Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Groove Book Report: Listen to This - By Alex Ross

Originally broadcast on 3 March 2011

Listen to This - By Alex Ross (Pub. Fourth Estate) RRP $39.99

In his first book The Rest is Noise Alex Ross took on the history of Music in 20th Century. This time the premise is that music, no matter what kind, is still just 'music'. So put away your clasifications, your little baskets and board up those pidgeon holes. Music in it's own context, in it's own space is just that - Music. It livens the senses, recalls the memory, enthralls us, creates critique and narative to our lives.

Opening with his own background, Ross talks about his early dalliances with the Classical Genre and pledges his allegiance to a label he, himself, struggles to identify with. As a critic with the New Yorker it seems Ross has been thrown up against the literary wall a few times over the years and challenged to defend the psuedo-snobbery and faux-haute that surrounds classical music. A term, Ross acknowledges, looks to the past and discounts all the recent composers of the genre such as Phillip Glass. It is from this position that Ross embarks on his sprawling journey with out a map and no intention of stopping to ask directions.

Essentially "Listen..." is a collection of essays covering the question "What is Music?" from a vast array of view points. The answers come from the most unlikely set of respondents: The late Mezzo-Soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson tears out her metaphorical heart over a Bach Cantata. Bob Dylan arrives gruff and abusive to a collective of inebriated Minosotans and loose hippies. Why can't they just accept artistic directions change and go electric like him? There's a predictably nerdy piece about a Vermont based band camp for Chamber Musicians - minus any flute jokes, thank goodness. It's almost twee in it's praise of the students plaid and polyester dedication to their cause, but he's forgiven on that! Then, just to prove his hipness, Ross stands in the rain at a Radiohead gig in Oxford to check out the origins and output of the new "brainy' pop the kids are listening to these days.

All this proves what a great party guests Ross could muster the next time there's a few cocktails at his Manhattan Loft. But, intellectual pursuits aside it seems Ross has, as an essentially Classical critic, missed the boat when it comes to measuring the cultural weight that modern music has impacted upon us all. Now more, than any time music, especially those elements that could loosely affiliate with the classical genre, have found ways into every crack of our lives. From advertising to movie soundtracks to mobile phone tones, there is some kind of music invading the silence, telling us what to think, how to behave and even when to wake up. Ross does briefly look at the impact of the recording industry on how we listen to music and how we consume it. And further hints come with his experiments with an ipod shuffle, allowing Steve Jobs to randomly DJ mix "The Rites of Spring" with Louis Armstrong. But what misses is a companion essay on how it 'consumes' us.

Ross is most comfortable talking about how artists and composers borrow, steal and beg from the genres, as if we hadn't noticed this before. Yet the diversication of musical consumption in the 21st century can not be dismissed, no matter how fervently one writes about Bjork's primal associations with Callas or the adoption of atonal music into pop by The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Where is the reviews of composition for computer games, ringtones, or other digital medium? Perhaps the windows in the offices of the New Yorker are a little foggy up there in those lofty ivory heights.

Still, down on the street I can't deny this is a great cerebral work out. Ross is a literary craftsman. His turn of phrase and depth of knowledge into all his subjects makes this a pleasure to read, even if you don't come from a classical background. Entertaining, witty and overflowing with insight you will listen more closely and more widely after reading this. And that has to be a good thing.

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