Read This

Book Review

Listen to This

By Alex Ross

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 384 pp.

Published in 2007, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an engrossing and thoughtful survey of Twentieth Century music, equally useful as an introduction to neophytes and a refresher to specialists (he’s since tweaked the paperback edition to be even more comprehensive, including updated info and a “go-to” listening list). By “classical music” standards, the book was wildly successful, and Ross subsequently garnered a number of honors, including a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Its follow-up, Listen to This, doesn’t limit itself to contemporary concert music. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging survey of musical topics, including portrait essays of musicians as diverse as Radiohead, Marian Anderson, Sonic Youth, and Cecil Taylor, discussions of specific musical genres, and thought pieces on the state of music education, the record industry, and cultural consumption at home and abroad.

Ross has been a music critic on the staff at the New Yorker since 1996. While most of these essays are culled from his writings there, Listen to This never strikes one merely as a “greatest hits” compilation.  Rather, the volume is structured to tease out several overarching concerns. One of them is the working musician. In one chapter, he demystifies the grueling touring schedule of chamber musicians, pointing out that even acclaimed groups such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet have to hustle to make a living in today’s economic climate. Far from being another “death of classical music story,” Ross argues for the relevancy of these touring ensembles that, despite these challenges, bring music of a very high level of artistry to locations far and wide, many of them off of the beaten path. Another topic is globalization’s affect on postmillennial music, which is explored in a particularly fascinating travel essay detailing a concert-filled trip to China and in a jaunt to Carnival in Brazil with Björk.

While there’s no mistaking Ross’ erudition, a trait that allows specialists to prefer his writings to those of some of his journalist colleagues with less musical knowledge, Listen to This is an approachable collection. One of the ways in which it speaks to a wide audience is with an eagerness to share in what Leonard Bernstein called “The Joy of Music.” Indeed, Ross is that rare writer on music who can share his enthusiasms for an artist’s work with unabashed honesty. But even when backstage with Radiohead or following Björk through the streets of Salvador, he defuses any notions of fanboy journalism – a trend that, alarmingly, has infiltrated all too many publications of late. Instead, Ross seeks to put a human face on artistic process, detailing the origins of Björk’s eclectic musical tastes and providing a foil for the singer’s exotic costumes and playful demeanor by detailing a studio session in which, while humane, she is exacting in eliciting musical details from collaborators. There’s an emotional openness, even vulnerability, which runs through a number of these essays. His eulogy of the exquisitely talented mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is one of the most affecting yet observant tributes to this recently departed artist (rereading it was made all the more poignant by the passing in April of her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson).

The state of music education is a frequent topic of discussion of late. Ross’ essay “The Crisis of Music Education” should be required reading for policy-makers, educators, and the parents of artistically motivated children alike. As one can tell by the title, it acknowledges the beleaguered state of arts and education funding; but Ross still provides several glimmers of hope for the future. He describes the unlikely and extraordinary flowering of a music program in the inner city at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Another urban success story is detailed in Providence, Rhode Island’s Community MusicWorks, a program run by the Providence String Quartet, a group of graduates from major conservatories who prefer giving back to staking a claim for fame and fortune. Ross even gets in on the education act himself: part of his book tour for Listen to This has featured a performance/discussion of bass lines throughout music history ranging from Purcellian grounds to Delta Blues walking lines: it’s also made for a cult YouTube hit, in which Ross is joined by the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and ex-Battles composer Tyondai Braxton.

A staff position at the New Yorker provides a platform from which can wield considerable influence. Some of the essays collected here have already had undeniable impact. Ross has done a considerable amount to raise the stock of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, and his fascinating chapter on the composer’s works and working environments is another “must-read” excerpt. One wonders whether it’s mere coincidence that Providence String Quartet founder Sebastian Ruth received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. If Ross had a hand in this, more power to him: it’s nice to see a music critic on the side of the good guys!

