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Book Review

Listen to This

Listen to This by Ross
Alex Ross
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
366 pages
ISBN-10: 0374187746
ISBN-13: 978-0374187743
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This collection of essays, nearly all reprinted or based on New Yorker articles, could not be much more unlike Ross' previous book, The Rest is Silence: Listening to the Twentieth Century – except perhaps for the titles. The earlier volume is an impersonal, scholarly, sustained historical account of music in the last century. In Listen to This Ross speaks very much from the first person.

Ross grew up loving classical music and this is still his primary musical orientation. However, here he is making an effort also to come to terms with rock, jazz, pop and folk strains, particularly in his opening chapter, and in essays on Radiohead, Björk, and Bob Dylan, as well as a chapter called "Edges of Pop: Kiki and Herb, Cecil Taylor and Sonic Youth, Sinatra, Kurt Cobain. This amounts to five chapters out of nineteen. Ross demonstrates his musical training in analyzing works of various styles. I was interested in his account of Björk, even though I don't know her music, but felt challenged when Ross said of Esa-Pekka Salonen that "like most thinking people, he admires Björk…" Ross not only admires her, he spent a lot of time at her recording sessions and following her to distant venues – like South America. He makes some helpful recommendations regarding her very different recordings. I was also interested in his account of Dylan's lengthy career, having spent a lot of time when young listening to "Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

Classical singers whom Ross admires intensely were Marian Anderson and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, so much that he persuaded me to order a couple of the latter's recordings. Classical musicians he spent a lot of time in the company of included the Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, who uses his middle name for obvious reasons; members of the St. Lawrence Quartet; and the Providence String Quartet, which is heavily involved with community musical education.

Mainstream classical composers whom Ross writes essays about are – perhaps surprisingly – Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and Verdi. He spent several months listening to the entire oeuvre of Mozart, on the 1991 Philips complete edition – sometimes while on the subway on earphones. Ross really works hard at what he does! He devotes particular attention to Don Giovanni and he notes that a performance of this opera spurred Goethe on to work at his Faust. With Schubert, as with Mozart, he notes the many inadequate views of what these men were like. Although Schubert wrote more individual compositions than any other composer, accurate facts of his life are difficult to pin down. Brahms ends the collection, with an essay called "Blessed are the Sad." "Brahms is a complicated proposition" Ross says. His music has academic interest. (A particularly interesting thing is Ross' discussion of Brahms rhythms.) "At the same time, he is an intensely personal, even confessional artist."

Other essays focus on: "The Anti-Maestro: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic"; classical music in China; and, in a chapter I found particularly interesting, the Marlborough retreat and its co-director Mitsuko Uchida.

Ross includes a final section on suggested listening arranged by each of his chapters. There is a good index. His book makes a good read and is quite informative about the topics he covers.

Copyright © 2010, R. James Tobin