what i heard while reading “listen to this”.

rocking out to alex ross' literary tracks in 'listen to this'.

if you like books, music, history, classical theory, new york or pop culture than you have probably heard of mr. alex ross.  you know, famed writer for the new yorker?  musicologist, cultural anthropologist?  well, if the name is new do the wiki-google-bing-tweet thing and get the bio on him.  he’s devine …

i recall first becoming familiar with the legendary critic back in high school – it was the first time i read an opinion piece that compared the evoution of classical music to the punk rock revolution of the 1990s.  it was 1997 and i was trading in my country twang for rock and roll angst and here was alex ross arguing it was all interlaced through the cacophony of sound.  it didn’t speak to me then but now ten years later paying careful attention to the essays compiled in his book listen to this it has provoked this new era of musical appreciation.  how had i never heard something so profound before?

disciplined about rebuilding my creative knowledge and realigning my readings with subject matters that i curiously studied in uni….i picked up the book – and lost myself intrinsicly. 

after reading a couple of reviews to best articulate just how impressionably impactful listen to this truly is, i came across charles hazlewood’s article that appeared in the guardian on december 11, 2010.  here is an excerpt from his review:

In his latest offering, Ross liberates music from yet another of its straitjackets – the habit of limiting itself to a single genre. We have, it seems, arrived at a new world order in musicology, where it is not just desirable, but normal, for a virtuoso writer like Ross … to simultaneously scale the heights of Brahms or Schubert and listen in wonder to works of Björk or Bob Dylan. And not before time, because all music has the same roots and to define it by “genre” is as useful as grouping humans by their skin colour. These hugely enjoyable and serendipitous essays were written over more than a decade, resulting in a rewarding historical perspective.

powerful and moving and an epic index of cultural recount, this is what i heard while reading listen to this …

… on how recordings changed music.

…classical music stands partly outside the tecnological realm, because most of its repertory is designed to resonate naturally within a room.  by contrast, almost all pop music is written for microphones and speakers.  its a totally mediated society, where some form of electronic sound saturates nearly every minute of our waking lives, the act of sitting down in a concert hall, joining the expectant silence in the moments before the music begins, and surrendering to the elemental properties of sound can have an almost spiritual dimension. (p. 66)

i can only speak to my memories of making my own mixed tapes with a double-deck cassette player,  the digital amazement that – back in 1989 – brought my favourite pop idol to life, the confusion and mobility of technology such as mp3s, shuffles and nanos.  whatever happened to the experience of just pressing playing?  i consider myself lucky to remember the pure joy of selecting a clunky 8-track out of my dad’s collection and popping it into his hi-fi, dancing silly with my sister we created our own theatre. 

i took it for granted back then, the slow genuine process of preparing the music, the crackling of the speaker as the tape loaded and the lingering mood that softened between tracks.  not too long ago my musical reawakening was ignited when i preciously took a mozart vinyl and sat it on its turntable unscratched.  in that moment i heard, perhaps for the first time since the days in my parents’ basement, what music really sounded like.  

so, “joining the expectant silence in the moments before the music begins” is what comes to light.  reading ross’ essay leaves me feeling triumphant, an old-fashion fan of going to the local concert hall to see the town rocker strumming his acoustic; the experience of watching a writer author his own mixed tape.

… on describing mozart.  

mozart as “idle hooligan” [pushkin]…this led to the eternal adolescent of the play and movie amadeus – a potty-mouthed punk who happened to write music.  other commentators have made mozart out to be a romantic in the making or a modernist before the fact – an aloof, tortued character, an agent of sexual subversion, or a clandestine social revolutionary.  (p.74)

who was mozart anyway?   a wunderkind, a revolutionaire, a classical idealist … a pure genius.  some 21st century education critics firmly believe that for children to learn and understand what it is ‘to be creative’ they need to be subjected to listening to mozart and learning through drama as a part of their academic experience.  there is a scientific rationale to this argument i suppose – decades have been spent linking how music influences cognitive ability; how the sounds of someone like mozart can increase intelligence, improve memory.  some studies even conclude that the feutus can actually begin learning language in utero!  mozart – who wrote his own language, composed his own sound and played his own instrument was sheer creative brilliance for this very reason and remains so to this day … lullabyes are inspired by him, academics theorize about him, classicists romanticise about him, musicians inference his compositions in their mainstream melodies, and we, as listeners, are left envying him.  

