Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review - Listen To This by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate 2010)

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross won the Guardian First Book prize in 2008 and a National Book Critic's Circle award, which was a remarkable achievement given that his subject matter was the forbidding realm of 20th Century classical music. And this wasn't just Elgar and Sibelius and Shostakovich's more tuneful bits, but an uncompromising exploration of the 12-tone revolution through Schoenberg, Berg and Webern through Boulez and Messiaen to Ligeti and beyond. Elgar never even got a mention. Yet Ross writes like an angel, as befits the music critic of the New Yorker, and the stories of the the composers themselves and the works they created were always fascinating, and there can be no higher recommendation than the fact that he persuaded me to listen and appreciate (if not always enjoy) some very daunting and difficult 20th Century classical music.

His new book is less ambitious. It is largely a collection of essays from the New Yorker covering all aspects of music - mainly classical, but also rock, folk and blues. The spacious New Yorker format is ideal for detailed explorations of subjects ranging from Brahms to Bjork, allowing Ross the scope to range backwards and forwards across the history of his subject.

His standard formula is in many ways symphonic. To take his insightful piece on Radiohead for example - he develops his theme by describing how he followed Radiohead on tour for several days, during which time he interviews the members of the band and allows their portraits to be developed. But then he looks back at the history of the band and how their music has developed, all with the keen eye of the classical critic, examining their rhythmic structures and how their typical compositions orientate around "pivot points". At various points he recapitulates his main theme of the tour, finally climaxing at a concert in Radiohead's home town of Oxford. Fans will find much more in this essay than in many back-numbers of NME.

The book is not restricted to artists. Ross writes passionately about the Marlboro Retreat, and about the fate of music education in schools. In a keynote essay at the start, he traces the development of the Spanish Dance called the Chicona, and of how it intersects with a four-note descending bass line called the Basso Lamento which can be found everywhere from Monteverdi to Led Zeppelin. He then skillfully points out in passing in his essays on Mozart, Brahms and Bob Dylan how the Basso Lamento keeps reappearing throughout musical history.

One of the particular pleasures of this book, especially for a non-musical expert like myself, is an accompanying website which has multiple clips highlighting many of the aspects that he is talking about, from the difference between a Chicona and a Passacaglia to the difference between an early cylinder and disc recording. When wanting to understand what he means by a chromatic basso lamento, there is an example from Cavalli's opera Didone. And if, having listened to a short clip, you realise that John Dowland's Lachrymae of 1600 not only has a basso lamento, but is also one of the most ravishingly beautiful pieces of music ever written, then you can always turn to Spotify to listen to the whole work.

For that is the pleasure of the book - it takes the trouble to explain but it also entertains.The pen portraits are beautifully drawn but at the heart of the book is music, and Alex Ross's enthusiasm for his subject is encapsulated in the title - Listen to This. He wants you to understand so you can go to artists like Mozart and Bob Dylan who may be familiar, or to Bjork or John Luther Adams who may be less so, and to listen and to appreciate and to enjoy. In this he has succeeded admirably.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review - Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate 2010)

Website The Millions voted Jonathan Franzen's last book, The Corrections, as Book of the Decade "by a landslide", and there are certainly few new books that I have read in the last ten years which have made such an impact on me personally. The problem for any author having had such a widely acclaimed success is how to follow it up. Jonathan Franzen has succeeded nine years on by writing a book the form of which draws on much what made "The Corrections" so memorable, but by investing it with a content which once again dissects the American family, however this time the family are liberal environmentalists in George W Bush's America.

The Corrections looked at the State of the Nation through the lives of a Mid-Western family gathering together for Christmas at the behest of the their elderly mother as their father declines through Parkinson's disease. Freedom is similar in many respects. The Bergland family live in Minnesota. They are younger than the Lamberts, their children being of college age. Needless to say, all is not well - mother Patty's behaviour is becoming more and more strained, less able to relate to idealistic liberal conservationist husband Walter. Son Joey has hooked up with the daughter of the Bergland's poor republican next-door neighbours, and is showing distressing right-wing tendencies himself.

Matters come to a head when Walter's former college room-mate, Richard Katz, now himself a priapic angst-ridden musician for whom Patty always held a flame, comes to stay. However the only person that Katz truly loves and respects is Walter, and this impacts in turn how he relates to Patty.

Franzen's great skill is his ability to dissect relationships, how human beings succeed or fail in interacting with each other. There is a compelling logic to the way in which all characters behave, no matter how extreme or how bizarre. This is coupled with an acute authoral sensibility which shines a piercing searchlight into the psyches of his characters. You cannot read a Franzen book without some painful pangs of recognition. And yet, this is not some overwrought angstfest. Franzen observes with humour and a wryness of tone. His tongue isn't quite in his cheek, but his eyebrow may be raised.

We therefore understand in detail, beautifully observed, the origins of Patty's neuroses, her relationship with her family, and how and why she felt as she did about both Walter and Katz. Structurally, a large part of the book is Patty's autobiography written at the behest of her therapist - but we also get to understand what is in the minds of Katz and Walter and the Berglund children.

In what is the only false tone in the book, Walter gives up his Minnesota conservancy job for one in Washington trying to preserve the habitat of the Cerulean Warbler through Mountaintop Removal at the behest of a dodgy Texan with links to Cheney and Mineral Extraction Rights in West Virginia. This is an excuse for some rough satire, like the Lithuanian episode in The Corrections. Franzen's jaundiced view of Capitalism neocon-style may is both funny and acute, but the satire is a sideshow once again to the impact of Walter's work on the family dynamic.
By the end of the book, the main characters' flaws have been laid bare. You sympathise deeply, despite these flaws, because you understand who they are and where they have come from and what made them what they are (needless to say, Philip Larkin was right all along). Yet this is not a work of introspection - you have been entertained throughout through simple, balanced prose and the occasional sentence to die for ("From a distance of many parsecs, he heard her start crying").
And Patty wasn't the only one - I was snivelling on the train as the book came to an end, because you really do care for what the future holds for the Berglunds. Jonathan Franzen has succeeded triumphantly - he has managed the almost impossible task of writing a book as good as The Corrections.