Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Listen to This by Alex Ross

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library, but I would love to own it.

Alex Ross’ first book, The Rest is Noise, is, hands down, the best book I have ever read on Twentieth Century classical music. Even though I have played semi-professionally for sixteen years, I never really grasped the connections in thought and technique that united and divided the composers of the last century. This book was revolutionary to my thought, and sparked an interest in these “modern” works. Since I was not reviewing books at the time I read it, this will have to suffice for a recommendation.

This second book by Ross is not exactly a book about a topic, but a collection of essays that occasionally intersect. With the exception of the first chapter, all of the essays were originally published in The New Yorker, although the author did revise several of them for the book. This is not a bad thing, as Ross is interesting to read about anything music related.

Ross makes an interesting confession at the beginning of the book. He was not exposed to popular music until age twenty. Up to that time, he had been steeped in classical and nothing else. (I can identify to a degree: I was a mostly classical listener during my minority, and listened to nearly nothing from my own generation.) Several of the essays give some of the author’s story as he discovers the world of music he had not known. Thus, there are interesting articles on Bjork, Radiohead, and a few others. No one else could have made an entirely apt parallel between Kurt Cobain and John Donne on the subject of suicide, but Ross makes the connection in a startling yet fitting way.

Classical music is still Ross’ first love (and mine too), and he distills the paradox of the music into an insightful thought. “The music attracts the reticent fraction of the population. It is an art of grand gestures and vast dimensions that plays to mobs of the quiet and shy.” In so many ways, music was an outlet for me as an introverted boy. I found my emotional connection in my music: I could communicate with others in a way that I never could through words.

The chapter on recorded music was also thought provoking. John Philip Sousa called them “infernal machines,” and they certainly did change the nature of music listening and performance. While many lament that the participation in the music making process is no longer an integral part of our culture, Ross also notes that recorded music allowed African American artists to break into the mainstream in a way that they never could have done without recording devices.

I would also note that the chapters on Verdi and Brahms were excellent and enlightening in many ways, whether for the seasoned musician or for the casual fan.

I also enjoyed the chapter on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s former music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. These days, Gustavo Dudamel is all the rage. He is young, charismatic, and talented. Salonen never really received the publicity. Ross is able to draw out his personality and make him seem more human and revolutionary in his own way. As an introvert myself, I loved the adage that Salonen, a Finn, was apt to quote: “A Finnish introvert looks at his own shoes, while a Finnish extrovert looks at other people’s shoes.”

Another observation that struck me is found in the epic chapter on the Chacona (which I will discuss further). The battle between the old and the new in sacred music is timeless. Some would have you believe that all was well until Rock and Roll burst onto the scene, and that prior to that was an era of harmony and concord when all agreed on good taste and “godly” music. Not so. From the dawn of recorded musical history, there have always been two fights. On the one hand, each generation has disdained the new forms and asserted that the old forms were best. On the other, there has been a tension between a concept of “exalted” music and “vulgar” music. Whether it was the question of Latin versus the vernacular, or polyphony attainable only by professionals versus popular, singable melodies; the issues have divided the church for centuries. Nay, for millenia! Again, Ross captures the issue in a pithy quote about the use of the Chaconne (a popular music form). “Dance fads such as the chaconne indicated the growing vitality of the vernacular. The Church, shaken by the challenge of the Reformation and its catchy hymns of praise, saw the need to make its messages more transparent...”

As a musician myself, I must also praise Ross for his chapter on the Marlboro chamber music festival. I have played in string quartets for more than half my life, and it is my dream (like most string players) to spend a retirement making music with a few friends. The legendary Emanuel Ax describes chamber music as a state where “no one leads and no one follows.” This is completely true about an ensemble that has attained that magical state where all hearts beat as one. Where the music takes on a life of its own. When this occurs, joy, sorrow, passion, and music become tangled up, and one emerges as from a trance, certain that one will never be the same. I feel that this is also a good representation of a truly successful marriage. No one leads, and no one follows, because the music becomes all. As in a quartet, once the focus becomes leading and following, it becomes earthbound and sodden, and the music becomes elusive.

Finally, I want to mention the extraordinary chapter entitled “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues.” There is no room to reiterate the entire chapter, and Ross does it better anyway. Suffice it to say that I would buy this book for the one chapter alone. Ross has generously posted a youtube video that introduces the concept.

This figure (essentially the notes A  G  F  E) is laced throughout classical and popular music, much like the Dies Irae, the doo-wop chord progression of G  Em  C  D, or G  D  Em  C (warning on a few lyrics not appropriate for small children.) The musical language transcends time and place, and can elevate even a mediocre song to a place of emotional resonance.

While Ross (rightfully) cites and discusses Bach’s monumental Chaconne for solo violin, which thrills and torments violinists to this day, my favorite Chaconne is one that I loved when I first heard it as a beginning violinist, the Chaconne attributed to Vitali, but probably written, at least in part, by the violinist Ferdinand David. Regardless of who wrote it, it still gives me the shivers today. Enjoy.

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