The Other John Adams and Others

I have been reading Listen to This, Alex Ross’s newly published book.
It is not as substantial as his masterly The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, but essential reading for me. The hostility of so many people I know to any music written in the past hundred years and the absence of young people from classical concerts, is something that alarms me. So, the first paragraph of the book is indeed music to my ears: “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be written today…” The second paragraph continues: “For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority...” The third: “When people hear ‘classical’ they think dead…”

Ross didn’t introduce me to John Adams. I had already a couple of CDs and had heard Nixon in China live. But his mention of Harmonielehre led me to seek it out and it hooked me. In the new book he has an essay on John Luther Adams, a composer who lives in Alaska where he has a sound and light installation called The Place Where You Go to Listen. Here, by means of computer technology, seismic and meteorological phenomena are translated into “a luminous field of electronic sound.” It strikes me as the sort of tourist art that has many companions in the visual art world. They are very popular with the general public. I am unlikely to make a pilgrimage but will make a point of hearing some of the composer’s work on CD.

Ross writes of his belated attention to artists in the popular music field. He has essays on Radiohead, Bjork and Bob Dylan. The last is more akin to the more popular music that I listen to – work where the music provides an alternative prosodic structure to sung verse. I loved the series of programmes, Book, Music and Lyric, that Robert Cushman presented on Radio 3 many years ago, and which he followed up with another, New York Cabaret. They made me aware of musicals for intelligent people and singer-song writers of superb inventiveness like Dave Frishberg and Randy Newman. I have also enjoyed the great French chansonneurs, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré, Boris Vian and Barbara. Even country music can surprise me with interesting lyrics. Cushman illustrated how it could work well in musicals such as Big River, based on Hucklebury Finn, and The Greatest Little Whorehouse in the West. In these related genres there can be great wit, often with a serious purpose, as in Brassens’ song about an escaped gorilla seeking to lose its virginity that turns out to be an anti-capital punishment piece. Some songs deal in a sort of humorous realism. A country song of disillusioned love contains the line:

Is this what I shaved my legs for?

And there is this from a Maltby and Shire review:

I didn’t know I had a prostate,
It’s the march of time.

From an extract from a Radiohead lyric that Ross gives:

You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special
But I’m a creep.

I realise that I’m unlikely to get the sort of verbal wit I like from his research into the non-classical area but he does make a case for the music. I will investigate.

Lest I give a wrong impression of this outstanding writer on music who rarely gets technically esoteric, I will add that Ross writes acutely about Brahms, Schubert, Verdi and Mozart in this book and recall that The Rest is Noise, not only made me enthusiastic about John Adams, but turned me on to Sibelius, thus making me more likely to listen to other composers I’d previously been prejudiced about: Rachmaninov, for instance.