Fans of his work know that Alex Ross writes mainly about classical music, and Listen To This highlights some of his best writing on the genre in the last decade, including fantastic essays on Mozart, Schubert, and late-period Brahms. But he also has something for contemporary music fans, with almost equally enlightening essays on Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Bjork. His knowledge of music is deep--he grew up listening to classical instead of popular music, and took music lessons as a teenager-- and he applies the same critical musical eye to Kid A and Medulla as he does the Eroica. Indeed, Ross shows us that some of our best pop composers pay just as much attention to textures, rhythm, harmony, and melody as a composer of orchestral music would, and I saw these artists from a new angle.
In fact, this conjunction of music, crossing the border from classical to pop as he calls it, is precisely the book's strength, and possibly its greatest potential benefit. Though these essays are primarily about classical music, he writes with such a contagious zeal, with such an obvious love of music, that he shades the restrictive boundaries we've created to categorize music. He does this well in the above-mentioned pieces. But nowhere is this idea better put than in his essay, "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues", where he ties the basso lamento of the middle ages through the centuries all the way to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused". Ross gets it. He gets that music is music and any genre of it has the ability to touch anyone.
Still, his first love is classical, and nothing seems to concern him as much as the forms lack of popularity, especially the greatly underappreciated works of the twentieth century. This concern informs many of the essays. In "Listen to This", Ross outlines the history of classical music's popular decline. He blames it partially on what he calls the "sacralization" of music, a process over time that turned the proceedings of a classical music concert into an almost religious experience. The most glaring example of this snobbery, the prohibition on applauding mid-piece, even between movements, is explained. But perhaps worse than ridiculous rules of etiquette was what Ross calls the "fetishizing" of the past, the etching of the great classical composers onto a musical equivalent of Mt Rushmore, where there's no room for new faces. He argues that this prompted modern composers to write for one another, pushing the music into territory far removed from the classical repertoire and foreign to the ears of most listeners who were untrained to catch the musical `advancements' these artists were making.
I found the error of the modern composer's way neatly summarized in Ross's essay on Mozart, which is called, "The Storm of Style: Mozart's Golden Mean". Mozart's `Golden Mean' is early advice the composer's father, Leopold, gave him. Leopold told the young Wolfgang that he had to write music that would be appreciated by both connoisseurs of music as well as the general public. As enjoyably and thought-provokingly as Ross writes, I would've liked to have seen him tie the problem of modern music to this simple rule. Because as a fan of classical music who hates just about every modern orchestral piece he's ever heard, I see this as the core problem. I often read rave reviews about contemporary composers, like John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, and Osvaldo Golijov. But they're almost always written by the intelligentsia of classical music: conductors, other composers, or the classical press, people like Ross. Modern composers must make music smart AND entertaining for regular listeners. Otherwise the music will remain as distant from most of us as the lives of the great composers are. Most people can enjoy Beethoven's 5th symphony, even if they don't understand how he spends the entire symphony harmonically taking apart the famous eight-note beginning. But will the average listener appreciate Stravinsky's Rite of Spring if they don't know about or understand the rhythmic intricacies of the piece? I doubt so, in most cases. It's all about the golden mean.
Of course, many people could appreciate classical music more if they gave it the time and attention it deserves. But given the average attention span these days, perhaps the future lies in Ross's essays on pop music. Maybe Radiohead and Bjork are our modern masters. Both are inspired by the composer Olivier Messiaen, but have used his influence in a form more readily accessible in the current world culture. In the essay, "Symphony of Millions", Ross goes to China and finds music conservatories there teaching not just classical theory, but also pop-music arranging. As we may find China driving world culture in the twenty-first century, is this a sign that blended genres and shorter works will render modern orchestral compositions permanently irrelevant? (Indeed, I think some of the more successful contemporary orchestral works already do blend genres. See Golijov, for example.)
Wherever you come down on the issue, Ross's thought-provoking work is a great guide to have in the thinking process. He hits his own golden mean with his engaging and intelligent writing, which will appeal to a broad category of music-lover, not just classical fans. It's for anyone who wants to know how music works its magic, and the artists who create that magic.