. Ross had previously listened only to the classical repertoire, and was introduced to rock while in college. It must be said that, – though I don’t share his love of rock music – some of the most interesting things he says in this book relate to rock performers.
Of Bob Dylan he says, “[He] is seldom talked about in musical terms. His work is analyzed instead as poetry, punditry, or mystification.” Of Björk: “Like the greatest opera singers, Björk combines precision of pitch with force of feeling, and any diva will tell you how hard it is to have one without sacrificing the other. If you throw a lot of emotion into your voice, you will easily lose control of the pitch. If you focus on the pitch, you will find it difficult to convey emotion. Something tremendous must be happening in the brain when a singer is able to escape that double bind, and Björk’s new album is like a CAT scan of the process.”
Ross also makes interesting connections between musical worlds. We learn, for instance, that the pop singer Nina Simone began her musical life as a classical pianist. It stayed with her. “Bach made me dedicate my life to music,” she said.
Ross casts his net widely. The book contains wonderful essays on Verdi, Schubert, Brahms (“Blessed Are the Sad”), and Marian Anderson (“Voice of the Century”). He has written a thoughtful piece on the crisis in musical education (“Knowing the Score”), pondering the very concrete problem of how to justify music programs that provide enrichment that isn’t quantifiable and has no practical application.
There is a fascinating chapter on John Luther Adams – the Alaskan composer, not John Adams the minimalist – who created a sound-and-light exhibition called “The Place Where You Go To Listen.” It “translates raw data into music: 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.”
Ross interviews Radiohead (whose members describe the band as “the E.M. Forster of rock”) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (“The Anti-Maestro”), whose modest and self-effacing charm is illustrated by the adage, “A Finnish introvert looks at his shoes. A Finnish extrovert looks at other people’s shoes.” He also spends time with Mitsuko Uchida at the Marlboro Festival.
The penultimate chapter is a moving tribute to one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the past 25 years, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. He describes her Handel CD as “pull-down-the-blinds, unplug-the-telephone, can’t-talk-right-now beautiful.” “My attempts,” he says, “at chronicling her career ... were an exercise in running out of words.”
One cannot believe that a writer, who is so graceful, so pithy, so thoughtful and full of insight, would ever run out of words – or that anyone who loves music would not love “Listen To This.”
F. Cord Volkmer is a freelance book and music critic.