Alex Ross, Listen to This

The Author Events director at the Free Library of Philadelphia asked me if I would introduce Alex Ross, who was coming here on Tuesday night, October 26th, to talk about his newest book, Listen to This. I was happy to accept, since I enjoyed introducing Ross and John Adams in the same venue two years ago. Plus it made me read the book right away.

I’m glad I did. Hearing Alex Ross talk is as congenial an experience as reading his words. He is as smart and unassuming in person as he is on the page. “Unassuming” may not be the right word… can I go wrong in just calling him humble? Humility is an overlooked virtue in our age of celebrity, but, well, of course it’s overlooked. Anyway, here’s what I said to introduce him:

It seems that I’ve come to Alex Ross’s love of the whole world of music—that is, pop and classical—from the opposite direction. He knew only classical music up until his college years, he writes in his new book Listen to This, when he discovered pop music of various sorts. For me, other than the hymns and liturgy of my church, the mostly middlebrow choir literature of school, and the occasional Hallelujah Chorus or Randall Thompson Alleluia, my upbringing was an immersion in the commercial top-40 of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Alex Ross wanted to become a composer, and then he discovered the writing of words. I wanted to be Harold Hill in The Music Man, or sing backup for the Delfonics, and then I discovered Brahms. Well, Ross is writing now, and I’m composing, and he probably wouldn’t be tempted by my music to try his hand at composition, as Brahms pulled me in, but do I love how Alex Ross puts words on the page.

For instance, is there a better short overview of the entire life and works of Mozart than what we find in Listen to This? It includes this luscious description that will not leave my mind: “Counterpoint and dissonance are the cables on which Mozart’s bridges to paradise hang.” Or is there a better short history of the entirety of Western music than what Ross illuminates, using the lament motive as his searchlight?

There’s a moment, when he describes what is “most precious” in the music of Björk, that, for me, sums up the entire book, and that tension between classical and pop that I still feel: “Music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music.” It’s what I’ve always thought, but I wish I’d thought of that clearly.

For Alex Ross’s writing is not the kind of writing that pummels you with erudition. He is that smart, but he doesn’t make you feel like you are that dumb. It’s not the kind of writing that calls attention to itself, either. Here’s what he says about Frank Sinatra:

“The voice was veering in the opposite direction from the legend: Sinatra was a lean young man who grew wealthy and stout, but it’s his younger voice that sounds plump and it’s his older voice that sounds thin and hungry.”

That’s an amazing sentence with a lot going on, made all the more remarkable because there are no remarkable words in it. Oh, stout and plump are paralleled and a bit out of the way, but if I had a year to think of one word to describe Sinatra’s young voice, I’d never come up with plump. But isn’t it so right?

This kind of writing comes from a steady focus on the subject, but even so, there’s something else going on here. This kind of writing comes from reaching deep into one’s own self, to find that nugget of truth, no matter how difficult it is to find, that, upon revealing, is obvious to all.

This is magnificent writing. Listen to this. Ladies and gentlemen, Alex Ross.

Here is the podcast of the evening (skip to 4:40 to avoid listening to my intro), which is indeed his look at the chaconne and lament throughout music history. There’s a question and answer period at the end.

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