…on covering radiohead’s 2001 orbit tour:

an encounter with a perplexed yet devoted fan at one of the band’s american shows provoked ross to document the following:

“thom is suffering from bono syndrome,” [the fan] said.  “getting political.  what’s he doing hanging out with bono?  what’s bono doing haning out with presidents and the Pope?  he’s a rock singer, damn it!  here’s the difference between u2 and radiohead: u2 says, ‘the world sucks, and we have to change it,’ whereas radiohead says, ‘the world sucks and not much can be done about it.  the world is lame, ridiculous.’ [the fan continues] “their records are put out by emi, a multinational conglomerate, so it’s hard to see how [thom and bono] can attack capitlaism from that position.  kid a and amnesiac?  ambient blueprints for music we haven’t heard yet.  thom listens to brian eno, aphex twin, the whole warp records back catalogue. ‘packed like sardines’ – what’s that, one pattern stuck in a groove?  but when they play it we’re all going to go, ‘yeah!’  no one can really say why they like them.  yet here we are. (p. 98)

like all things once considered to be independent or counterculture to the mainstream that then become victim to the chronic social disease known as commercial consumption, radiohead, as a band, was seduced by the allure that popular culture taunts all artists with.  i mean, seriously, she’s a sexy thing that miss pop cult.  she flaunts money, millions of screaming fans, iconic status and a conglomerate of everything else associated with the colours green and gold.  anything deemed cool eventually becomes popular, it is how culture is devoured these days.  but what makes radiohead unique from the bonos of the world is the band’s adaptation of mark oliver everett’s philosophy of “well if i’m going to do i might as well be real about it – rockstars can’t change the world.”  of course, celebrate your fame, but keep your feet on the ground.  you are still beings afterall, not superheroes, which is why i suppose radiohead fans love them and why critics can’t really call them ironic because they’re not – they may have made it to the main stage but their message has always remained the same. 

to further my point, i cite ross once again as he goes on to interpret the abovementioned fan’s critique:

in a matter of minutes, [he] had summed up the state of radiohead criticism.  rock critics, like adolescent fans, have feisty friendships with the bands they admire, lacing hero worship with contempt.  (p. 98)

what 1990s teenager did not identify with radiohead’s wonder-hit, creep?  i’m pretty sure we all thought that we were wallowing losers at some point in our young lives.  if you didn’t, well good on you for maintaing a vain existence and naive resiliency to gossip, bullying, low self-esteem and a lingering sense of loneliness.  what differentiated radiohead from the rest of the pop culture clan was that they produced a sense of raw music that not only spoke to their listenership but also identified with them.  we, as fans, were able to relate, scream and moan of our teenage sorrows in harmony with a brood that rallied the courage to sing it out loud.  two decades later we can still relate to the tune only this time with a sense of self-reflection and a quiet pride that acknowledges just how far we have come as ‘weirdos’ … confidently knowing that we do belong here.  perfect body or not. 

and oh yes, it also helps that the motley crew of the 1990s misfit rock are english and not american.  maybe it is just me, but it makes their message that much more authentic and real.

