Posts Tagged “Alex Ross”

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!

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Being in a state of ecstasy, according to the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, means being joyful or also enraptured.This accurately describes the vibrant atmosphere at Merkin Concert Hall’s “Ecstatic Music Festival” that opened on Martin Luther King’s Day, Marathon on January 17th.

Many of the participating artists of the festival who will give individual concert performances at Merkin Hall throughout March 28th were mixing with the audience during the 7-8 hours continuum of performances. And integration was a keyword, igniting sparks of enthusiasm and instilling excitement. The crowds spilled over into the lobby and out into the street, in front of the Kaufmann Center’s Upper Westside performance hub.  

As announced by the New Yorker, the festival “…provides a window into {the} movement in music {established during} the past decade, where a critical mass of young New York based composer/performers {has} been blurring the boundaries between classical and popular styles.”

But being there actually felt much more emotionally charged than the above description even comes close to.

The festival’s curator, Judd Greenstein, created a very personal feel, by choosing from what seems like a conglomerate collaboration of his own entourage.

As managing director of the (also included at the festival) NOW Ensemble, a chamber music quintet with unique instrumentation (flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano) and as a composer in his own right, Greenstein has also successfully figured out new music marketing possibilities and, in the process, created a revelation.

He also co-directs New Amsterdam Records, a record label and artist’s service organization based in New York City.  According to his own mission statement, he is committed to making: “music without filters, made by musicians who bring the breadth of their listening experience and the love they have for many different kinds of music into their own playing, writing and producing. It is music without walls, without an agenda, and without a central organizing principle…opening doors for artists to enter, creating new spaces for them to fill, and touching new outer edges where musics meet.”

At the festival, pianist/composer Timo Andres performed his “Everything is an Onion” from his 2010 composition: “It takes a long time to become a good composer”, as well as Charles Ive’s “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No.2, at the Marathon.

He is one of several performers who studied composition at Yale University. Like many of the festival participants, he is active in a broad spectrum of activities which make for a lifestyle of music. He, like many of his colleagues, likes to share his thoughts, articulated on his blog, as well as in person. We shared a coffee and a conversation in between performances.

“Like for any musician, my musical impulse is a result of many different influences. I attribute it as much to the open-mindedness of some of my mentors who guided me, as to things I discovered on my own. I grew up with my paternal grandfather listening to – then – cutting edge music of Bartok and Shostakovich and I never have to worry about the mechanics of the piano, thanks to my wonderful teacher Eleanor Hancock, who taught me during eleven years the principals of a natural piano technique, based on the research of Dorothy Taubman.“ He later also studied with Frederic Chiu and has performed avidly, specializing in contemporary music series, such as the wordless Music Series that was initiated by (le)Poisson Rouge music director Ronen Givony, as well as giving solo recitals with the momentum-gaining Metropolis Ensemble, which prompted Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer to assert:  ”New music cannot be intimidating when played with this degree of skill and zest.”

Timo Andres at a Metropolis House Concert


Andres’ debut album, “Shy and Mighty” released in May 2010 by Nonesuch, features ten interrelated pieces performed by Andres and co-pianist David Kaplan, another Yale graduate, who also attended the ‘Ecstatic’ marathon performance. Alex Ross in the New Yorker described the composition: Shy and Mighty “…achieves an unhurried grandeur that has rarely been felt in American music since John Adams came on the scene…more mighty than shy, {Andres} sounds like himself”. Sections of Shy and Mighty will also be performed by Andres with pianist Bred Mehldau at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in March.

Andres is fully aware that his generation has re-enacted a long history of composers who were also performers from Mozart onwards. These artists were not only creative as musicians but also creative in managing their own careers and bringing their music to new audiences.

When he tells me he is “self-published”, he points out his knowledge of typographical work and how it helps to design a readable score. His engagement with Bookbinding and page layout has made his individual score production process, an A-Z reality. His composing and performing are two sides of the same coin.

