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A short master class on music writing from New Yorker critic Alex Ross

The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross in the Off-Ramp studio.
The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross in the Off-Ramp studio.
John Rabe

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Alex Ross, music writer for The New Yorker, joined me in the Off-Ramp studio to talk about the artcraft of music writing.

Ross is probably responsible for more of my iTunes purchases than any other writer. Invariably, when I read his pieces, I buy the album.

Ross has a way of getting to the emotional core of the music he's writing about:

To hear the entire corpus is to be buffeted by the restless energy of Bach’s imagination. Recently, I listened to around fifty of the cantatas during a thousand-mile drive in inland Australia, and, far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.

"The Book of Bach" by Alex Ross in The New Yorker

And Ross has a deft hand at explaining technical music terms so that the novice can see how music works:

We can all hum the trumpet line of the “Star Wars” main title, but the piece is more complicated than it seems. There’s a rhythmic quirk in the basic pattern of a triplet followed by two held notes: the first triplet falls on the fourth beat of the bar, while later ones fall on the first beat, with the second held note foreshortened. There are harmonic quirks, too. The opening fanfare is based on chains of fourths, adorning the initial B-flat-major triad with E-flats and A-flats. Those notes recur in the orchestral swirl around the trumpet theme. In the reprise, a bass line moves in contrary motion, further tweaking the chords above. All this interior activity creates dynamism. The march lunges forward with an irregular gait, rugged and ragged, like the Rebellion we see onscreen.

"Listening to Star Wars" by Alex Ross in The New Yorker

Listen to the audio for the full interview, including music excerpts that illustrate what we're talking about.