Bookmarks Issue: 
Alex Ross

A-Listen to ThisAlex Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker since 1996, received a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2008). Listen to This, a collection of essays, is his second. A free audio companion is available at

The Topic: These 19 essays, most previously published in the New Yorker, cover nearly every aspect of music, contemplating the rich historical, cultural, and personal framework in which it has evolved. From Bach to Björk, Ross profiles musicians, reports on the popular explosion of Western classical music in China, explores the role of technology, and evaluates the current crisis in music education in which increasing numbers of administrators gut programs that have no measurable results or practical uses. Above all, notes Ross, Listen to This "revisit[s] ... the abiding question of what music means to its creators and its listeners on the most elemental level." Music isn't "high" or "low," rigidly consigned to arbitrary categories (i.e., classical, jazz, or rock). Melodic or dissonant, engaging or uninspiring, he argues, music simply is.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780374187743

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"‘My attempts,' he says, ‘at chronicling [mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's] career ... were an exercise in running out of words.' One cannot believe that a writer, who is so graceful, so pithy, so thoughtful and full of insight, would ever run out of words --or that anyone who loves music would not love Listen to This." F. Cord Volkmer

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Few handle the slippery subject of music with such elegance. Reading him is a natural pleasure, like listening to Mozart. Never too long or short, his phrases are economical but highly potent." Zachary Lewis

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[Ross] deliver[s] writing about music that is very much like writing--eloquent, thoughtful, full of revelations and fresh discoveries. ... Ross takes his subject seriously, but never solemnly, having fun with cabaret satirists Herb and Kiki, savoring the absurd plots and deeper truths of Verdi's operas, and pulling the props out from under several hoary myths and misunderstandings." Bill Marvel

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Frequent New Yorker readers will recognize certain of the magazine's tics in these essays--recurring focus on eccentric central characters, prose that's polished to an occasionally annoying degree--but this is a book with its own case to make, its own sounds to spread around. It will do what only the best music book could do: Make readers put it down and turn their attention to their stereo speakers." Craig Morgan Teicher

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Every page of this collection is rich with vivid analysis and evocative vigor. Listen to This deserves to stand next to the best-written modern books on music: the collected works of Whitney Balliett, say, and Ross' own recent history of 20th century sounds, The Rest Is Noise." Tom Nolan

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Running through every piece is a spirit of adventure, common sense, joy and, ultimately, engagement." Alan Moores

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"All the pieces are marvels of research and reporting, but at least half of them feel a little solemn, over-edited and just mildly pedantic. ... He clearly works geekily hard, and all the pages of Listen to This are unquestionably insightful and informative--but they'd be even better if Ross or his editors allowed his sentences out on the dance floor a little." Michael Dirda

Critical Summary

Full of surprises and sharp observations, this "absorbing, illuminating, exciting collection" (San Francisco Chronicle) gives equal billing to pop stars and classical composers, crossing musical margins with remarkable fluidity. Though they bear the New Yorker's signature style, most critics upheld Ross's writing as eloquent and thoughtful, in language accessible to both laypersons and connoisseurs (although aficionados may have an easier time with the details). The Washington Post complained that the essays lacked excitement and literary "zing," but others praised Ross for the sense of adventure that imbues each piece. Readers may find it difficult to resist Ross's enthusiasm, and Listen To This will no doubt take an honored place on many a bookshelf.

Also by the Author

The Rest Is Noise Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007): Ross's critically acclaimed debut explores and analyzes the music of the 20th century--from its Romantic origins to its disjointed and uneven end. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2008)