Talking With Alex Ross

Classical music was said to be dead in the 14th century, so why are we still holding it hostage? We talk with New Yorker music critic Alex Ross about the state of the art, which composers might appeal to different segments of rock fans, and exactly what he listens to at dinner.

Alex Ross is the music critic of the New Yorker. He also writes a blog, Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise, and is currently at work on a book on the history of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Raised on classical and opera album sleeves, Ross pursued composing until he was 20, around the time he discovered pop music (as described in one of his best articles, “Listen to This”). Before settling in at the New Yorker in 1996, he wrote for a number of publications, including the New York Times (1992-6) and the late Feed Magazine (where, long ago, this writer encountered him for the first time in an extremely long but remarkably interesting article about music in New Zealand).

The following interview was conducted over email.


TMN: Given the mp3 player’s popularity, and with restaurants and retail outlets having soundtracks, it seems to me people of a certain age are coming to expect to hear music all day long. Is it possible to become so saturated with sound, and in so many genres, that it’s more difficult to distinguish truly special music? How often during the day do you listen to music privately?

AL: I play music all day long, but it’s my job—I’m not sure it’s symptomatic of any deeper syndrome. There’s always some pile of CDs to be browsed through, for an article or for my book or just to check on what’s out there. There are two periods during the day when I’m listening much more intently. One is when I’m running or exercising. The other is when I’m at a concert. The last type of listening is by far the most active. Which goes to the point about the “truly special” experience, and how you can’t necessarily have it at any time of the day or night.

People have been worrying about saturation for a long time. Back in the fifties Honegger claimed we were losing our ability to distinguish among intervals and predicted that by the end of the century we’d be listening to music with huge, low rhythms and a few monotones on top. That prediction is kind of uncanny, but, in general, I don’t buy the decline-of-the-West, regression-of-listening rap. There are one million counterexamples in the naked city. The kid with headphones crouched in the corner of his room is probably listening a lot more closely than Mom and Dad in row T at the Philharmonic, worrying about the tuition. I’m convinced that people are listening as deeply and passionately as they ever did. To say otherwise requires some social Darwinistic notion of reverse evolution that I don’t want in my house. The trouble is, there are a hundred different genres, and the older genres feel disenfranchised. They blame the medium, they blame the culture, they blame genetics, they never blame themselves.

The thing about classical music is that it’s automatically at a disadvantage in the electronic world. On some deep level it’s never really worked on loudspeakers and on recording.

TMN: I don’t think kids’ or parents’ tastes have dropped or will ever fall too far, but I worry when music’s becoming so closely linked to, say, providing ambience (e.g., jazz in restaurants) or cued to inspire specific reactions (Wagner in film), will we lose some innocent capacity to be truly surprised by something new? By constant bombardment, and the relatively recent ability to hear any music any time we want, can our senses be dulled permanently?

AL: Music has a way of getting culturally typecast, and this, I’ll agree, is a danger. For example, a lot of psychic damage was done to classical music by symphonic film scoring in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Those sweeping strings, that blaring brass, relentlessly pinned to certain archetypal images: Bette Davis rushing down the stairs sobbing, Errol Flynn waving his sword around. The post-Wagnerian style worked beautifully in context, but then it began sounding cheesy and dated to younger generations. Fifty years down the line, a certain kind of lush orchestration still makes kids snicker—they visualize some ancient actress sputtering, “Darling, I love you madly, utterly…” Muzak saps music’s power and character. Vivaldi starts to sound like a coffeeshop, Brahms’ chamber music like a bus-station waiting room. These are the dominant social contexts for classical music nowadays. That’s what we have to fight against, perhaps with shock tactics.

