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Face to Face with ALEX ROSS

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.

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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