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.

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