Music critic Alex Ross hopes to demystify music, celebrating the energy of rock, the fun and emotion of classical.
At the beginning of his second book, composed mostly of his New Yorker essays (he's the magazine's classical music critic), Alex Ross wants to take music, especially classical music, off its pedestal: "Since the mid-nineteenth century," he says, "audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion or spiritual politics, investing it with messages as urgent as they are vague." Fortunately, Ross -- whose earlier book, "The Rest Is Noise," illuminated the major movements of 20th-century classical music -- has no intention of dispelling that religion's creed. He merely wants to point out that it's not an exclusive club -- we all have the tools of worship attached to the sides of our heads, and with a bit of home ear training, we can hear the high culture of classical music in the pop culture of Radiohead, and vice versa.
Some of Ross' best insights about music arrive in response to pop music, including works by Bjork and Sonic Youth. Ross is the kind of listener, for instance, who cuts through the fluff of five decades of Dylan mania to quickly get at what is most essential about our bard: "To hear Dylan live," he says, "is to realize that he is a musician -- of an eccentric and mesmerizing kind." In the rest of the essay, in which Ross follows Dylan on tour, we hear, through Ross' ears, Dylan spontaneously rewriting his classic songs onstage night after night.
In another essay, Ross finds that one source of Radiohead's power, in the song "Idioteque," may be that "love-drunk chords from Tristan und Isolde lurked at the heart of the song." Perhaps this sounds pretentious -- Radiohead is a rock band after all, powerful because they rock! -- but in Ross' hands, it's not: He's as excited to discover Radiohead's raw energy as he hopes others might be to discover the fun in Mozart ("playfulness was Mozart's saving grace," he notes).
Of course, Ross can unearth new sounds in classical music, too, as he does in a consideration of "The Place Where You Go to Listen" by John Luther Adams, which Ross describes as "a kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time." The piece -- half installation, half composition -- is as extraordinary as it sounds.
Frequent New Yorker readers will recognize certain of the magazine's tics in these essays -- recurring focus on eccentric central characters, prose that's polished to an occasionally annoying degree -- but this is a book with its own case to make, its own sounds to spread around. It will do what only the best music book could do: Make readers put it down and turn their attention to their stereo speakers.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of "Cradle Book." He lives in New York.