[radiohead] are a funky clamour of voices, not a line of products.  such guerrilla marketing is, in the end, a form of politicis – a protest agains the sameness of the cultural landscape.  (p. 100)

…on franz schubert:

to be honest, this is really the first time i paid attention to franz schubert.  i mean, i have read about him before, many artists citing him as inspiration but i never really fussed over his name.  but after reading ross’ passion for the artist the name schubert shines out at me every where – labels, books, magazine articles, even in passing conversations.  i reread this essay twice in fact as i was that enthralled by him, the person that he appeared to be and most importantly, the person that he never appeared to be.  through ross’ account on schubert i suppose i took comfort in this – the most brilliant minds, ancestors in cultural anthropology, were loopy, zany and never perceived as normal.  they were provactively absurd, questionably sane yet had a beautiful innocene to them that was attractive and charming.  creativity after all is humanly endearing.

in public, franz schubert usually presented himself as an amiable bohemian, wearing a face suitable for the master of the art of song…it is the tone of confidence, of youthful certainty, that schubert sustained right up to his early death….as with the protean mozart, impressions of schubert’s character have varied over time…you can measure the change in the composer’s image by listening to movie soundtracks…[although] the man is not quite there; the music is another thing altogether.  its presence – its immediacy – is tremendous.  it often insires a kind of unsafe love in its listeners…schubert indeed wrote melodies of unaffected beauty, childlike in their innocence…and he could play the entire gamut of emotion as one ambiguous chord, dissolving differences between agony and joy.  (p. 124-126)

…on the eccentric, multi-talented bjork:

what follows is perhaps my favourite excerpt from ross’ book.  read the lines, read it again and read it for a third time, but during the final skim, read between the lines.  pull out your own message … identify with how the critic describes this rare musical bird.

i had the sense that medulla was the realization of something that bjork had first imagined when she was still very young, “sometimes after a long time you end up back where you started.”  after a while, the effort to find a place for bjork in the geography of popular, classical, art folk, icelandic, or non-icelandic music seems fussy.  what’s more precious in her work is the glimpse that it affords, in flashing moments, of a future world in which the ideologies, teleologies, style wars, and subdivisions that so defined music in the past hudred years slips away.  music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the feat of vulgarity that limits classical music.  the creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again.  so far, though, this utopia has only one inhabitant. (p. 155)

“sometimes after a long time you end up back where you started.”  within all of the lovely language used to described her, it was bjork’s direct quote that spoke to me, spoke to me the loudest out of everything else written in the 300+ page anthology.  why?  my ‘because’ is twofold: first, the entire reading experience i endured from this book was a 360-spin throwback to the age of 16, 18 or even 20 when i recall losing my creative spirit, my talent to think outside of convention.  yes, i keep writing about this ‘culutral reawakening’ and i’ll continue to read and write about it until my confidence to be courageous and curious has been restored.  secondly, the chapter about bjork reminded me of my own real life scandenavian rock star and how her life lyrics to me had such a soft, simple sound, “perhaps australia is our way home,” she once said.  indeed, from reading this i’m realising that this place in time is my own ‘medulla’.

…on the art of noise:

an inference to static confusion in his own right, ross writes,

‘noise’ is a tricky word that quickly slides into the pejorative.  often, it’s the word we use to describe a new kind of music that we don’t understand.  variations on the put down “that’s just noise” were heard at the premiere of stravinsky’s rite of spring, during dylan’s first tours with a band, and on street corners when kids started blasting rap.  but “noise” can also accurately describe an acoustical phenomenon, and it needn’t be negative.  human ears are attracted to certain euphonious chords based on the overtone series; when musicians pile on too many extraneous tones, the ear “maxes out”.  this is the reason that free jazz, experimental rock, and experimental classical music seem to be speaking the same language: from the perspective of the panicking ear, they are…there is, however, pleasure to be had in the kind of harmonic desnity that shatters into noise.  the pleasure comes in the control of chaos, in the movement back and forth across the border of what is comprehensible.  (p. 218)

when i first started this blog the foundation for my posts were to reflect my efforts of elminating static confusion from my life, a phrase that my favourite conversationlist dubbed for me, the essence of its meaning, to turn the noise down on life.  however, after reading ross i’m starting to agree with him in that noise, is an art form, and often at times, a lovely thing.  sure, ross is refering to ‘noise’ in the context of music but i will take his brilliant position on the art of noise and stretch a little further:  life, it is a soundtrack filled with compilations of static, most of the time distractingly loud, noise.  but just as we control the volume in which we listen to music, we too control the volume on life, something i am learning that you can easily mute or when you feel like it turn it up loud … and dance free.

