LISTEN TO THIS by ALEX ROSS

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LISTEN TO THIS by ALEX ROSS

One of the many funny lines in the profanity-strewn satirical film In the Loop came from the character Jamie Macdonald, the senior press officer in 10 Downing Street and the “angriest man in Scotland”.

On hearing opera he bellowed, “It's just vowels! Subsidised, foreign fucking vowels!”

The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross – author of the insightful and award-winning The Rest is Noise, a free-wheeling and gossipy survey of 20th century classical music – would doubtless enjoy the sentiment.

No purist -- although he admits to only discovering pop music when at university – Ross brings a wide-angle view to his music writing which in this collection of pieces (most expanded from New Yorker columns) roams from Mozart, the late Marian Anderson (the black contralto who voice “possessed the kind of incandescence that no machine can capture fully”) and the Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen with the L.A. Philharmonic to Bjork, Radiohead and Bob Dylan.

The Dylan piece raises excellent points (critics prefer him pre-1966 because there's an untidiness and uncategorisable quality about his subsequent career), he is excellent on Bjork's varied and intellectually challenging music but the Radiohead article originally written in 2001 feels dated.

The chapter Edges of Pop – short pieces on Frank Sinatra, jazz pianist/composer Cecil Taylor and alternative rock band Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain – is slight and he is stronger in the more deeper pieces on classical music.

He quickly dismisses the shibboleths of the classical world: if classical music is dying as so many say then people have complained it has been doing so for more than a century; he objects to the sensibilities which argues classical music is sacred and which fetishises the past (“In America, the middle classes carried the worship of the classics to a necrophiliac extreme”); and if you want to see the monied, white audience at its ease it isn't at the Metropolitan Opera. For a “Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you”.

As with the art critic Robert Hughes, Ross strides confidently between the halls of high art and the bear-pit of the populist arena in opinionated, assured and concise prose. Of Schubert's Ninth Symphony (“Schubert probably considered it his First”) he writes: “Sketched during an 1825 trip through the Austrian Alps, it seems to document the overcoming of morbidity, of all Romantic fascination with death. The force of the effect is both exhilarating and frightening . . . for all the world, it sounds like the stamping of a man reaching for the stars”.

He employs such memorable turns of phrase and imagery on Brahms, of whom he also observes, “you might argue that [he] inaugurated the age of academic music – the practice of generating works that are designed more for scholarly dissection than for popular consumption”. He is equally informative on the camp off-Broadway act Kiki and Herb, how recording changed the way we hear and consume music, and of contemporary classical composers in China. His intelligent, muscular writing makes you want to hear the music. Or rediscover it with Ross as your guide.

Sensibly then, as he did with The Rest is Noise, this often provocative and readable collection has a website with audio and video samples and links here.

If the Schubert has you reaching for the stars, Kiki and Herb (aka Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman) will have you rolling on the floor with laughter.

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