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Noisy Book

Like everyone else in this town who is even remotely-connected to concert music, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’s new book. I had it pre-ordered a while ago, as there has been much pre-game hooplah about the publication (his bio-blurb in The New Yorker has been chanting “Alex Ross is working on a book about 20th Century Music” for, like, ever). I acquired it right away because I wanted to read it right away – not necessarily because I wanted to read it right away, but mostly because I knew everyone else would be reading it right away. And I didn’t feel like I’d have the energy to fake it at cocktail parties. I rarely have the energy to fake it at cocktail parties anymore.

I’m not surprised that I’m enjoying it, considering how much I like to check out his entertaining, thoughtful, and generally fair criticism, as well as his fun weblog. What does surprise me is how much I’m enjoying it. Weirdly, I can barely put the thing down. I mean, weighty historical compendiums of esoteric slices of Western Musical History don’t generally make for sizzling reads, but Who Knew? Ross’s talent, which transfers brilliantly from the 2-page review in a weekly periodical into a 640-page book, is to somehow take information we already thought we knew, and shine bright lights into fascinating little corners. This is an extraordinary and enviable skill, and I’m sure it makes for engaging reading for a layperson, but for someone like me – someone who, honestly (and somewhat embarrassingly) already knows quite a bit about, say, Modernist composers in Paris in the 1920′s, it’s quite a discovery to find a guy who can get me to gobble up even more and feel like I never really saw the whole picture before. I find myself reading (again) about any number of well-taught masterpiece – Pierrot Lunaire for instance – and catch myself thinking, Huh, I never really thought about it like that before…

Again, I read this as a fairly informed party, so I do wonder how it flies for the interested normal person. I would guess just fine, but it’s hard for me to tell, since I and many like me can instantly conjure up the sound of, say, Carl Ruggles when he is mentioned, but I’m guessing not everyone can. One of Ross’s annoyingly-excellent talents is to be able to describe these things (accurately) without sounding precious – as well as make that particular Ruggles paragraph readable for someone who has heard The Sun-treader two or three times. To that end Ross provides not only online audio samples, but an iTunes Playlist for good measure. Excellent for those who might not already have the Storm Interlude from Peter Grimes memorized.

Ross’s premise for the book is quite simple – he takes a small step back from each individual ism, looking at the whole mess of decades as a piece – subsequently creating these fascinating little links from what are normally taught as disparate movements and styles…so that Schoenberg and Gershwin seem to metaphorically lock arms in a veritable Hands-Across-The-Century. It seems crazy that I can’t think of anyone else who has bothered to approach the gobbletygook of 20th-Century Music like this.

And I haven’t even finished it yet. I’d better hurry. I don’t want to bump into someone on the street and not have my cocktail chatter ready to go.

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  1. Melissa

    You’re the biggest honkin’ geek I know.

    Posted on 16-Nov-07 at 1:05 AM | Permalink
  2. JasonHoogerhyde

    Glad you’re liking this book, Jonathan… I’m finding it fascinating so far. Some threads that you never knew of or dreamed existed are coming to the surface, and it really is helping me see certain composers in a new light.

    Our local NPR station has an extended interview with Ross, if you’re interested…



    Posted on 13-Jan-08 at 4:53 PM | Permalink

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