Alex Ross, Listen to This
Introducing his subjects’ human side without straining for it
It’s hard to sound as learned and erudite as Alex Ross without seeming like an elitist and a snob, but Ross is neither of those things. “The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world,” he writes in the introduction of Listen to This, a compendium of his work for The New Yorker, where he’s written primarily (but not only) about classical music since the mid ’90s.
That’s the balance of things here: Classical music is Ross’s root source, the music he immersed himself in until he turned 20 and experienced a punk rock epiphany in college radio, which he outlines entertainingly in that same intro. Ross likes the sweep of things, very much including the present, and he’s good at introducing his subjects’ human side without straining for it, as when he points to the perpetual good nature of composer John Cage, for whom upending convention was central to his art; or closely observes BjÃ¶rk at work in the studio, who begins each criticism with the words, “The one thing I’m not so crazy about…”
There’s a lot of reporting in these pieces – one reason to still love The New Yorker in these downsized times – but they also have the grace of essays, whether Ross is studying Mozart or memorializing the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. His passion for both is palpable, and so it is when he follows Bob Dylan on tour or goes deep into Radiohead’s use of chords. None of it is confusing, and all of it is illuminating.