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Face to Face with ALEX ROSS

SS: Let’s talk about when you first encountered modern classical music first. What did you grow up with?

AR: I grew up with classical music of the 18th and 19th century variety. So modern music was also very alien to me as well when I first started listening. When I was a kid, or even in my teenage years, I was trying to listen to Mahler with mixed success. My high school piano teacher gave me my first Schoenberg piece, and I was like, “What the hell is going on?” I had a sense of being at sea, disoriented. It was a painful sensation of the notes not being in the right places. But then I really started falling in love with the strangeness of it. How I can give other people a way into this music is the whole mission of the book — to create various different thresholds where people can cross over.

SS: Well, not even just the mission of the book, of your professional life so far, right?

AR: Yeah, and so much of what I’ve written has been about 20th century classical music specifically. I come at it from various angles. When I’ve written about pop musicians, profiles of Björk and Radiohead, part of why I wanted to do those pieces is not just because I love their music, but also because these are figures who are very aware of 20th century music, were exposed to it pretty early on, and have used it in obvious ways. In writing those profiles, I’ve been able to show fans those connections, and hopefully they can make their own discoveries. It’s not the real essential purpose of those pieces, but it’s a nice side effect, for example, that people might start listening to Messiaen after I start talking about Jonny Greenwood’s love for Messiaen. That kind of thing.

SS: You have a chapter in which you talk explicitly about the Sixties and the bleed-through between what’s going on in the classical avant-garde and what’s going on in California, or in Andy Warhol’s Factory.

AR: Twice in the book the wall between classical and popular music gets broached. First with jazz and then, in the second-to-last chapter, with rock. That chapter, going from West Coast music early in the century to the New York underground of the Sixties and Seventies, was actually the most fun to write, because it’s just about an endless, surprising chain of connections. It starts in San Francisco in 1912, when this child prodigy avant-gardist, Henry Cowell, goes to study with Charles Seeger, Pete Seeger’s father, and a West Coast American experimental music tradition begins to develop. Again and again it comes back to ideas about drones, repeating figures, a certain aesthetic of hypnotic repetition also looking toward world music.

SS: Related to trance music, right?

AR: The music doesn’t always fit this description precisely, but the drones and the repetitions are always murmuring in the background. Cowell, the young John Cage, Lou Harrison, La Monte Young. In the early Sixties, Steve Reich moves out to the West Coast and picks up some of these ideas and carries them back to New York.

SS: Steve Reich was also deeply inspired by popular music.

AR: Grew up with bebop. And there’s also the idea of chordless music in postwar jazz, fixed harmonies, improvisation over drones. And the most amazing thing is when all this starts flowing into rock in the late Sixties, directly through the Velvet Underground.

SS: Directly from the Velvet Underground you would say?

AR: Well, sometimes it’s sort of hard to say who influenced whom, who invents what. But with the Velvets there’s definitely a verifiable impact, because the precursor to the Velvets, the Primitives, consisted of Lou Reed plus players from La Monte Young’s ensemble. Right away you can sense this idea about drones, a fifth being sustained through entire songs, just the kinds of things that La Monte had been heavily concentrating on. One of La Monte’s most famous, far-out gestures, in 1960, was to write two notes separated by the interval of the fifth — [sings “pom, pom”] — “to be held for a long time.” Two notes would be held forever and everyone would just sit and contemplate them. You get an echo of that in the huge drones in “Heroin” and other great early Velvets songs.

But what I also love about this story is the surprising link to European music. In the late Fifties, La Monte was entranced by Anton Webern, the most recondite, super-refined of 12-tone composers. Webern wrote music so pure and stripped down that it hovers on the edge of a weird kind of Austrian minimalism. What La Monte did was to slow everything down so the notes would be held for a minute or more and chord changes would happen so slowly that you are suddenly in this completely different world, a droning, sustained, hypnotic music that looks straight toward the minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. So there are just a few degrees of separation between the Austrian 12-tone master and the Velvet Underground.

SS: What does it even mean to say classical music, and where are the lines drawn? Because if we’re going to talk about the bleed-through between music, where does one music end and another begin? What are we really talking about when we talk about classical music?

AR: There is no such thing as classical music for me. It’s not a genre. When you go through the whole thousand-year history of so-called classical music, it takes in early polyphonic church music to renaissance songs and baroque dance suites, Mozart concertos, the grand symphonic tradition that starts with Beethoven, Wagner, Schoenberg’s atonality, Stravinsky’s vital rhythmic experiments. Once you get into the 20th century, you’re talking about this ridiculous variety of sounds from electronic noise to conservative romantics to hybrid Gershwin and Bernstein pieces that are half opera, half musical theater, etc. You’re left with a very tentative definition of what we’re talking about when we say “classical.” It usually has something to do with someone writing down music on paper and giving it to someone else to perform. And even there you sometimes have composers asking players to improvise, so that definition fails too. Basically, these are people who have been trained a certain way, trained in a certain tradition. They may end up totally defying it and writing something unrecognizable, but it does emerge out of centuries-old ideas.

SS: We can define it according to what it’s not. It’s not folk music, right?

AR: More or less. Although there are definitely composers who turned into ethnomusicologists, like Bartók and Percy Grainger, who blended the distinction between classical and folk.

SS: Charles Seeger.

AR: Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford turned from writing music to collecting and editing folk songs. A composer for me is someone who uses the music that is out there and sort of manipulates it, binds it with something else and twists it to his or her own creative personality.

SS: Jazz has sometimes aspired to the condition of classical music — Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. Has it become classical music, and if not, why not? Is there great music that is both jazz and classical?

AR: There’s always been a sort of weird envy across the border between classical and jazz. Jazz artists have wanted to have something of the kind of institutional recognition and creative freedom that composers, especially 20th century composers, have possessed. And on the other side, many composers, especially in the Twenties and Thirties, felt that classical music had been cordoned off from the mainstream of society and from its folk and popular roots. So they wanted to come down to earth, especially those who had been born around 1900 and lived through the First World War and as teenagers had seen this horrifying suicide of European civilization. They saw jazz as a new force coming out of the New World that would sweep all wreckage aside. They wanted to have this freedom with casualness that jazz artists had. In a way, each group was trying to escape. Jazz artists were trying to escape the confines of popular commercial music and classical composers wanted to escape from a rigidly defined concert-hall code. Perhaps someday they will meet, and we will have the perfect music.


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