…on cobain and alternative music:

from the outset of his career, the desperately individualistic cobain was caught in a great media babble about grunge style and twentysomething discontent.  his adamantly personal songs became exhibits in the nation’s ongoing symposium on generational identity – a fruitless project blending the principles of sociology and astrology.  he was loudly and publicly tormented by his notoriety, his influence, his importance…mtv, the video clubhouse that brought the nirvanamania to fever pitch, identified the band with a problematic category called ‘alternative’.  alternative culture proposes that the establishment is reprehensible but that other subsitute establishments can coexist with it…it differs from the sixties notions of counterculture insofar as no one took it seriously even at the beginning: it sold out as a matter of principle…in the 1990s [alternative music] claimed descent from the punk-rock movement that crisscrossed america in the seventies and eighties.  the claim rang false because punk it its pure form disavowed commercial success, a disavowal that united an otherwise motley array of youth subcultures: high-school misfits, skateobard kids, hardcore skinheads, doped-out postcollegiate slackers.  punk’s obsession was autonomy – independent labels, clubs installed in suburban garages and warehouses, flyers and fanzines photocopied  at temp jobs after hours […] rock finally had a viable avant-garde.  in the eighties, this do-it-yourself network solidifed into indie rock, anchored in college radio stations and alternative newspapers…[nirvana] didn’t have to dilute itself to make the transition, because its brand of grunge rock already drew more on the thunderous tread of hard rock and heavy metal than on the clean, fast, matter-of-fact attack of punk or hardcore…[cobain] was resolutely punk in spirit.  (p. 222-223)

there isn’t much i can say about this teenage tragedy, the above excerpt phrases it best.  i included this only because it reaffirms everything that my generation – the ever-so-loved entourage of genY – believed to be our mantra when teetering our way through the turbulence of a deranged youth: the rise of the media empire drowned out the importance of individualism, mass consumption began to poison the underage minds and we, a cult of individualistic pride soon became an ironic melting pot of stereotyped, undesired fame.

…on the importantance of music in education:

[music] advocates have issued studies, pamphlets and talking points that marshal alarming statistics on the diminishment of music programs and argue passionately for their preservation.  but there is something maddeningly vague at the heart of the literature.  why must music be taught?…anyone who has loved music from an early age feels certain that it has a unique and irreplaceable value, but it is difficult to translate that conviction into hard sociological data.  whenever advocates try to build a case for music on utilatian grounds, they run up against fundamental uncertainties about the ultimate purpose of an art whose appeal is, as plato anxiously observed, illogical and irrational.  (p. 229)

i recently read that mathematics is the application where science meets art.  i find this to be a fascinating depiction.  i suppose arthmetics is where this convergence of artful articulation with analytical knowledge takes place.  i wasn’t a music student in high school although i still remember the lessons that playing the flute taught me – how it taught me that words are not the only language we must learn to read; how much poise and patience is required to produce a beautiful sound.  despite it being a bright and shiny instrument, i traded in my fluting for my picaso aspirations and whilst i was able to express myself in several ways i often times wonder if i was to learn more about music, become a student of the subject, if i would be able to translate my passion for writing into a song and fulfil my alternative dream of becoming a songwriter.  this is getting away from my point so i will reconvene now … my thoughts on the importance of music in education: it needs to be mandatory.  as important as science or physical education, young minds need music to express, invent and explore.  students need to learn to connect the theory behind it, the history it tells.  my experience from reading this book has reassured me of this – the arts are an incredible foundation to the human beings in which we grow to be and as educators we must not let the sound of music get drowned out by technological drones.

