Born in 1968, Alex Ross was not a normal teenager:
For many, pop music is the sound of raging adolescence, while the other kind chimes in during the long twilight of maturity. For me it’s the reverse. Listening to the Eroica reconnects me with a kind of childlike energy, a happy ferocity about the world.
Early on in ‘Listen to this‘ (Fourth Estate, 2010) he confesses:
I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of 20.
The first piece of music that he loved “to the point of distraction” was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. And so it continued.
By high school a terrible truth had dawned. I was the only person my age who liked this stuff.
What happened next makes for a great story:
Only in college did my musical fortress finally crumble. I spent most of my time at the campus radio station, where I had a show and helped organize the classical contingent. I fanatically patrolled the boundaries of the classical broadcasting day, refusing to surrender even 15 minutes of Chamber Music Masterworks and the like. At 10:00 p.m., the schedule switched from classical to punk, and only punk of the most recondite kind. Once a record sold more than a few hundred copies, it was kicked off the playlist. The Djs liked to start their sets with the shrillest, crudest songs in order to scandalize the classical crowd. I tried to one-up them with squalls of Xenakis. They hit back with Sinatra singing “Only the lonely.” Once they followed up my heartfelt tribute to Herbert von Karajan with Skrewdriver’s rousing neo-Nazi anthem “Prisoner of peace”: “Free Rudolf Hess / How long can they keep him there? We can only guess.” Touché.
And what is more, they were not stupid or wasters academically:
The thing about these cerebral punk rockers is that they were easily the most interesting people I had ever met […] I began hanging around in the studio after my show was over, suppressing an instinctive fear of their sticker-covered leather jackets and multi-colored hair. I informed them […] that the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg had prefigured all this. And I began listening to new things. The first two rock records I bought were Pere Ubu’s Terminal tower compilation and Sonic Youth’s Daydream nation.
Get that? The first two rock albums he bought? He worked his way back to Dylan and the Beatles. He “abandoned the notion of classical superiority” and had a crisis of faith. He even lived the punk life for a bit.
When I went back to the classical ghetto, I chose to accept its limitations. I realized that, despite the outward decrepitude of the culture, there was still a bright flame within. It occurred to me that if I could get from Brahms to Blatz, others could go the same route in the opposite direction. I have always wanted to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical. [my emphasis]
I could go on quoting favourite bits of ‘Listen to this‘ forever. It’s an exhilarating ride. He delivers. Hell, he even makes me think it might be worth giving those Radiohead chappies a listen – something I have studiously tried to avoid over the years. Bjork too. (Only if they fall into my laps, mind.) But I am going to be seeking out JS Bach’s Ciaccona in D minor (both guitar and violin treatments), Ligetti’s Hungarian rock, and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata (which anticipated boogie woogie?). Oh, and Skip James too. And the next time I go to the opera I’ll bring a lot more knowledge to the feast. But I am going to have to quote some more.
Ross prefaces this fantastic collection of essays and articles with a theoretical refutation of the not definitively attributable quote about writing about music being “like dancing about architecture.” The rest of the book more than proves the point. But to return to what he says about ‘the classical ghetto.’ He has, incidentally, been the New Yorker magazine’s classical music critic since 1996. This is how he starts the opening essay, also called ‘Listen to this’:
I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. […] The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of negative hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of “the music.” […] For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual snobbery.
He is describing with some anguish how the situation came about whereby there are now generations of people who read books, repeat quotations, go to art galleries and the serious theatre, maybe even buy classical CDs, but who are what are known in the trade as ‘culturally aware non-attenders‘ of classical music concerts, thus missing out on the physical oomph of a full orchestra in motion. (People like me I guess, though I do the odd opera). He is very funny describing the theoretical first such visit by a typical jeans wearing rock fan to such an event. “Well into the nineteenth century, concerts were eclectic hootenannies …” he says, bemoaning the seemingly compulsory silence between the movements of a classical composition even though it is obvious that the composer was going for the audience’s jugular to milk applause. “Yet I somehow find it hard to think of Beethoven’s detestation of all tyranny over the human mind when the man next to me is a dead ringer for my dentist.” Never mind that “The musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic are, on average, a generation younger than the Rolling Stones” or that “The nineteenth century masters were, most of them, egomaniacs, but they were not snobs” which is born out in the profiles of Brahms, Schubert, Mozart and Verdi that are some of the highlights of ‘Listen to this‘.
Ross’s concern is “the abiding question of what music means to its creators and its listeners on the most elemental level” and he lets us in on these realms – contemporary players, the past greats – beautifully. He bemoans the lack of exposure for living composers. As in his compelling first book, ‘The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century‘, one is excited to read of music you’ll probably never hear (and may well not particularly like when you do) but it’s a wonderful slipstream to be pulled along on. Alex Ross is a tremendous writer, obviously hugely knowledgeable but tremendously witty too, never shy of giving a contemporary nod to the past – I love, for example, someone’s work being described as “fresh musings on the latest lost generation“.
The book is in three parts. The dazzling first section is as good a set of writings about music of any kind as I’ve had the pleasure of reading. There is the first essay, drawn upon extensively above – ‘Listen to this: Crossing the border from classical to pop‘ – which is his personal testimony and historical description of how what he sees as the current situation (“the lifestyle disaster called ‘Classical Music’ “) came about. The second essay – ‘Chacona, lamento, walking blues: bass lines of music history‘ – is a dazzling (that word again) and deeply satisfying survey of musical continuities over 5 centuries: the basso lamento riff taking in on its way Dido’s Lament (‘When I am laid in earth’) by Purcell through to ‘Hit the road Jack’, Led Zep and beyond. (Can’t wait to talk about the basso lamento of ‘Waterloo sunset’ next time I talk to a fellow Kinks fan). And lastly there is the fascinating ‘Infernal machines: how recordings changed music‘ wherein he details the prophecies of doom for the future of music and musicians that have heralded each technological advance since Edison, including the problems recording perfection has brought to live performance (fear of spontaneity) and noting how the longing for a golden age (vinyl, White Stripes valve recording studio obsession et al) is to be found in popular musics too, that ultimately, “All music becomes classical music in the end“.
Section Two covers a vast array of specific people and topics, making linkages and fleshing out various themes. Section Three is devoted to three of Ross’s personal favourites: some insights on being a Dylan fan in ‘I saw the light: following Bob Dylan’ after seeing 10 concerts in the Never-ending tour in 1999, an appreciation of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’ a mezzo-soprano who died too young (‘Fervor’) and ‘Blessed are the sad’ about late Brahms.
‘Listen to this‘ – as is ‘The rest is noise‘ – is augmented and musically illustarted at Ross’s truly excellent website, ‘The rest is noise‘. You could spend an awful lot of time there.