listen to this

My husband gave me Alex Ross‘s Listen to This for my birthday in 2010 and I did start reading it then… only to put it down for over a year and a half. <shameface> However! Last month I was craving some music reading and started over with Listen to This. As a musician and music critic myself, I have admired Alex Ross and his work since I first read The Rest is Noise in 2008.

Listen to This is a collection of essays originally published in The New Yorker, for which Ross is the music critic. The essays range broadly across centuries, from the classical to pop genres, from investigative reporting to academic criticism, and with some artist profiles thrown in for good measure.

Ross’s enthusiasm for his subject matter is undeniably apparent and makes even the topics you are less interested in highly readable. His lively conversational style and accessible language helps bring lofty classical analysis down to earth for the non-trained music lover. (Although, there is very little in way of technical analysis in the book.) He is informative without lecturing. Any social commentaries in the book are more plainly stated, staying away from becoming preachy diatribes. Because of the non-chronological and unrelated arrangement of essays, I ended up reading about a chapter a day, on average. It was easier for me to absorb each topic more fully that way—giving the information a chance to settle before moving onto the next topic.

My favorite chapters were those about Esa-Pekka Salonen, Schubert, the St. Lawrence Quartet, “The Crisis in Music Education,” the Marlboro Music School and Festival, and Bob Dylan. (I have the hardcover edition, so I am a little bummed to learn I missed a John Cage chapter added later in the paperbacks! Grr!)

I am hesitant to declare either Listen to This or The Rest is Noise the “better” book, necessarily. They are just too different, with Noise being very specific to twentieth-century music and composers, and Listen more wide-ranging and non-linear. What I like about Listen to This in particular is Ross’s ability to make it feel okay to like any and all types of music, that each musician and genre has its merits equal and important to our cultures and societies, no matter how opposing in style, traditional or experimental, old or new.

Read from September 8 to October 21, 2012.

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