Timo Andres


“I could not ever give up one for the other – they inform each other; it’s a continuum”, he says. And for influential impact on his compositions he explains, “A lot of music I listen to is all electronic or integrates electronics. My music is very influenced by these musical techniques, with structures and forms looking back to Minimalism and based on repetition. Looping patterns to build musical structure always fascinated me, from the first day I heard Steve Reich’s music.”

Describing the festival and his relation to Greenberg as its curator he says: “The festival represents some of the best trends in the experimental music tradition. In a sense it is a laboratory for trying out new things in a collaborative environment, where people are open to be surprised and the only boundaries are one’s own taste. The festival represents Judd’s taste, whose compositions and general intelligence I already admired as a freshman, when he was a graduate-student. All my friends have records on his label today which certainly brought some definition to the New York musical scene.”

What the festival seems to offer in particular is a home based scene for its involved artists, creating somewhat of a new music milieu.

There is a remarkable overlap of festival- participating artists who, at the same time, are some of today’s most passionate and significant entrepreneurs of current music-business ventures.

Vicky Chow, is the classically trained pianist for the New York based eclectic contemporary sextet Bang on a Can All –Stars. In 1987 three young composers, fresh out of Yale, made their first concert into an inspiring 12 hour -marathon of new music, testing the market for their programs. In 2000 they founded the “people’s commissioning fund” that encouraged audience members to participate in the commissioning for new works. Chow also produces and curates a new music series at the Gershwin Hotel in New York City, and Bang on a Can runs a summer ‘educational’ festival for young composers, located in the Berkshires.

Neurotic and Lonely,” a title from composer/performer Gabriel Kahane’s acclaimed “Craigslist Lieder” album recorded in 2006, brilliantly plays on this generation’s neuroses. Cynically insightful, the modern day bard presents his charming and diverse artistry, time and again putting classical Schumann or Schubert -Lieder presentations in direct rapport with contemporary ones, to great effect. In Kahane’s compositions, traditional music rings new – promoting a timeless feel for both –the old and new genres. Son of acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the “piano chops” may fall naturally not far from the tree, as David Kaplan points out to me.

Gabriel Kahane


That he is a child of his own time, Gabriel shows with his curatorial creativity, promoting a particular sensitive strand of music making DNA. For a commission, as part of the MATA festival held in November of 2010 at Brooklyn’s “Issue Project Room”, Kahane curated and presented contemporary compositions, including his own, as well as Schubert’s “Dichterliebe”, in German Diction at the piano.

“I am certain that we can all agree that the phrases “genre-bending” and “genre-defying” are not long for this world….The plan is very simple: create a static frame – in this case the pianist who sings – and then offer a varied repertoire..” says this protagonist of music who simply seeks musical inclusiveness, showing what new and old have in common. “I defy you not to hear Pop music in {Schumann’s} “Ich grolle nicht”, says Kahane.

And perhaps our focus should indeed not be on differentiations within the performance culture and stylistic distinction but should instead embrace the festival’s “constructive narrative” as Greenstein, Andres and Kahane – amongst others- are ecstatically pitching for.

Kahane concludes: “ …the listener will come to the conclusion that distinctions of genre can be done away with, leaving us with Duke Ellington’s oft –quoted nugget: “There are only two kind of music: good music, and the other kind”.

Gabriel Kahane


Kahane, himself a Brown graduate, had commissioned a piece by Andres for the MATA project.  He and the young Yale-trained composer do share a lot of common interests, says Andres. They will perform together at the Merkin festival’s March 5thconcert, exploring the composer Charles Ives and dissecting various musical influences on Ives’ music and their own compositions.

This concert will include a wide trip throughout music history, starting with Bach- arrangements by Kurtag as well as some songs of Ives, performed by Kahane.

“I am arranging “Conneticut gospels” – for piano and Hammond organ with the influence of Ives in mind, so to speak from one Connecticut composer to another”, says Andres acknowledging, not without a certain kind of pride, that Ives, like him, went to Yale and was recognized as the first genuine “American” composer.

Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall until March 28th


For a complete schedule and more on all the other participants of the ecstatic music festival go to:

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The Varèse (R)evolution is tonight and tomorrow at Lincoln Center. Thanks to Alex Ross for pointing out this YouTube clip.

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