Cyberbullying and Britten

When I planned to teach a course at Westminster Choir College about Benjamin Britten’s vocal music in the Fall, I knew that gender/sexuality studies would play a role in our evaluation of his works. But I certainly wasn’t planning to discuss something as topical and unsettling as the recent tragedy at Rutgers. Our campus is a half hour away from RU (my alma mater), and a number of students were understandably shaken by hearing about Tyler Clementi’s suicide.

The technological tools for communication may have gotten more sophisticated; but the people using them, if they act selfishly, can be in danger of disconnecting from their better impulses. Sadly, in this instance, the consequences were heartbreaking.

With Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets and his opera Peter Grimes staring up at us, we began to discuss their texts. We then pondered the connection between the poems and some biographical background: Britten and Pears’ early collaboration, their trip to America, and eventual partnership. In my initial lesson notes, I’d pointed out that theirs was a relationship that was frowned upon in many corners, and would still be illegal for more than two decades after they returned to Great Britain. I asked: what resonances to Britten’s life can be found in the poetry of Michelangelo?

My plan was to then turn to a discussion of how Britten depicts these texts and alludes to personal biography in the musical details of these songs.

But in light of cyberbullying and prejudice, the continued homophobia in American society seemed an unavoidable topic: one I didn’t want to foist on the class but certainly wasn’t going to avoid if they decided to broach it. Delicately, one of the students brought up Tyler Clementi’s suicide. I was touched by how sensitively and maturely the other students in the class responded. They thoughtfully discussed the issues surrounding this terrible event, reflecting on how it affects their future work as teachers and musicians. They also reflected on how it should serve as a wake up call for their current lives, challenging them to speak out against teen suicide and try to be compassionate friends to their peers.

They pointed out that whether it is homophobia, racism, social, financial, or academic pressures that are troubling them, many young people are under duress and in need of compassion: both community support and sometimes professional help. As we saw this week, it’s far too easy for someone to be treated with prejudice and cruelty, even today. As some of the students pointed out, among young people we sadly must say, “Especially today.”

I’ll remember many of the comments made by the students on Friday. Although, to respect their privacy, I won’t share their more personal observations, there was one comment that brought us back to the music in eloquent fashion. It was the suggestion that Britten, indeed through the works we were studying that very day in class, could teach us a great deal about prejudice.

“What Britten sought, throughout his life, to portray in his music, was that if you treat someone like an outsider, we all suffer as a society: none of us can grow.”

Although we didn’t have time to find all of the musical intricacies in the songs, I’m very grateful for that lesson.

“Academic Music” – What’s that?

Over at the Composer Forum, there’s been a discussion of the ‘pressures’ placed on composers to ‘toe the line’ stylistically in academia. Along the way, a couple of posters have raised the issue of ‘composing for the academy’ and, even more alarmingly, the idea that a teaching position is an easy career destination for composers. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the posts, but I think that the aforementioned opinions may be hopelessly chimerical.


As always, my compadre Ken Ueno has a ready retort in the form of a creative work. He sent me a video this AM:

His notion of academic music: music that takes place in the classroom! (great activity, BTW)

Let’s unpack this further. Here are a few composers who currently have academic careers:

William Duckworth
Kyle Gann
Jennifer Higdon
John Corigliano
Brian Ferneyhough
Bright Sheng
Judith Shatin

Pretty stylistically diverse, huh? Based on the above, it’s hard to assert that one can generalize ‘academic music.’ The lesson I take from this is to compose what you want to compose. Life’s too short for any other, less authentic, approach.


However, in terms of getting teaching work, there are a LOT of other things a composer must be doing in addition to composing persuasively. Publishing in a scholarly area (theory or musicology), conducting or otherwise performing, distributing your music and obtaining performances, winning grants/commissions/competitions, service to the profession and to your local community, belonging to a scholarly organization and attending/presenting at its conferences, developing a network of musicians – peers and mentors – with whom to discuss and develop your career goals, maintaining an excellent job packet, keeping your references in the loop about your activities, and, of course, working to become an outstanding teacher.

