Alex Ross: Critic as Performance Artist

Ken Bullock on September 27, 2010
Alex Ross

Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker since 1996, returns to the Bay Area for Cal Performances’ Strictly Speaking series on Oct. 14, addressing (and sampling) “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History,” from his brand-new book, Listen to This, due Sept. 28 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Ross was here last April, reading selections from The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, his 2007 volume on modern music, with Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus providing lively backing on the ivories. Both book and performance were a great success. To catch up a little, we recently spoke about his last tour and the enthusiastic response accorded to The Rest Is Noise, as well as about what he’ll talk about in October — plus this and that which came up along the way. (Alex Ross’ Web site can be found here.)


How do you look back on your appearances with Ethan Iverson, reading from The Rest Is Noise? And how will the Strictly Speaking talk follow that act?

I had a wonderful time. I’ve given many lectures before, over the years, but these really fell into the category of performance. They were built around Ethan’s playing. And he was wonderful.

I found myself on the other side of the curtain, experiencing it from the side of the performer. It was nerve-racking! At the same time, I’m content with my anonymous place in the audience, as a critic. But there should be more performances in the future; I’m just not sure when or where.

The talk in October will be a more straightforward lecture, but with a ton of music in it. It’s from the second chapter of my new book, one portion of which is entirely new, the rest from The New Yorker — all revised, some half-new.

It’s a tour through almost all of music history from the medieval period, with plentiful examples, of how certain sentimental motifs have gained their emotional connotations. How the chaconne started out as a Spanish dance, then became a much more serious form ... heard in music through Bach, Brahms, up to the present ... and the lamento, a solemn descending bass line ... a kind of scarlet thread, running from the past, up to Led Zeppelin.

Of course, some of it’s associative, speculative. We can’t always know the exact emotional connotations a musical figure had.

This would seem to parallel the research into the relationship between music and language, music and cognition ...

I have a bunch of books on music and the brain, music and language. ... I think Aniruddh Patel’s Music, Language and the Brain is a wonderful book. Some of the others are more superficial. To me, it’s very intimidating, the way both languages may connect in the brain. I’m an aesthete, not a scientist! Some of the discussion’s hard to decipher.

But some of what I’m presenting in the talk is deeper than language, something more primitive — the musical imitation of a sigh, a sob: something not even unique to humans. Some of these motifs extend across cultures, centuries. ...

People attacked [Leonard] Bernstein, who was deep into this sort of thing in his Norton lectures, for his “undergrad style,” his “free-association attempts.” It was pretty freewheeling. But I read a commentator recently who said, in light of the newer research, that maybe he was on to something.

In both the talk and the essay in my new book, I try to hold back from really definite claims on the subject, acknowledging its speculativeness.

How did the very positive reaction to the publication of The Rest Is Noise — and to the appearances you made — affect you?

It was all rather amazing to me. I couldn’t possibly have conceived of it. Like an unfolding dream! I could conceive of The Rest Is Noise disappearing without a trace. Many good books do. I didn’t have an inkling that a book on classical music could break through to a wide audience, more than anytime in years. ...

I threw myself energetically into writing the book. And into seizing people’s attention, in great part through the Internet — a fascinating, chaotic world, where a link can carry you from one topic to another. You can insert classical music into the conversation. The audio examples on my blog are useful to people coming to a new subject, who haven’t heard the sounds.

But it’s all been a great surprise — bewildering to someone used to being an anonymous observer in the audience. To be a published author nowadays, you have to make appearances, do interviews, make a spectacle of yourself. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

Using your “slightly demented iTunes playlist” as audio for your upcoming talk sounds a little like another kind of performance: a DJ ...

[Laughs] Instead of stopping the lecture to point at the booth, some carefully edited samples on computer, played in rapid succession ... makes it more palatable.

What really matters to me most about all of this is that people are suddenly making a conversation about 20th-century composers they didn’t have before.

