Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alex Ross Gets Me to Listen to Beethoven

Book Reviewed: Listen to This, by Alex Ross

Last year, Alex Ross's history of 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise, was one of my favorite books of 2009. Ross is good writer, and his passion for his subject came out at every moment. I geeked out pretty hard-core over that book, chatting it up with my music-inclined friends and just generally bothering everyone I knew with stories about Shostakovich and Alban Berg. Obviously, I had to get a copy of his new book that came out this fall.

Listen to This is a collection of both original essays and pieces Ross previously wrote for The New Yorker. This time, it's about more than just atonal classical music. There's essays here on everything from Brahms to Radiohead. Overall, the book wasn't as strong as The Rest is Noise. It read a lot slower, and it wasn't quite as interesting. That's not to say that Ross has lost his touch for writing about music with the obsession of a true nerd. All that's still going on here.

As with most essay collections, some pieces are a lot better than others. Some essays I just didn't like because of the subject matter, such as the pieces on Brahms (who bores the hell out of me) and Mozart (which just rehashed a lot of info I already knew). Some pieces are just a lot of fun, like the essays about Radiohead and Bjork and the St. Lawrence Quartet. Finally, there are the "think" pieces which actually taught me a lot, particularly an essay entitled "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History," which is exactly what it sounds like.

There's a lot to love about Alex Ross and his love for music. He's a champion of classical music who hates the term "classical" as much as I do. He's a big supporter of music education and exposing different musical genres to people who wouldn't normally have the chance to hear them. He wants people to clap between movements the way they did a couple centuries ago, and he wants concertgoers and musical directors to lighten up. In other words, Ross is proposing that we change the way we experience a musical artform that most people describe as "dying." I can definitely get behind that.

As usual, the best thing about Ross's writing is the way he persuades me to listen to music I've written off too easily. This time around, he got me to listen to Beethoven's third symphony, "Eroica." I've never been a Beethoven person, but that might change. I checked out a recording of "Eroica" from the library, and I really liked it. Up next: an experiment in listening to Schubert.

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