"I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name," writes Alex Ross in the opening chapter of his new book, Listen to This. "It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today . . . [the] phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype."
This collection of Ross's essays from the New Yorker, where he has been a staff critic since 1996, is a forceful argument for this music's continued relevance. Though Ross is best known for his writing on classical music, a sizeable portion of the book covers popular music, including extended essays on Björk, Radiohead, and Bob Dylan. All the pieces are smart and thoughtful, but the chapters on classical music and opera are where Ross truly shines; even the most steadfast hater of these genres could be stirred by his obvious passion. He contends with complex musical concepts without descending into hazy academic jargon; his writing is meticulous but fluid, thorough without being dense.
One of Ross's many strengths is his ability to make the famed composers of the past into compelling characters, instead of deifying them as superheroes or analyzing them as dusty historical figures. While reading Ross's previous book, The Rest is Noise, I was struck by his vivid description of the Viennese composer Alban Berg, a man who was tremendously frail with "large, sad eyes;" in Listen to This, Ross manages to make Mozart seem human. For many of us, our eyes glaze over at the mere mention of "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart." Through Ross's description, Mozart becomes a real person again: "Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, as he usually spelled his name, was a small man with a plain, pockmarked face, whose most striking feature was a pair of intense blue-gray eyes. When he was in a convivial mood, his gaze was said to be warm, even seductive."
One of the most intriguing tidbits in Listen to This is Ross's admission that he listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty, when he was introduced to punk rock at Harvard University. It makes sense that Ross's take on popular music is decidedly different from that of the average rock critic. On the Radiohead song "Airbag," Ross writes: "Jonny [Greenwood] started off with a melody that snaked along in uneven time—one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two—and swayed between A major and F major." That analysis might seem, well, a bit square, but Ross's insights into popular music are refreshing, and often revelatory. Much of the music that Ross has written about over the course of his career has been instrumental; because of this, he rarely falls into the common rock-critic trap of analyzing lyrics at the expense of talking about the music. This becomes especially clear in Ross's chapter on Bob Dylan. "In the verbal jungle of rock criticism," Ross writes, "Dylan is seldom talked about in musical terms. His work is analyzed instead as poetry, punditry, or mystification . . . [but] to hear Dylan live is to realize that he is a musician—of an eccentric and mesmerizing kind." In Ross's chapter on Radiohead, he conveys a keen musical understanding of how a Radiohead song takes shape, shedding light into an off-kilter compositional process that binds together in the end with "thunderous logic, as if an equation has been solved."
As a longtime staff critic at one of the nation's most celebrated publications, Ross enjoys a privilege of access, and a budget, not available to most journalists today. For the Radiohead piece, Ross tagged along with the band for several dates on their European tour, allowing him to record observations from an intimate dinner with the group in the hills above Bilbao. In Ross's research for his article on Dylan, he attended ten Dylan concerts, "including a six-day, six-show stretch that took three thousand miles off the life of a rental car." In a chapter on Björk, in which he spent several days with the artist on her Icelandic home turf, he tosses off enviable lines such as "On the day I was to leave Iceland, Björk decided that I should see something of Reykjavik's art scene."
Many other chapters in Listen to This are memorable, especially one on the history of the chacona, a playful dance that surfaced at the end of the 16th century, and a poignant piece on the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died in 2006. The substantive, passionate writing contained in this book is a strong argument against the ossification of "classical music." It is also an argument for the continued relevance of the critic—someone who shows why we should listen to this, and why we should care.
Geeta Dayal is a music critic based in Boston. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno (Continuum, 2009). She blogs at theoriginalsoundtrack.com.