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‘Listen to This’ makes sweet music

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

January 28, 2011

While reading a chapter on Johannes Brahms in “Listen to This,” the latest book from music critic and “New Yorker” writer Alex Ross, I realized a key difference between so-called “classical” and “popular” music—namely, that you can’t really write about pop music. Sure, you can deconstruct lyrics, examine musical elements, and endlessly examine and analyze the lives of its performers, but you’ll never really capture the essence of a pop song. The simplicity of structure that defines the genre condemns it to skeletal prose description.

I’m not saying that the whole practice of music reviewing is pointless; I’ve spent hours reading reviews and have written a few myself. But at a certain point, the reviewer is forced to throw up his hands and admit to a certain indefinable quality that a song either does or doesn’t have and that his readers either will or won’t hear. Of all the words I’ve ever read about Bob Dylan (and that’s no small amount), none have come close to describing what makes “Like a Rolling Stone” so incredible. It elicits a unique emotional response that only music provides and, if another listener doesn’t have the same reaction, there’s little I could say to convince her of its genius.

Classical music is different, however, particularly in the hands of its most skilled composers. Its complex forms allow entire stories to unfold in minute detail, needing no words to be highly descriptive. Ross’ greatest gift as an author is decoding these narratives and sharing them in evocative ways and I felt that I could understand and appreciate works that I’d never heard. In Brahms’ Second Symphony, he sees the composer “shoot a ray of darkness into a world of light” before “whirling away in a fast diminuendo, like a group of revelers vanishing down an empty street;” in the First Piano Concerto, chords are found “tumbling head over heels.” Of course, classical music can provide the same extra “something” as the Dylan song; still, words can penetrate much more deeply for the symphony.

Ross wouldn’t bother agreeing or disagreeing with this premise; I feel he’s much more likely to simply reject the initial premise that “classical” and “popular” music should even be discussed as separate entities. The very first sentence of the book reads, “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name,” which Ross considers a symptom of “a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority.” His musical tastes know no bounds and the subjects of his chapters range from Franz Schubert to Kurt Cobain. He prefers to look at all music as a continuum, remarking in a section on Sonic Youth and Cecil Taylor that “practitioners of free jazz, underground rock, and avant-garde classical are, in fact, closer to one another than they are to their less radical colleagues.”

I agree with Ross on this point and I believe a term like “classical music” should only be used with the understanding that it’s a convenient shorthand, better for describing musical characteristics than for a bounded repertory of music. Nevertheless, I acknowledge it as a useful phrase for establishing meaningful distinctions; on the whole, I’d say my favorite chapters of “Listen to This” are those dedicated to classical composers, largely because of his aforementioned descriptive facility.

When writing about musicians on the “popular” end of the spectrum, Ross shifts his storytelling to biography. The finest of these chapters is his study of Dylan, but Radiohead and Björk also receive in-depth profiles. I enjoyed these sections of the book very much, but they come off as more generic—he doesn’t say too much about the artists that I hadn’t already read, even if he says it with more style than most authors.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking chapters are about music as a cultural phenomenon. Ross explores the burgeoning classical music scene in China, warns about the crisis in modern American music education and visits Marlboro Music, a summer retreat that attracts the most brilliant orchestra performers in the world. His abiding faith in classical music as a relevant and evolving art form leads him to follow it to all corners of the world, from the halls of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the small towns where touring quartets eke out modest livings. He doesn’t hesitate to single out institutions or mentalities that he feels diminish the music’s potential as a cultural touchstone, proving himself as deft a social critic as he is a music critic.

Ross’ previous book, “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” set a difficult precedent for him to follow and mere regression to the mean predicts that “Listen to This” won’t match the armful of awards that the prior work received. It will be a joy, however, to any ardent music fan looking to expand the boundaries of his taste and Ross’ compelling prose should guarantee it a spot as one of the best books of 2010.

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