The New Yorker's music critic Alex Ross's literary offering
3/5 Farrar, Straus and Giroux ‘I hate “classical music”, Alex Ross opens provocatively in his latest opus, Listen to This. ‘Not the thing but the name.’ It’s a grumble heard among musicians, but to witness The New Yorker’s music critic shout it out loud is an exhilarating validation.
In the first and arguably most compelling chapter, ‘Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop,’ Ross reminds readers that, prior to the 1800s, classical concerts were often boisterous affairs, bearing little resemblance to the hallowed, sober atmospheres encouraged in many concert halls today. Ross traces his trajectory of disillusion through performers’ disinterested faces, concertgoers’ cringing at his choice of jeans, and the glares brought on by his enthusiastic clapping. ‘It’s like mass anal retention,’ he jokes.
For all the criticisms of elitism, Listen to This reads primarily as a love letter to sound, much like his incomparable tome on 20th-century music, 2007’s The Rest Is Noise. With all but one plucked from his New Yorker oeuvre, Ross’s essays follow ‘anti-maestro’ Esa-Pekka Salonen through his remarkable shaping of the LA Symphony, an unexpectedly responsive Radiohead and virtuoso pianist Mitsuko Uchida.
Even at his most cerebral – an essay tracking the history of music through its bass lines (‘Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues’) – Ross deftly draws in the ears of the seasoned and the uninitiated alike, demystifying the traditions of music while celebrating its ability to transform. With an online audio companion containing examples of the music explored within, Listen to This is undeniably essential.