Thursday, March 15, 2012

Listen to this – Alex Ross

The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross achieved notable and deserved praise for his first book ”The rest is noise: listening to the 20th Century” which successfully fused the social and political history of the 20th Century with many of the key musical changes. That is, he told the history through the music and not in parallel or as a reflection.

The book has now inspired a festival to be held throughout 2013 at London’s Southbank and other venues.

But while hardly as impactful as “The Rest is Noise”, Ross’s second book “Listen to this”, published last year,  goes perhaps further to demonstrate his understanding of music and society, the depth of his ideas and the magnificent quality of his prose,. After all, “The Rest Is Noise” is quite an “easy” book in the sense that the story of music as it intertwined with 20th Century history is inherently fascinating even to non-classical readers and has obvious mass appeal. This is not to take away Ross’s exceptional telling of the tale from inside the music, but what his second book reveals is that with a less friendly and universal story to tell, Ross still has the capacity to teach, to excite and to flow with a rare simplicity and mastery of language that is almost second to none in music criticism or general biography and history.

The structure of the book is quite loose and subjects range from classical music (the majority of the book) to more popular artists such as Radiohead, Björk and Sonic Youth. Indeed, the non-classical chapter on Bob Dylan is one of the highlights of the book and treats his subject with the perfect blend of rare insight (Ross actually listened to the music and not just the words or the stories), respect and the embarrassing awe of a fan.
Describing “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” he writes

“The first lines of “Hard Rain” – “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? / And where have you been my darling young one?” – are a nod to the ballad “Lord Randall” [a mediaeval English-Scottish ballad], which begins “Oh, where have you been Lord Randall, my son? / Oh, where you been, my handsome young man?” Dylan breaks down the call and response of the original: his blue-eyed son answers not with two lines, but with five… The song hangs on a musical trick of suspension: E and A chords seesaw hypnotically as the number of answering phrases increases from five to seven and eventually to twelve In the chorus – “And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard…” – Dylan grasps for and finally gets the resolution, which in each verse has moved a little farther out of reach.”

Ross’s strength is that he knows enough to incorporate little touches of technical speak and lyric analysis to give a telescopic closeness to the material and then suddenly pull back to give the global picture to set the scene. Describing Dylan’s mystique he quotes from several sources while adding his own interpretation:

“Greil Marcus [author of Invisible Republic/The Old, Weird America]…captures the dementia that surrounded Dylan in the mid-sixties, when two disparate youth cultures – rock-and-rollers and folkies – jockeyed for control of his supposed message while older generations struggled to comprehend what was going on. Not since Wagner has a musician been subjected to such irrational, contradictory pressures”

Ross then goes on to quote Lester Bangs from 1981:

“If people are going to dismiss or at best laugh at Dylan now as automatically as they once genuflected, then nobody is going to know if he ever makes a good album again. They’re not listening now, which just might mean they weren’t listening then either”

At least we can be assured that Ross is listening. And asking questions. One of the most interesting features of Ross’s writing is that he directly proposes doubts, he opens doors and does not enter inside. He leaves it to you to imagine or to accept that there remains mystery.

“In “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the eleven minute ballad that closes “Blonde on Blonde”, Dylan fashions majestic metaphors to capture the object of his affection – “your eyes like smoke and prayers like rhymes” – and then, in the second-to-last verse, he clouds over: “They wished you’d accept the blame for the farm.” What farm? What happened to it? Why would she be to blame for it?”

But Dylan isn’t the only interesting chapter in the book. One of the first describing the history of the Spanish Chacona is immensely fascinating, following a bass line from the 16th Century New World of Spanish conquest to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” (via Jake Holmes’s track of the same name from his 1967 album “The Above Ground Sound”).

This chapter on the Chacona was treated to its own little video explanation.

The chapter on the success of the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekker Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is particularly revealing about the prejudices of classical audiences and the struggles of institutional and governmental funding (see also a previous post  in relation to these issues and the Liceu in Barcelona). While there is also plenty of incredible insightthere and elsewhere into how recording of classical music has biased the interpretation of scores and ways of performance.

One personal curiosity is that Ross mentions several times throughout the book the work of Catalan musician Jordi Savall who has made an extensive career out of refashioning ancient music in the modern age, going to extensive lengths to recreate extinct instruments and research authentic techniques and scores to produce authenticity. The curiosity of Savall is that he was the favourite musician of my old boss and something of a joke amongst my colleagues for this reason. It was common practice for us to attend at least one of his concerts every year.

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