NEW YORKER MUSIC CRITIC ALEX ROSS made a big splash with his first book The Rest Is Noise, an impressive overview of classical and modern music of the 20th century. His new book, Listen to This, is a collection of pieces originally published in The New Yorker, and its disjointed series of essays occasionally makes the book feel like a publisher's demand for obligatory follow-up product. Within the pieces themselves, though, Ross' enthusiasm is apparent, as is his technique of synthesizing historical analysis and critical interpretation. It's an intermittently great read, even if it doesn't always hold together as a whole.
Ross starts off strong denouncing the term "classical music"; he makes a worthy case for the music's continued relevance to our daily lives, despite the doddering gray-hairs that make up the modern-day classical audience. But Ross stumbles with "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues," the only essay specially written for this collection. He attempts to tie a descending bassline across different historical contexts, but his linking of a 17th century Spanish dance to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" feels labored, like an ambitious but largely irrelevant undergraduate thesis.
Ross fares better with thumbnail histories of composers like Mozart, Verdi, Schubert, and a particularly involving appraisal of Brahms. He has a knack for extracting chewy historical morsels from each artist's biography while providing clear analysis as to what makes each composer uniquely distinct. More to the point, Ross determines what makes them relevant to today's listener. He also does well with largely conservative pieces on current popular musicians—his claim that acts like Radiohead, Björk, and Bob Dylan hold artistic significance certainly isn't going to ruffle any feathers, especially those at the New Yorker office. But Ross surpasses the redundancy of these theses by examining not just their work but their attendant culture of fame. "Why have these artists struck a chord with listeners?" he asks, and finds a few good answers along the way.
Indeed, Ross' best writing has a feeling of discovery about it. Despite being a serious music critic for one of the snootiest magazines in the world, his writing never lacks the enthusiasm of a fan. Listen to This isn't going to help you discover any music you didn't already know was great, but with Ross' help, you'll hear new things in the familiar.