The thing about classical music is that it’s automatically at a disadvantage in the electronic world. On some deep level it’s never really worked on loudspeakers and on recording. I often skip over classical selections when I’m shuffling music on the iPod because they can’t compete with the environment. If I’m outside, the quieter sections are going to be drowned out and the loud ones are going to be treble-heavy and ear-splitting. Most pop music is mixed to blend with the cityscape—lots of bass to cut through the white noise, not too wide a dynamic range so you can pick a volume level and stick to it. A lot of young composers, by the way, are now writing a different kind of music that’s made for loudspeakers and headphones. But they’ll always live in a separate world. Unless they decide to give up and become pop musicians themselves.

TMN: Is that a threat? Have you talked to young composers where it’s the case?

AR: Björk was someone who grew up in classical music and then more or less defected to pop. She found the classical world too confining. Now she’s edging back into it in various ways. Look at Phil Lesh, who was a brilliant composition student in Steve Reich’s class in California before he met Jerry Garcia. Reich told me that Lesh could read a complex avant-garde score better than anyone. I wonder whether he can still do that after decades in the Grateful Dead! Untold thousands of richly gifted people never studied classical music to begin with, but they might have thrived on it if the gatekeepers had been more inviting. Black musicians—for a long time they literally weren’t invited in. There’s a great vacuum at the center of American classical music—the missing golden age of African-American composition that Dvorak had predicted in the 1890s. I love Duke Ellington’s music exactly as it is, but I sometimes daydream about the other career he might have had, entirely within classical music. Mingus, too.

Back to the technology question for a second. I’m all for broadcasting classical music on every possible wavelength, in every available medium, but the ultimate message has to be: Get yourself to a performance space. That’s where the music lives. While I’ve been working on my book, a history of 20th-century music, I’ve made a point of going to see performances of the big 20th-century works I’m writing about, and I always have a flood of new impressions the moment the music starts, even if I’ve been listening to a CD of the same piece all day. I haven’t really heard it until I’ve heard it live. I’ve learned this again and again. It’s not just the special acoustic properties of music sounding in a resonant room but the psychology of being forced to listen to, say, Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending when I’ve really come for Sibelius’ Fourth. Music changes depending on where we hear it, when we hear it, who we are today. A Lark Ascending, which I’ve been ignoring for years, may suddenly snap into focus. Back in the days of Feed magazine, Steven Johnson wanted to organize a discussion on this topic: What’s going on in the brain when you listen to a song that you think you hate now but will fall in love with three years down the line? For this reason, I really don’t think there’s such a thing as too much music. It’s not like the oil supply—it’s not going to run out.

TMN: Though classical music may always be dying, aren’t so many other genres dying as well (losing audience to the next big thing, stilted evolution, tender petting by a small band of hoarders)? Don’t genres have similar lives as artists, producing great works but at some point settling into a mold?

AR: Yes, I wrote about this in my long article on the state of music back in February. I speculated about five stages in a cycle—classicism, where the rules are laid out (Mozart, Armstrong, Chuck Berry); romanticism, where the music gets orchestral and ambitious (Wagner, mid-period Ellington, Led Zeppelin), modernism, where a vanguard rejects the sleepy bourgeoisie (Schoenberg, Charlie Parker, Sex Pistols), avant-gardism, where the vanguard leaves the mass audience behind (Boulez, Cecil Taylor, Aphex Twin), and neoclassicism, where conservatives try to turn back time and retrieve a lost order (neo-Romantic composers, Wynton Marsalis, the Strokes). Obviously there are some very rough analogies here, but you get the feeling of similar cycles in motion. The thing about classical music is that it’s not a genre in itself—it’s a way of working with genres. It finds new life by feeding off what’s out there. In a thousand years classical music has taken every imaginable form. Even the notational aspect which seems central to the definition—writing for others to play—has been challenged by classical improvisers and bands. There is no there there. That is its secret power. I think it’s the last kind of music that will ever die. Yo, hare—this tortoise only looks like it was run over.

TMN: If you had a day in your life to score, what would you play for each segment? (Note: I gave Alex the segments, he supplied the music—ed.)

AR: Wake-up: The jagged happy first notes of Nielsen’s Third Symphony.

Brew coffee: Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Commute: I have a stupid tradition that whenever I rent a car and start driving I put on “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Office, pre-lunch: Conlon Nancarrow, player-piano music. I like a zany office.