…on marrian anderson:

after reading this essay i was ashamed that i did not know who marian anderson was.  for all the reading and studying i have done about the evolution of emancipation in 1865 to the celebration of civil rights in the 1960s i never crossed this vivacious woman’s name.  deservingly, we commemorate martin luther king jr, today’s american president, barak obama, is a symbol of living history and we all smile at the triumphant story of the feisty rosa parks who refused to give up her seat on the bus, however, very few african american women receive overlapping profile and praise in the arenas of music, politics and womens rights.  so, although i myself need to learn more about marian anderson’s legacy, i thought i would share a little bit of her signficance.  thank you to alex ross for bringing this 1930s star to the proverbial centre stage.

on easter sunday 1939, the contralto marian anderson sang on the steps of the lincoln memorial.  the daughters of the american revolution had refused to let her appear at consititution hall, washington’s largest concert venue, because of the color of her skin.  in response, eleanor roosevelt, the first lady, resigned from teh dar, and president roosevelt gave permission for a concert on the mall.  seventy-five thousand people gathered to watch anderson perform.  harold ickes, the secreraty of the interior, introduced her with the words “in this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free.”  (p. 239)

…on bob dylan:

like hank williams before him – or schubert or verdi, for that matter  – dylan sharpens the meaning of the lyrics in the mechanics of the music…the meaning changes as the chords change…this is not to say that the music is everthing.  dylan does have a fearsome command of the english language.  the neat click of the rhymes keeps you interested across all leaps of sense and changes of scene […] whether or not dylan looked as far back as 1689 – with him, you never know – the peculiar solidity of his lyrics comes in their easy give-and-take with older songs.  [his] traditions of folk, blues, spirituals, and popular ballads are his real religion, and his habit of crossing genress may explain his habit of crossing religions.  (p. 282-284)

my infatuation with the beat generation, the spoken word and rock poets has led me to pay more attention to bob dylan with a keeness that wasn’t there before.  i admit, i have been naive to dylanoloy my entire existence.  i knew who he was, i listened to his music but unlike neil young or johnny cash he never mystified me.  it wasn’t until i saw a photo of him, burroughs and ginsberg hanging on the wall at the san francisco saloon, vesuvio, that i thought, ‘ok, this guy is legit.  it is time to figure him out.’  shortly thereafter i turned to ross’ essay about the man that can easily be described as our modern day mozart.  for all he has done for music, i can’t really comment on as i’m just beginning to educate myself on the matter, however, what he did for the spoken word, for lost souls looking for the courage to speak up, to speak out loud, his public reading of his poem “last thoughts on woody guthrie” was a public immersion of rock artistry, folklore mystique and poetic soul … his one-time open read is, without question, hommage to other creatives who can only aspire to be so profound.

an ‘artist’, by contemporary definition, is one who displays himself in art, who shares ‘felt’ emotion and ‘lived’ experience, who meets and greets the audience.  art becomes method actng: art, in various sense, becomes pathetic.  with dylan, the emotion has certainly been felt…it well up sontaneously in the songs themselves, in the tangle of words and music…he withdraws his personaility from the scene – usually by becoming beautifully vague – and lets the music rise.  (p. 287)

…turning the last page.

i have always struggled with coming upon the last page of a book that i am infatuated with because it means the experience of an intriguing read is nearing its end.  however, in many respects, i believe that finishing ross’ book marks many new beginnings for myself.  a new beginning in music as an interest, a new introduction to the sound systems that soothed my childhood and a new start in moving forward as the person i’m discovering to be. 

and yes, i heard all of this while reading listen to this.   if you’re looking to change the channel, strum a new string or retune an ambition, get into this piece of literary genius now … just make sure you have a blank tape, a new mix abound.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s