Listen to This
by Alex Ross
366 pages
Fourth Estate 978-0-00-731906-0  

Music critic Alex Ross writes for The New Yorker, a popular highbrow magazine in the United States. For some 15 years, he has been the magazine’s classical (well, not entirely) music critic, and has written a previous book, The Rest is Noise, a history of 20th century music. His latest book is not a narrative like the first one, but rather a collection of columns from The New Yorker, revised for book publication, together with some new essays.
Ross refuses to be locked into classical music - which he would prefer be called “the music” - and the book “offers a panoramic view of the musical scene, from Bach to Björk and beyond.” Ross is an excellent writer, and has encyclopaedic knowledge of music. Interestingly, he grew up listening only to classical music, and only discovered other genres when in college; his first non-classical purchases were punk rock, notably Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. But he has caught up on those missed years, and, in addition to a number of essays about classical music, also writes about Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Björk and others.
Ross seems to love music for the sheer pleasure of it, and writes, at one point, about listening, over a period of three months to all of Mozart’s works in the 180-disc Philips edition. He discusses Brahms, Mozart and Schubert, but also gives some in vivo reports on the Marlboro Music festival, looks at music education, takes a road trip with the St. Lawrence Quartet, and attends ten Bob Dylan concerts to try to understand the latest iteration of this great performer. He’s a hands-on type of writer, combining criticism and reporting, and his articles are open to the world, not closed to the uninitiated.
This is a hugely entertaining book; there is no music theory here, but rather a look at music from the eyes - or ears - of the common listener. While the printed word cannot express music, Ross has two ways to go beyond print. First, the audio-book version, read by the author, contains some thirty musical extracts, something impossible to include in the book. And, his web site features a plethora of audio samples for readers to check out (, as well as photos, videos and more.
Ross proves, through this book, and through his New Yorker articles, just how vast music can be. He is a fine advocate for the view that one should not limit one’s listening to just a single genre (if “classical” could indeed be reduced to a genre), and should explore the variegated types of music that are around us. If anything, the lesson from this book is that all music can be interesting if you just open your ears.
Kirk McElhearn 

A fresh voice that writes about all kinds of music, including classical music.