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Originally published Saturday, October 9, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'Listen to This': Alex Ross ponders 21st-century music

A review of "Listen to This," a new collection of pieces on music in its 21st century incarnation by New Yorker writer Alex Ross. Ross discusses his book Oct. 12 at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Alex Ross

The author of "Listen to This" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at or 800-838-3006, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

'Listen to This'

by Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $27

If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross dutifully follows the line of 20th-century music from its Romantic origins to its fragmented end in his best-selling "The Rest Is Noise" (2007), here he uses a 21st-century format to survey music today: the shuffle.

With the shuffle, "music is freed from all fatuous self-definitions and delusions of significance." By setting artist next to jarringly different artist (Mozart-Radiohead, Schubert-Björk), Ross allows his reader to discretely reconsider each, freed from their context.

And so Ross frees Brahms from a remote classicism to which he's been unfairly bound. And Radiohead from the dumbing down to which "rock" is so often consigned by default.

"Listen to This" comprises 19 essays, all but one previously published in The New Yorker, several "substantially revised," according to the author. Ross begins the collection by admirably taking on the public perception of "classical music" as moribund, putting blame on those who would market the music as a luxury good.

Ross later profiles Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who self-deprecatingly refers to his earlier self as a "piece of vintage Eurotrash" even as he exposed L.A. Philharmonic audiences to fine modern music well beyond their comfort zone, all while keeping the orchestra in the black.

Running through every piece is a spirit of adventure, common sense, joy and, ultimately, engagement. As when he suggests this approach to classical music: "The best kind of classical performance is not a retreat into the past but an intensification of the present."

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