Lunch: I hate the idea of music during meals. To be difficult, I’ll say Minor Threat.

People think that if they dress a certain way, if they keep quiet and purse their lips and look thoughtful, read the program notes and murmur, “Ah, Mozart,” then they’re having a serious experience.

Office, post-lunch: Masses of Johannes Ockeghem. Everyone’s punchy, so calm them down with the bright-dark counterpoint of God.

Commute: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, the bliss of release. Or Sade’s Lovers Rock.

Working Out: Oasis, Prince, Scissor Sisters.

Dinner: Milton Babbitt for the guests who won’t leave—he’ll clear ‘em right out.

Bar: Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night.

Love-making: Kelis, Missy Elliott, Die Walküre Act III.

Reading: Bach English suites, Brahms late piano music.

Sleep: John Cage, 4’33” (extended remix)

TMN: Recently at Carnegie Hall for the San Francisco Symphony, I saw a 15-year-old wearing an ascot, and he was the only person younger than me at the performance. Besides a dozen other people my age (late twenties), the audience was largely geriatric. Forgive me for rolling out an old stone, but what scene can survive when its main audience is nearly dead? Do you see your contemporaries turning to classical music as they get older, (and, if so, is it such an awful thing, to be the official soundtrack for the aging?) or are the next generations going to be rolling wheelchairs into rock clubs?

AR: Greg Sandow has depressing new statistics about aging on his blog. You can see the central demographic hump shifting inexorably to the right, from the 30s-40s group to the 40s-50s group. But I could show you concerts at Miller Theatre or BAM or almost anywhere in Europe where charming young folk fill the hall. When I went to a supposed fancy-dress gala of Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin a couple of years ago, this buzzcut dude in a tanktop and camouflage pants sat in front of me. It was kind of distracting: tremendous D-minor recapitulation vs. tremendous shoulder blade. I could use more of this kind of distraction at concerts, in place of the usual unwrapping of lozenges by retired dentists. Of course, there’s no way classical music is ever going to appeal en masse to that 18-30 demographic. And isn’t that demographic theory becoming economically suspect anyway? Why should the whole culture be held hostage to a demographic elite? If we take away that mindset, the picture is suddenly a lot less dire.

TMN: Out of curiosity, how long would you guess people have been crying classical music’s dead or practically terminal?

AR: You can find statements to the effect that we’re doomed as far back as the 14th century, when the louche tunes of Ars Nova caused a lot of people to freak out and say it’s all over, man. In 1862 August Wilhelm Ambros proclaimed that musical history was at a close, that the modern age simply lacked the creative spirit of former epochs. This was when Wagner had a little number he called Tristan waiting to go. In the ‘20s in Germany, it was said the opera houses and orchestras were in free fall, losing audiences to jazz, without social purpose. Well, the apocalypse arrived, but not in that form. I for one am totally optimistic, maybe foolishly so. The doomsday scenarios are actually encouraging because one of the great lessons of life is that nothing goes wrong in the way you expect it to. Apocalyptic thinking is always hopelessly self-involved. What a zany coincidence, that the world happens to come to an end at the exact moment Critic X gets a little older and begins to feel a-weary of the world. This is NOT directed at Sandow, by the way, who manages to be a realist and an idealist at once.

Basically, we in classical music are so full of ourselves—we have a peculiar kind of arrogance that’s internalized, that comes off as impenetrable standoffishness.

Two segments of the population should be the focus. One is very young kids. They need to be at least exposed to classical music, even if they don’t get it until later. (Actually, a lot of parents will tell you that their kids love to dance around to Bach and Mozart. Only when puberty kicks in do they “learn” that the stuff isn’t cool.) Musical history and musical notation should be an essential part of education, like literature and language. Those Mozart-makes-you-smarter studies were goofy, but I’m pretty sure learning notation does good things for the brain. The other crucial segment of the population is people in their 30s and 40s. People who’ve grown up with pop music but are maybe feeling a little old for its latest offerings. They can find this huge new world to explore. Sometimes it’s mature, sometimes it’s atavistic in ways that don’t require you to stand in line with kids who could be your kids or jump on those proto-arthritic knees. The marketing possibilities are endless: “Classical music fuckin’ rocks! But you can sit down!”

