Alex Ross

Alex Ross

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 1 1997 3:30 AM

Alex Ross

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       I hesitate to fray readers' nerves once again with the pulsating intensity of my life, but I can report that I spent all but an hour of today at home, typing bits of an article and reading parts of Denis Donoghue's biography of Walter Pater. The missing hour was taken up with jogging. I began jogging a few months ago not only to render myself in some way more healthy, but also to give myself the sensation of having done something. From home I can take any number of scenic tours through Brooklyn or into lower Manhattan. Today I went down along the Brooklyn waterfront to Red Hook, the beautifully run-down and sparsely populated neighborhood occupying the southern corner of the promontory that abuts Manhattan. It's an area considered by some to be dangerous; a few years ago New Yorkers heard about the shooting of a well-liked school principal in the hulking Red Hook Houses, and just last week several Italian-Americans here beat up a black guy. But I have gotten over my nervousness at the Donnie Brasco atmosphere on certain streets. The only dangerous things in life, I've gathered, are alcohol and cars.
       I listen to music as I go, and this makes me think about music's power as lifestyle soundtrack. I write about music from the perspective of the so-called "serious listener," in which the music is the foreground, the formalist thing-in-itself. But I recognize the beauty of music as background; that's how most people use it. My taste changes when I have to listen through the foggy windows of my Walkman. Most of the music that I find interesting as a critic fails me as a jogger. Dissonance, rhythmic complexity, and counterpoint get me nowhere. Avant gives way to pop. The beat needs to be a trundling mid-tempo, the production atmospheric. I need a mobile haze of sound. I am more conscious than before of the greatness of Cheap Trick; Oasis rules. This finding is at variance with some studies that have been summarized in a peculiar new book called Tune Your Brain: Using Music to Manage Your Mind, Body, and Mood. It claims that mid-tempo is better for power walking or hiking, and one should run to a fast tempo (135 beats per minute). The book recommends, in particular, Offenbach's "Gaîté Parisienne" and the Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." Sounds like a knee-shattering nightmare to me.
       Late in the afternoon, with the westward walls of the old brick warehouses shining dark red in the sun, Red Hook looks as sadly gorgeous as I've ever seen it. It was once a thriving longshoremen's neighborhood; wares were loaded off boats here and prepared for Northeast shipping. There is a grain terminal--a vast, burnt-out monster of a building that has the shape of an extraterrestrial caboose--and a sugar granary once run by the Domino company. Some of the long, low-hung warehouses have been standing since the Civil War. Most streets are still cobblestone, and one oddly angled block with yellowish façades looks for all the world like Prague. The whole area seems lost in time. The loveliest place is right up at the water, where artist types have installed a Hudson Waterfront Museum (actually a restored canal barge) that shows local art and puts on performances. In warm weather, on weekends, the proprietors set up a ball machine on the pier. It's one of those sculptured miniature roller coaster rides in which a golf ball rolls along a twisting and looping track, ringing bells and banging percussion. No ball machine today, but as usual I still see something slightly odd. A man in a black suit is gazing over the water, a trombone case by his side.
       The love of Brooklyn is a pleasant madness that infects some people. Last Saturday--to back up chronologically for a moment--my friend Alex Star and I spent two hours on a surreal boat tour that took us up the fetid, narrow course of the Gowanus Canal, which used to bring Red Hook's imports into the heart of the borough. The tour was run by an environmental group and most of the people seemed properly concerned with the sorry state of the canal, which receives runoff sewage when the Brooklyn sewage-treatment facility reaches capacity. But I have to admit, I wasn't listening too closely to the environmental analysis; I was gazing in wonder at the grungy overpasses, the violent weeds, the heaps of inexplicable junk along the edge of the canal, the disorienting glimpses of Manhattan skyscrapers across a tundra of obsolescent industry. I was guilty of aestheticizing ruin, but as far as I can tell that's the only way to enjoy New York.

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and also a regular contributor to SLATE.