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Face to Face with ALEX ROSS: Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Alex Ross in his New York apartment, 2008 / Photograph by MARK MAHANEY


Friday, March 13, 2009

The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Click here for more on 20 Interviews


By Alex Abramovich

I first noticed Alex Ross’s byline when I was a college student, reading Kurt Cobain’s obituary in The New Yorker. This was 14 years ago, but I still remember which diner booth I was sitting in. And when I graduated, I moved to New York and became a writer, in part because that obituary had made such a deep impression, and opened up so many possibilities.

That obituary was Ross’s second piece for the magazine; he was, then, a preternaturally young and gifted classical music critic at the New York Times. But the fact that The New Yorker drafted a classical music critic to eulogize Cobain in the first place said less about whatever pretensions that magazine might have had than it does about Ross’s abilities as a critic: If the term “classical music” does no justice to the form he most often writes about, then the phrase “classical music critic” does a disservice to Ross himself. It’s not every day that you stumble across an Alex Ross.

Earlier this year, Ross’s greatest achievement — his remarkable book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century — helped win him a MacArthur Fellowship. It was well deserved: Ross is an evangelist for the music he writes about, and he’s got a rare gift for reaching beyond the built-in, classical-record-buying audience: For making connections between John Cage and Sonic Youth, or Franz Liszt and Fletcher Henderson, and pulling the rest of us into musical worlds we might ordinarily be wary of or intimidated by. The wit, grace, honesty and urgency of his prose are also worth mentioning, as is the startling power of his imagery and his ability to translate specific technicalities into layman’s terms without eliding their beauty or complexity. (Incidentally, Ross has also written the best essays yet on popular musicians — Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Kiki and Herb — he’s turned his attention to.) In my opinion, Ross is perhaps the best music critic this nation has ever produced. But over and above that, he is a wonderful, endlessly delightful writer who defies any category you’d want to impose on him.

We spoke last October, over sushi and Diet Cokes, in a noisy restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

Stop Smiling: Why did you write this particular book?

Alex Ross: I feel like I had no choice. I’d been obsessed with 20th century classical music since college, and I’d written a series of pieces for The New Yorker focusing on the likes of Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. I’d also had this parallel fascination with history, especially with the political dramas of the 20th century in America and Europe. So it all converged. The question was, how was I going to do it and what kind of book would it be.

SS: Was there a specific click where it all came together in your head? Or was it all gradual?

AR: No, it was a really slow and painful process. At first I thought I was going to write a shorter, breezier kind of book, closely based on my New Yorker pieces but with some new material added. I envisioned a provocative, contrarian take on 20th century music history. There’s a sort of standard narrative, having to do with modernism, technical forward leaps, the development of atonality, 12-tone music and successive avant-garde ideas. I wanted to look outside of that narrative, bring in all the composers who didn’t fit, question the underlying assumptions — even as I gave due space and respect to the familiar modernist heroes.

After getting some ways into it, I got more and more immersed in the historical context. I researched music during Roosevelt’s New Deal, music in Nazi Germany. I spent time in the National Archives studying the American occupation of Germany and other topics. I ended up with a vast, sprawling, overambitious manuscript. I terrified my editor with individual chapters that were running 30,000 to 35,000 words, practically short books themselves. It was turning into a bad situation. I literally hadn’t realized how much I had written until I finished the first draft. I typed the last words of my final chapter while riding New Jersey Transit coming back from Newark. When I got home I started running these chapters through the word count. It was 390,000 words — twice as long as the final published book. There was some initial discussion that maybe it should be a two-volume book. But I wanted to go back to my original idea to some extent. I wanted to write a book that would be under 600 pages, that an average person, whether they were interested in classical music or not, could pick up and comfortably consume in a few sittings. I didn’t want to write some ponderous tome.

SS: Or a daunting one.

: So the whole process went in reverse. I spent the next two years cutting the book in half. Yet that process, which I really, really don’t want to ever go through again, did enable me to have the best of both worlds in some ways. I ended up thinking very hard about what I really did want to include and what were the stories that mattered. Ultimately, I feel pretty good about the balance I achieved.

SS: Has your understanding of music and history changed thanks to and in the course of writing this book?

AR: I started out with some core beliefs and enthusiasms, most of which haven’t changed. You know, the whole book began with my obsession with Strauss’s opera Salome, a pivotal and ambiguous piece. Parts of it are very daring and adventurous; other parts look back in time and don’t at all fit the model of a kind of modernist revolutionary work. For me, Salome contains within it various paths that composers would take over the course of the 20th century. It’s hardly a perfect creation, but I’m simply fascinated by it, and also by Strauss’s life. At the beginning of the century, he’s this sort of grand figure in German music, but also very provocative and daring. Thirty-five years later, he’s a figurehead in the Nazi cultural bureaucracy and being psychologically manipulated by Goebbels and ultimately humiliated.

SS: So many of the characters in your book are at that Salome performance: Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, the young Hitler.

AR: Yes, that’s the other great reason for starting with Salome.

SS: Is there a point, with a figure like Schoenberg, where you’ve banged your head enough you feel like you’ve actually figured him out?

AR: Almost. Schoenberg’s pieces are thrilling in themselves, exploding with new sounds and unbelievably strong emotions. Then there’s the accompanying ideology, the rather didactic notion of forward progress in music, the supposed ban on tonality. It becomes a question of squaring the music with the surrounding intellectual noise. This happens again and again in 20th century history. Talented composers tended to get caught up in these disputes and got carried away with certain intellectual concepts, but the really talented ones remain great composers no matter how gnarly the rhetoric surrounding them. That’s a big part of the task of the book, separating the music from the surrounding clatter, even while enjoying the clatter for what it is.

SS: People have the impression that this is a fairly abstract music, when in fact it turns out this is a music that’s profoundly influenced by the world around it and has much more influence on the world around it than we’ve been led to believe.

AR: When people look at a painting by Jackson Pollock, they don’t see it as intellectual, abstract work. They see it as very viscerally beautiful and captivating. A Morton Feldman or John Cage piece should be heard the same way. Likewise, you go back to the period when Schoenberg and Kandinsky were in very close contact and shared a lot of goals and ideas. The Kandinsky paintings are widely beloved. Schoenberg still gives people a lot of trouble. We haven’t grown up with Schoenberg and Feldman the way we have with Kandinsky and Rothko, whom we’ve seen on school trips to museums in eighth grade and that kind of thing.


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