Younger people seem to have a problem not with the music itself, which they have a lot of curiosity about, but with the social atmosphere of the concert. There’s no getting around that. As I said in my piece—or did we cut it out?—it’s a “lifestyle disaster.” But here’s the paradox. The atmosphere will only change if you go to a concert and change it. It’s like politics. Do Mozart, Mahler, and Messiaen deserve your vote? Then vote for them. There’s only so much people inside the classical world can do to jump and down and wave their arms and say, Hey, we’re cool too. Ultimately, if younger audiences decide that the music deserves to die, then it will die.

TMN: But if I go to a concert at Carnegie Hall, it won’t be a thousand other 20-somethings who will improve the night. It’s that I don’t get the sense that the producers believe the works are vital, passionate things still relevant to our era. In fact, I rarely get the impression, except from the musicians, that the concert is more than an academic publishing his largely irrelevant take on a classic.

AR: Good analogy. And sometimes the musicians are as visibly uninvolved as anyone else. There’s this terrible blank-faced dutifulness about it all. People have been trained to think of classical music as something “dignified,” “civilized,” “serious.” That attitude smothers the life force that originally brought the music into the world. And the social code around classical music is so stupidly superficial. People think that if they dress a certain way, if they keep quiet and purse their lips and look thoughtful, read the program notes and murmur, “Ah, Mozart,” then they’re having a serious experience. It’s thinking from the outside in. It’s just as much of a pose, no, more of a pose, than any punk with a sneer and a nose-ring and purple hair. The ultra-stuck-up behavior only really appeared toward the end of the 19th century, when commercial popular music came into existence and upper-class symphony-goers tried to set themselves from the vulgar crowd. It had nothing to do with music—it was reactive, defensive, unserious. The word “serious” should be expunged. Everyone who commits a life to music is serious. Basically, we in classical music are so full of ourselves—we have a peculiar kind of arrogance that’s internalized, that comes off as impenetrable standoffishness. We need to acquire some humility: we need to see ourselves as servants of the public need, not as priests atop the mountain. Once that internal change happens, anything is possible.

TMN: As a critic raised on classical who later discovered pop, I bet you’re an ideal guide for those of us who’ve had it the other way around. For example, are there certain great non-classical albums you see having a twin of sorts in the classical world? If pop fans like U2 (sentimental?) or Aphex Twin (austere?) or Al Green (tender?), are there composers who immediately come to mind?

AR: I marched into pop by the difficult Arctic route. I went from avant-garde compositions by Ligeti and Xenakis to Cecil Taylor’s free jazz, and onward to the post-punk noise rock of Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. One obvious crossover is in the opposite direction. If you like the white-noisy end of rock, then you’ll almost certainly get off on Xenakis’ Metastasis or Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Requiem. Then you could move backward in time to Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and the Rite of Spring. Then keep going back to Mahler and Strauss, the semi-dissonant late-Romantics. People who are deep into electronic, DJ, and experimental music, Warp and Rephlex Records stuff, the Eno seventies classics, etc., are already aware of Steve Reich, who kind of invented that whole thing. Music for Eighteen Musicians will take your breath away if you’ve never heard it. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, Cage’s Williams Mix, the pioneering electronic works are the next step. The OHM electronic compilation is an excellent introduction. From there you can climb on the same Ligeti-Schoenberg-Mahler bus as the Sonic Youth brigade, though if you fall in love with Reich you might also immediately understand the rapid hypnotic patterning of Vivaldi and Bach, or Dufay and Machaut. If you live for U2, Led Zeppelin, one of the grander rock bands, you could easily acquire a taste for Mahler, who once imagined his music being played in stadiums. The Resurrection Symphony is many people’s starting point. Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is in the same ballpark, and, of course, Wagner, the original hammer of the gods. Emo listeners might find a kindred spirit in, I don’t know, Schubert’s gorgeously self-pitying Die schöne Müllerin cycle, or John Dowland’s Lachrimae, or John Adams’ Harmonium. This is getting risky, though. There’s so little rhyme or reason to the mechanics of taste. A Dillinger Escape Plan fan might suddenly get all tweaked out by Haydn’s string quartets, who knows. Some music simply conquers all hearts. Schubert’s String Quintet in C, for example. If that music doesn’t bring you to the edge of tears, it’s time to adjust your Wellbutrin. Ditto for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Bach cantatas, or Jessye Norman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

