Whether writing about Mozart or Björk, punk rock or opera, Alex Ross urges readers to search for the moments when the familiar becomes strange.
In his new collection of essays, Listen to This, Alex Ross writes about the type of person I was five years ago. I was what the crusaders for classical music call a “culturally aware non-attender.” I talked about Virginia Woolf as if she were my girlfriend. Björk made me swoon. I nearly wept at my first Radiohead concert. I could kill the mood with a discussion about the mise-en-scène in European art films. But if you asked me about Gustav Mahler, I would roll my eyes. Classical music smelled of mothballs and elitism—why attend a performance with a bunch of folks who wear tweed and love early-bird specials?
Ross uses the techniques of memoir, journalism, and criticism to remind us that music is music. He profiles subjects such as Björk, Bob Dylan, and Radiohead, and reexamines the work of Verdi, Brahms, Mozart, and Schubert. There are also histories of music recordings and, in one of the collection’s best essays, a genealogy of the lamenting bass line of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” that goes back four centuries. Whether the music is classical or popular, Ross urges us to search for the moments when the familiar becomes strange.
In the title essay, Ross describes his evolution as a music lover. He grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, but at heart he was a child of the 1930s and 1940s, the decades when classical music was at its middlebrow peak. Instead of Pink Floyd and Dylan, he listened to Mahler and Beethoven. The formative album of his musical life was not Dark Side of the Moon or Blood on the Tracks; it was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The music begins in the key of E-flat but, ten seconds in, a C-sharp “waylays” the main theme. Leonard Bernstein described the moment as “stab of intrusive otherness.” To a modern listener the note is not, as Ross admits, the shock it once was; on first listen you won’t clutch your chest and spill your wine on the carpet. But that brief and elusive C-sharp goes to the heart of Ross’s pursuit as a critic: He is always looking to relive that moment of surprise.
Those moments are most evident in his essays about “popular” music. When Björk was recording her album Medúlla, Ross visited the singer in Reykjavik and Salvador and New York. He gives us an overview of her career, but as he searches for the signposts that lead to her otherness the essay grows lyrical; it’s no surprise that his search leads to classical music. He settles on her untrained voice, which he compares to that of Maria Callas, the famous opera singer. Björk, like Callas, has the uncanny ability to combine “precision of pitch with force of feeling.” Her uniqueness lies in her voice’s flexibility. At its extremes, it can evoke the purity of a choirboy and the growl of a lion. Björk is an exceptional singer who can convey a variety of emotions in a single breath, but it’s the slight imperfection of her voice—the trembling ‘rrrrrrrr’—that makes hearts thump.
Ross’s approach is all the more refreshing because so many writers have a tendency to lead discussions away from the music. Mozart, for example, has fallen victim to psychology, with scholars, biographers, and musicologists long arguing about the composer’s personality and its effect on his music. Does it really matter if Mozart was a genius or an outcast, a punk, a hooligan, or a tortured soul? In an effort to move beyond the myths, Ross spent three months listening to Mozart. As a result, the music becomes a “storm of style” in which comedy and tragedy, happiness and despair, and the sacred and the profane, coexist as one.
The Mozart essay shows how Ross’s obligations as a journalist strengthen his skills as an essayist. Unlike, say, a scholar who traces the use of E-flat throughout Mozart’s oeuvre, Ross, a staff writer for The New Yorker, blends in info about the composer’s background and biography, in that way appealing to both the novice and the expert. He summarizes and synthesizes information, as any journalist does, always veering from the general to the specific—and ending at the music.
And he’s at his best when he ventures into memoir and expresses what other critics choose to avoid. Music is emotional, and so too is criticism. In an essay about the evolution of recorded music and its impact on performance, he ends with an impassioned list of both live and recorded music that had an emotional impact on him. From the 400 singers in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony to the six musicians who played in a church under an Austrian twilight, to his LPs of Beethoven’s Eroica and Mahler’s Sixth, music is Ross’s autobiography.
Listen to This, as implied by its title, is a declaration. Its goal is to collapse the distinctions between the old and the new. Ross is an evangelist for serious music that stirs the emotions in strange ways. He shows that respect for the past can increase enthusiasm for the present. An appreciation for Messiaen or Stravinsky can enhance your understanding of Radiohead. A love of Maria Callas can increase your adoration of Björk. Music isn’t an either/or game, and music criticism should move beyond categories and classifications to focus on the moments when sameness gives way to otherness.