Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

September 28, 2010

Book Notes - Alex Ross ("Listen to This")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Alex Ross has long been my favorite music critic. In fact, every week when The New Yorker arrives, the first thing I read (after the fiction, of course) is his classical music column. Ross informs, educates, and entertains with every essay, and though I don't listen to much classical music, I always find myself delving into the week's subject matter.

Ross also writes about popular music, and his new essay collection Listen to This combines essays about Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Chinese classical music, Cecil Taylor, and more. His alternative takes on modern popular music as serious art dovetail perfectly with his explorations of classical music's place in modern culture.

Impressively, you can stream music samples for each chapter while you read at the book's audio guide.

If you enjoyed Alex Ross's first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (which I consider to be one of the finest music books ever published), then you will love this one. I rarely read books about music, but Alex Ross fascinates with every page.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote of the book:

"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.""

In his own words, here is Alex Ross's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Listen to This:

My first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was a little on the heavy side, both in terms of length (more than five hundred dense pages) and content (Hitler, Stalin, and Joe McCarthy are major supporting characters). Listen to This, a collection of essays on classical, popular, and unpopular music, is lighter, broader, more freewheeling. Bach, Björk, Sinatra, Schubert, Sonic Youth, Verdi, Dylan, Radiohead, Kiki and Herb, Cecil Taylor, and a dozen others pop up at one point or another. A full playlist for the book might have strained the Largehearted server. I've pared it down to a handful of works and songs that sustain the principal theme—the interconnectedness of far-flung musical realms. Although most of the writing is drawn from work published in The New Yorker over the past sixteen years, I reworked the old pieces, sometimes extensively, in an effort to tell a fairly personal story about how music shape a life. In the preface, I say that I approach music "not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world."

1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, "Eroica"

As I confess in the first chapter, I grew up a full-on classical geek. Until the age of twenty, I paid no serious attention to anything that fell outside the classical tradition. This made me crazily popular in high school, as you can imagine. Yet I didn't feel I was living in a prison. A tradition that stretches from the mystic chant of Hildegard von Bingen to the mythic operas of Richard Wagner and on to Stravinsky's primitivist stomp of early Stravinsky, John Cage's noise collages, and Steve Reich's electric-cool pattern music has no perceivable limits. Beethoven was the first music I fanatically loved: it is, above all, physical music, a ragingly strong personality coalescing into sound. At the same time, Beethoven became classical music's curse; under his gravitational pull, the repertory tilted from the present to the past.

2. Pere Ubu, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"

In my sophomore year of college I did a radio show called the Twentieth-Century Symphony, which ended at 10PM. The punk-rock DJs came on right after, and at first I flinched away from them. I soon realized, though, that their passion for music equaled mine. And I understood that the values I associated with classical music—difficulty, intensity, resistance to the mass—were not unique to it. My friend Paula urged me to buy Pere Ubu's Terminal Tower compilation, and it changed my world as much as anything I've heard: this rough, exacting music dismantled my bad assumptions in about an hour. When I write on classical music, I always hope to return the favor, foregrounding the piece that will destroy someone else's preconceptions.

3. Radiohead, "Everything in Its Right Place"

Writing about non-classical music has never come easily to me. I feel ill-informed, uncool, an interloper from the wrong side of the tracks. Radiohead attracted me because they, too, are perennial outsiders, and because they have such an intense connection with twentieth-century classical composers. Still, the usual difficulties surfaced. En masse, the band makes for an unusually intimidating cadre of whip-smart Englishmen. At a certain point, I decided to ignore the mundane frustrations of the reporting process and write with a detached, I-am-a-camera eye. In 7500 words, I never used the first person. It turned out to be a journalistic breakthrough for me—I understood the value of receding into the background, of observing your subject with maximum attention, of writing everything down. Profiles became less arduous after that: Björk was a joy.

4. John Luther Adams, Dark Waves

Confusingly, there are two significant American composers named John Adams. One, the creator of the brilliant political operas Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, lives in Berkeley, California; you've probably heard of him. The other, the composer of Earth and the Great Weather and Strange and Sacred Noise, lives in Fairbanks, Alaska; him you may not know. He is a gaunt, low-voiced, Clint Eastwood-ish man who specializes in wide-open, gradually shifting landscapes of sound; Dark Waves, which you can hear at my website (see the Chapter 10 audio page), is a prime example. I went to Alaska in the spring of 2008, just before the Palin insanity hit, and I came away a little thunderstruck by the purity of Adams's work and life: decades after the notion of the solitary, questing American spirit had seemingly died away into cliché, here was a guy un-self-consciously fulfilling it. His is the real Alaska.

5. Bob Dylan, "Simple Twist of Fate"

The key to Dylan's spooky power is his allusiveness: at every turn, he generates associations in the receptive mind, most of which he probably neither intended nor desired. The songs are like a huge, sticky web whose governing spider never deigns to move. When I listen to "Simple Twist of Fate," I hear the grave, stepwise bass line, an entity that has been gliding darkly through Western music for hundreds of years. Its most famous appearance is in Dido's Lament, in Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. There, the doomed Queen of Carthage sings, "Remember me, but ah! forget my fate." Is it merely a coincidence that Dylan, in his chromatic-bass song, speaks of a woman who "forgot about a simple twist of fate"? The answer to that question doesn't matter; the songs, with their potent mix of the primeval-simple and the urbane-complex, create an endless succession of contradictory truths.

Alex Ross and Listen to This links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
audio guide to the book

Christian Science Monitor review
Details review
Time review

The Morning News interview with the author
New York Times essay by the author
New Yorker essays by the author
San Francisco Classical Voice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

submit to reddit