TMN: There is a living A-list of artists in a field that even non-fans have heard about and then there’s the B-list, artists of equal if not superior talent and careers, who are well known to fans inside the genre’s walls but rarely to the masses. Who are some of the B-listers you’re tracking in classical and opera right now and what are they up to?

AR: I think about this all the time. The A-List—those who get featured on TV and in the glossies, every so often—would include Pavarotti, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Renée Fleming, Evgeny Kissin, James Levine, Philip Glass. They’re all estimable artists, on their best days great ones. But the people at the center of my own pantheon, the people who thrill me every time I encounter their work, wouldn’t overlap with the A-List at all. They’d include Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (maybe the greatest musician alive), Karita Mattila and René Pape (singers with enormous dramatic presence), the pianists Martha Argerich and Radu Lupu, conductors Claudio Abbado and Valery Gergiev, the violinist Andrew Manze, composers György Ligeti and Thomas Adès and John Adams … I could go on. These artists all have extreme technical ability, but they also have vigor, passion, unpredictability. That’s the ingredient most classical celebrities lack. You can’t knock Yo-Yo, though. You never know what he’s going to do next. He’s Yo-Yo.

TMN: You’ve said before you think active critics should have blogs. What makes the blog format so good for critics? Isn’t the compulsion to post, presumably often, on impulse, and without editing, at odds with professional work? What are the chances you’ll talk Anthony Lane into blogging?

AR: So many rock critics have blogs—my estimable colleague Sasha, Douglas Wolk, Carl Wilson, hundreds of others as Classical critics should have blogs too. It’s one more way of escaping classical Neverland and getting out in the culture. Yeah, I do worry about the editor-free aspect, but so far I don’t seem to have got in trouble. I try to keep it whimsical rather than heavy—not to say that blogs aren’t serious, just that I need to take a lighter tone with mine. I don’t how long I can keep up my current pace of posting: I already have two jobs, writing for the New Yorker and writing my long-overdue monstrosity of a book. When my compulsiveness kicks in and I start fussing over each word, I’m in danger of burning out. I can’t ever treat writing casually. But I love writing the blog. I’d been reading blogs for years and envying them. There’s bullying and nasty-mindedness out there, as in any sector of humanity, but there’s also a purity and innocence and gentleness. Something very old-fashioned and ye-olde-general-store-ish in the way like-minded bloggers pass ideas around and quote each other with respect. I’m sure this has been noted many times before.

I doubt Anthony would dirty himself with a blog. He once told me he likes the mystique of people not knowing exactly who he is, how old and so on. Writing a blog, you sort of throw away the mystique. But that’s exactly what I wanted to do. In classical music, we got mystique out the wazoo. It’s time to demystify, fling open the windows and let in some fresh air. That’s what Nietzsche said after dwelling in Wagner’s world. Of course, right after he said that he completely lost his mind.

TMN: Have you gotten around to posting up photos of your cat? You know that’s mandatory, right?

AR: Two cats! I’ve already posted a picture of big ol’ beautiful Maulina. I wanted to name her Lulu or Salome, but my partner nixed that. Penelope, the slender diva, hasn’t approved any pictures for publication, but I might be able to get you an exclusive.

Penelope, the slender diva


Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at More by Rosecrans Baldwin