As is frequently the case with dollar store books, I didn't have much of an expectation of what this was going to be like, and it wasn't exactly how I was imagining it. Listen To This was written by Alex Ross, who has been the music critic for The New Yorker for the past 20 years, and had come to them from a similar position with the New York Times, which are pretty impressive credentials (albeit ones that hadn't gotten him on my radar previous to reading the book). This is primarily a collection of pieces written for The New Yorker from 1997 through 2008 (the book came out in 2010), but his notes indicate that most of the 19 chapters are “based” on those articles, but are expanded and edited here, so it's not just a “best of” collection of his magazine work.
Aside from being a look at various musical subjects, there doesn't seem to much of a “theme” here, Ross doesn't seem to have a particular axe to grind, nor does he press any specific style. Instead, this reads like a collection of individual explorations into a wide range of topics. Of course, this makes it a bit of a challenge to whip up a review that gives attention to everything in here … but I'll try to give you a good sense of it.
The first chapter starts out with a look at the author's relationship with music. It's a bit of a shocker to hear from somebody born as recently as 1968 that: “I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty.” (especially as I started my own rock record collection at age 6). He continues his self-confession with: “By high school a terrible truth had dawned: I was the only person my age who liked this stuff.”, and adds a cringe-worthy note that following having been dragged off to see Pink Floyd's The Wall movie, his one take-away seemed to be “that one passage sounded Mahlerian”. His baptism into rock came in college when he would hang out at the school's radio station, with a bunch of “cerebral punk rockers”, who introduced him to Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. He uses this personal story line as a basis of taking a historical look at what was popular in music in different times, and uses that to reflect on the place of classical music in today's culture.
From there he moves into a piece called “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History” which starts in 16th century Spain with “the chacona, a sexily swirling dance that hypnotized all who heard it”, moves back to the middle ages, and the evolution of musical expressions of melancholy and “laments”. This is the first place where the author starts to lose me, as I'm technically fairly musically illiterate, and he picks apart the music in terms and contexts that I just don't have any way to follow. He does, however track these elements into the blues, and ultimately into modern popular music, from the Mary Poppins soundtrack to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and many others on the way to Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused … yes, really.
He next has a look at music recording, which he argues changed music from its earliest use. The famed John Philip Sousa is quoted as testifying before Congress in 1906 that “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country” (in that nobody will make their own music if they can just play a recording), and the author traces out the changes in how orchestras perform, with various national styles on particular instruments falling away to the one most amenable to the recording technology of the day.
This is followed by an interesting look at Mozart, both personally, and his musical development. The next chapter (somewhat jarringly) moves into a piece about the band Radiohead, and the book then subsequently shifts to a discussion of the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and other institutions. From here it shifts back to another classic name, this time Schubert, and then again to a modern act in Björk. At this point the author shifts to a wider stage, and considers classical music in China, particularly as seen around the time of the Beijing Olympics, which he appears to have been covering. He stays on the road in the next chapter, and visits Alaska and idiosyncratic composer John Luther Adams who tries to live “outside culture” in that huge state's sparsely-populated interior. Next it's back to a familiar name, with the life, music, and the performance/recording history of Giuseppe Verdi, including reminiscences of where Ross had heard performances of his music (from New York's Central park to Genoa, Italy). Although the book is not broken into one of its sections here, the next piece, about the St. Lawrence Quartet, seems to close out this part of the book, as the next chapters seem to have a bit different tone.
The shift happens (for me, at least) when he gets to the “Edges of Pop”, where he covers a disparate group of acts, from drag-themed Kiki and Herb, to jazz figure Cecil Taylor being compared with Sonic Youth, a brief nod to Frank Sinatra, and then into a look at Kurt Cobain … quite a mix for one chapter. This then shifts to a chapter on the sorry state of musical education in the U.S., and those who are trying to fix what can be fixed given the low priority the Arts have in that sphere in recent decades. Speaking of musical education, I don't believe I'd ever heard of the next subject, described as “The Voice of the Century”, Marian Anderson, whose defining moment seems to have been a 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – a venue arranged by Eleanor Roosevelt after the DAR wouldn't let a black woman perform at Constitution Hall (this episode also plays a significant role in part of another book that I'm currently reading). This is followed by what seemed to be a rather odd look at a summer gathering in Vermont called Marlboro Music (held at the tiny college of the same name – which comes from the local town, not the cigarette brand), and its director Mitsuko Uchida … this is a retreat that is much sought after, with a tiny fraction of those applying getting accepted to attend.
I'm not clear on why the book's three sections are set up the way they are, but the last three chapters are in the third part of the book. The first of these is the author following Bob Dylan to various performances, from big downtown arenas to rural agricultural fairs, and considering the strange journey that Dylan's been on. Next is a brief chapter on the opera singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, which, while interesting in its details sort of missed me in terms of having a point. Finally, the book goes back to a classical composer, in this case Brahms … not exactly a “big finish” for the book.
One useful (and still active) aspect to Listen To This is the companion site with pictures, videos, audio files and other add-ons that I wish I'd have encountered when actually reading through this (I was frequently looking things referenced in the text up via YouTube on my phone), the URL is here if you want to check that out. This is one of the best companion sites I've encountered, and I highly recommend using it in conjunction with the book as you go through it (although it's pretty informative in and of itself – kudos to whoever developed that, if not the author!).
While the hardcover of this appears to be out of print (new copies can be had for under $5 via the new/used guys), the paperback is still available, so should be something you could get from your local brick & mortar book vendor. While it's not exactly “my thing”, the subjects of Ross' pieces were varied enough that it kept being interesting, and there's plenty there to recommend it just on a “learning stuff I didn't know” basis.