I started out thinking, Why does everybody talk about, look at [Jackson] Pollock; read T. S. Eliot and [James] Joyce; watch [Stanley] Kubrick, [Federico] Fellini, and [Andrei] Tarkovsky films — but not talk about, listen to, [Igor] Stravinsky, [Olivier] Messaien, Steve Reich? ...

Most of the public doesn’t spend much time listening to, or caring about, classical music. Those who do care are turned off by contemporary composers. I wanted to show them the connections between the music and contemporary life. And it’s a peculiar conundrum: They do know this music, this language, from the Twilight Zone theme, and from movies that have made hundreds of millions of dollars. But it’s unfamiliar to them in concert! There was a need to address that.

What are your thoughts about current events that revolve around what some speak of as the crisis in classical music — the situation with the Detroit Symphony, for instance, with a possible strike coming up?

It’s a very serious situation in Detroit, which a lot of people think of as the canary in the coal mine. ... A sign of coming troubles.

These profound financial issues are not necessarily a crisis of classical music at large; more of the place of the orchestra in the city. San Francisco’s so fortunate; the area around the Opera House and Symphony [Hall] are so easily accessible, with a tremendous population living nearby. The performing institutions are in the heart of the city. New York is the same way: Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center are right smack in the heart.

Elsewhere, the audience has fled into the suburbs; it’s very difficult to bring the people back. I’m less worried about audiences aging and dying off; I think others will fill their seats. But even if programs sell out every night, they still need massive donations. That money crunch hangs over every institution.

A great phenomenon is the enormous number of younger musicians. Despite being enormously skilled, they can’t get the top jobs. So they’re devising alternatives — and there’s been an explosion of classical, indie, and New Music ensembles. It’s a thriving world right now, the brighter side of things.

What about the audiences, with all the talk about the decline of classical music?

It’s ironic. Far more people listen now than 50, 100 years ago. In Asia, South America, even the Middle East. Australia’s obviously [been] a thriving scene for a number of decades. In Europe, there’ve been striking developments. It’s global now; it wasn’t, a century ago.

Audiences have weathered crises before. During the ’60s, there was a lot of talk about the aging of the audience. Steps were taken then; some of the same are being — or could be — taken now.

There’s no need to convert everyone to classical music. You win them over, one by one. Each orchestra, each chamber group, finds its own solutions that fit community taste. Not one size fits all.

We’re evolving away from “Classical Music™” ... this brand, this product, strictly defined. ... A more diverse image is becoming better for each group.

There’s still that foreboding on the part of so many: the sense of loss, the end of an era ...

The sadness, the melancholy, is more in America than elsewhere. “It’s not the way it used to be.” It’s a peculiarly American conundrum, and very old here, really. The American problem with classical music has always been singular, quite distinct in the way it happens here, rather than elsewhere.

Classical music has tenacity, the ability to take root in new places. And the condescending argument about it being “an upwardly mobile thing” puts millions of people into a tight little category. The music reaches out, grabs people.

Where does this put the composer? The critic?

Finding these threads of diversity, making them known, takes you through a world of many languages. ...

The beauty of classical music is in its absorptive power.

The idea of a composer observing what’s going on around him, of emerging from tradition to find an identity, make a statement through music — [this is] an infinitely malleable idea, from Hildegard [of Bingen] to Monteverdi to hip-hop. Absorbing, transforming any given music. ...

Critics now do have an obligation to listen more widely, acknowledge the breadth of the musical moment.

Young musicians today never knew the world of classical music, in any way, as the dominant art form. Of Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne on late-night talk shows or the covers of newsmagazines, like it still was when I was a kid. They’re not weighed down, pining for a lost world. ...

The question of the place of the critic, for me, becomes how to cope with the overload of information. Making sense of chaos: a very important role to take. We need leadership; we need clear, useful criticism to stave off the sense of rising chaos. Chaos can be good. ...

There’re new voices coming to the fore. They’re getting their music out without getting a commission from the Philharmonic, without the middleman. ... They’re getting noticed — but does that make a career?