Once you get a job, you’ll need to do all of this and still more: committee work, student advisement, applying for promotion and (if your institution has a tenure process) tenure, and attending plenty of meetings, trainings, campus events, student recitals, and concerts. If you’re in my situation, that of a contingent faculty member, you’ll also need to remain on the job market until someone offers you a long term position. All the while, you will need to find time to compose!

I say this not as a complaint – I love having the opportunity to teach at my institution – but as a bit of a reality check about the requirements of the profession. The notion that being an academic is some cushy gig and an easy way out for those who don’t write film music or pop would be laughable – there are often hundreds of applicants for an announced vacancy in theory/composition – if it weren’t so pervasive.

Emerging composers need to be encouraged to find the career path that’s right for them, based on their own particular set of talents and their professional goals. What they don’t need are sugar-coated stories that suggest to them that finding employment as a teacher is a “safety net.” It does them no good and the academic profession no favors.

Particularly in these lean economic times, teaching isn’t a refuge for composers. It is a career and calling to which one should be strongly committed.


Update: Attention job-seekers – David Rakowski’s blog has an article with excellent advice for composers who are seeking an academic position. Thanks Davy!

Summer Course Description




Course Description

From the beginning of America’s history, its composers have displayed a remarkable capacity for experimentation, invention, and innovation. Early efforts by part-time composer Benjamin Franklin and Yankee tunesmith William Billings displayed ingenuity and a willingness to explore and expand the boundaries of received musical conventions.

This trend has continued to the present day, with notable practitioners continuing a path-finding tradition of innovative music-making. This course will discuss the contributions of a number of American innovators, including Gottschalk, Ives, Cowell, Crawford Seeger, Cage, Harrison, Nancarrow, Carter, Partch, Riley, Reich, and others. It will also evaluate reasons for America’s inventive spirit in the musical domain, including societal, cultural, political, and educational factors that have served to support or conversely to provoke and challenge composers in America.

Course Objectives

  1. To learn more about innovative American composers;
  2. To improve oral communication about music history and to work with others in a group;
  3. To apply independent research, critical thinking and writing skills to music history; and
  4. To improve skills at analyzing and evaluating information. (“Information Literacy”)

Required Texts

Cage Silence and other writings Wesleyan
Key and Rothe American Mavericks UC Press
Duckworth Talking Music Da Capo
Cox + Warner Audio Culture Continuum

Composition Class: Books and Listening List

 I’m teaching the composition class at Westminster Choir College for the first time this fall. The course includes all of the first-semester composition majors as well as non-majors interested in composing (or, perhaps, needing an elective).

We’re going to be using three books as texts during the term:

-                   Modal Counterpoint, in the Style of the Sixteenth Century, Ernst Krenek (Boosey).

-                   The Study of Fugue, Alfred Mann (Dover).

-                   A Basic Course in Music Composition, Ralph Shapey (Presser).

Each of these is a small primer on one of the big, central topics in the craft of composition: Sixteenth century counterpoint, fugue, and twentieth century composition approaches. I like that two of them are exercise-heavy – the Krenek and Shapey – while one includes a more historiographical approach, with plenty of examples from the literature. Each author strikes a different tone: Krenek is thorough-going, Mann authoritative and Shapey brilliantly creative, if a bit on the cranky side.

None of them are complete discussions of their respective topics. But each provides a tantalizing, instructive introduction. The three are easily portable; making them easy companions for student composers to take along to muse over on the quad, in the library, or off-campus. What’s more, the combined price tag is less than the cost of many textbooks.

Next up: the listening list. I’m very open to thoughts from Sequenza 21 contributors and readers. Which pieces do you think are essential listening and study for first-semester composers? Drop some suggestions in the comments section!

I have a feeling the toughest part of preparing the course will be winnowing this down to a manageable number of pieces!