Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of Alex Ross’s book, “Listen To This“. In this first chapter, we’ll cover an essay by Ross in which he retells his relationship with classical music, and his late-in-life discovery of pop.
As we discussed last week, “Listen To This” is a book laid out in three distinct parts that cover a wide swath of music history. The first part, which we’ll mainly be discussing today, provides an overview of the musical landscape from classical to pop. In it, Ross describes his relationship to both, as well as common perceptions on each genre.
As we move through “Listen To This”, we want to keep two main points in the back of our minds. One, to determine how the most successful musicians and composers alike stand out by making the familiar strange. And two, the tenuous act that is writing on music in general. While we won’t necessarily see these in every discussion, they’re nonetheless important threads to frame our journey.
So without further ado, let’s get into it.
The “Classical” Label
Ross begins his essay by eschewing the term “classical” for the negative connotations associated with it. He’s got a point, too. Just think of how many times you’ve heard the phrase, “classical music” throughout your life, and haven’t responded by rolling your eyes or shutting off your brain.
In Ross’s mind, using the label “classical” automatically confines the music into a well-preserved box, one that can’t escape from its stuffy stereotype. Defining classical music as something that can only be “serious” and “great” misses the most important role that music plays.
“Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists; they have the right to express any emotion, any state of mind. They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes who believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that replaces an inferior product” (p. 3).
Ross places the majority of the blame on these “acolytes”, who try see themselves as gatekeepers who are attempting to lift up the genre to its rightful level of respect. But Ross points out that their efforts are really doing just the opposite.
“They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving” (p. 3).
From Classical to Pop
For much of this first chapter, Ross charts the progression of classical music as perceived through the eyes of the masses. He describes the transition of popular music from classical to jazz, and then from jazz to pop. The “real reckoning” of classical music, as Ross tells it, arrived in the 1960s.
“The advent of Dylan and the Beatles again jeopardized classical music’s claim on ‘high art’, and this time an entire generation seemed to come of age without identifying strongly with the classical repertory” (p. 17).
Classical music fell into the margins of societal acceptance when popular music could more accurately and effectively capture the changing of the times. But in Ross’s words, “All music becomes classical music in the end” (p. 17). He demonstrates this by looking at the progression and decline of jazz, and how it tracks similarly to the lifespan of classical. He then asserts that the same progression can be seen through rock and roll.
Another assertion by Ross attempts to shatter the associations between classical music and the past. “The best kind of classical performance is not a retreat into the past but an intensification of the present” (p. 18). This point doesn’t just apply to classical music, but all genres. Music is a response to the time it was made in, just as much as it is a personal and subjective expression of emotion.
In the last few pages of this chapter, Ross highlights how technology has changed our relationship with music. He uses the example of younger listeners who had access to the iPod’s shuffle function. But the same can be said of those who listen with the aid of automated playlists and algorithms. “They are no longer so invested in a single genre, one that promises to mold their being or save the world” (p. 19).
The recent changes to the way we all interact with and discover new music effectively blurs the barriers between all genres, not just classical and pop. Ross ends the chapter on a note of hope for the future rise of classical music. He envisions one where composers create pieces of immediacy and relevancy. Maybe he’s right, and that time is coming. But the barriers still seem very real to me, and I wonder if we’ll ever see the resurgence he hopes for.
That concludes our discussion for today. I hope you enjoyed our look into this first chapter. Next time, we’ll look at the next chapter, in which Ross covers the bass lines of music history.