Listen To This: An Introduction

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Today, we’ll be starting a new series of articles based on the book, “Listen To This” by Alex Ross, author of “The Rest Is Noise”.

As we did previously with our series on “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz”, we’ll be taking a close, in-depth walk through each chapter, and gleaning what we can from an award-winning national bestseller.

But before we dive into the book itself, I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce this new series, and explain how we’ll be structuring our journey.

Listen To This

“Listen To This” showcases some of the best writing on music by Alex Ross. The book is filled with essays and musings on the impact and history of music. With writings from Bach and Mozart, to Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, Ross shows in “Listen To This” how music expresses the full complexity of the human condition. During our journey through his words, we’ll try and wrap our heads around Ross’s writing, and see how he can teach us to listen more closely.

“Listen To This” is structured nicely into three distinct parts that we’ll be working our way through.

In the first part, we’ll take our time working through three chapters in which Ross lays out a wide overview of the musical landscape. The first chapter, “Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop” does this quite well. The second chapter focuses on one core element in “Bass Lines of Music History”, while the third looks at “How Recordings Changed Music”.

In the second main section of “Listen To This”, Ross provides a close look at over a dozen musicians throughout history. From chapters like, “Mozart’s Golden Mean” to “Radiohead’s Grand Tour”, we’ll be presented with a wide variety of glimpses into the lives of some of the best musicians and composers.

The final section of “Listen To This” takes a much closer look at the work of three different musicians. In these final chapters, Ross provides a more personal take on Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Johannes Brahms.

Making the Familiar Strange

In his preface, Alex Ross makes a singular remark that I found particularly impactful. Towards the end of his preface, he begins to theorize as to why some musicians tended to stand out and be recognized only by their music. One of his proclaimed interests is how these powerful personalities can imprint itself on an abstract medium. After some speculation, Ross ends with this:

“Maybe the only trait these musically possessed men and women have in common is that they are unlike one another or anything else…One way or another, they unsettle whatever genre they inhabit, making the familiar strange”(p. xiii).

We’ll see in each chapter how the musicians Ross writes about make the familiar strange in their own way. But this is just one thread we’ll be following. The other has to do with the act of writing about music in general. While I have a personal interest in this, I thought others might gain something from Ross’s take.

Final Thoughts

I hope this introductory look at Alex Ross’s “Listen To This” sparked enough interest that you’ll be inclined to follow along. While we didn’t get much of a look at Ross’s writing today, the rest of our articles in this series will provide a much more in-depth analysis of his work.

So if you’re interested in learning a bit more about music history, some of your favorite bands, and what it’s like to write about music, be sure to come back for our next installation of “Listen To This”.

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