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Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Y Music Talk: Alex Ross


Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker since 1996, hosts a brunch discussion here on 20th Century Music—specifically, the poetic roots in Debussy’s “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’” and Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet—this Sunday, April 1. To prep you for the morning roust and toast, composer Kirk Noreen from the 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts spoke with Ross about his first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and rock/pop acts like Radiohead and Björk among other things.

Kirk Noreen: There have been a number of technological advances in music in the last 10 years that have markedly changed how we acquire, write, produce, sell and distribute music.  Which technological advances could have the greatest positive impact on classical music in the future?

Alex Ross: Classical music is in a funny position with regard to technology because the majority of its repertory is anti-technological, depending on the natural resonance of instruments in a room. I think the music takes on extra allure when so much of our experience is electronically mediated; there’s almost a shock value in hearing pure, raw, unplugged sound. In the same way, the music has never really “worked” on recordings; something’s always lost, even on high-end stereo systems, never mind iPods. But the Internet and iTunes have apparently caused a minor surge in classical sales — there’s a debate on this, as you can read on my blog — for a couple of reasons. Veteran collectors can more easily find almost anything from the entire thousand-year range of the repertory online. And neophytes can more easily try things out and find what they like than in the record stores of yore. (Some never dared to venture through the forbidding doors of the Tower Records classical room.) The next technological advance that’s needed for classical music is higher-quality amplification for outdoor concerts and non-standard venues.

KN: What was the most striking concert you attended in the last year?

AR: Probably Steve Reich’s seventieth-birthday concert in October, in the main auditorium at Carnegie Hall. His 1976 masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians cast the same complex spell as ever, and it was thrilling to see Reich receiving the mass adulation he deserves. When Terry Riley first heard La Monte Young’s drone music, he compared it to the “sun coming up over the Ganges.” That’s what Reich’s music did for the dark-minded twentieth century.

KN: Do you ever poorly review concerts? Is there a place for critics to do this?

AR: I write my share of bad reviews, but I don’t relish it. When I go strongly negative, it’s usually in the direction of fat, juicy, obvious targets, such as ridiculously overpaid celebrity conductors and shock-chic European opera directors. Most of what I write veers positive, for the simple reason that we’re living in a golden age of classical composition and performance and there’s so much to be positive about. There is far more happening today in terms of new music and new-music ensembles than when I was starting out as a critic in the early nineties. Orchestras such as the LA Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony have revitalized that conservative end of the business. Young musicians are trying out new concert formats, venturing into different kinds of spaces, putting their work on the internet, becoming more a part of mainstream culture. The joy of the job is in finding the great ones early and celebrating them.

KN: You have a book coming out on 20th century music. Could you give us a preview of what it covers?

AR: It’s called The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and it will be published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. It address a basic question: why, when paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock go for a hundred million dollars or more on the art market and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, is twentieth-century classical music still considered obscure and difficult? In fact, it’s better known than most people realize. Post-1900 music is all over Hollywood soundtracks, modern jazz, alternative rock. The minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass has had a huge impact on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground to Aphex Twin. What I want to do is to provide an intelligent introduction to this fabulous, labyrinthine world: not just the music itself, from Schoenberg and Stravinsky onward, but the entire cultural and social tumult around it: the Rite of Spring riot, the interaction of composers and jazz people in the twenties, the entanglement of composers in totalitarian regimes, the weird intersections of post-WWII avant-garde composers and Cold War politics, the origins of minimalism in the alternative philosophies of the West Coast. It’s not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century told through music.

KN: I’ve read you write about the group Radiohead in the same way as you write about classical music. Are there any groups in the rock/popular world that, in your opinion, reach the sophistication of classical music or for that matter Radiohead?

AR: For me, among current groups/singers, Radiohead and Björk are in a league of their own. I’m anticipating their forthcoming albums in the same way I look forward to the next pieces by leading composers like John Adams, Thomas Adès, Kaija Saariaho, and Osvaldo Golijov. I haven’t found anything in the last year or two that’s excited me as Kid A and Vespertine did, but, honestly I haven’t been working too hard at it. Once my book is done, I am going to check out these Arcadian Monkeys the kids are so excited about. Also, I understand there’s a lot of music out there on “MyTube” and “YouSpace.”

KN: If you could invite any composer or musician, dead or alive over to a dinner party, who would it be?

AR: I’m tempted to say Mozart or Mahler, but I’ll go with Alban Berg. He was a mightily great composer and also a gentle, compassionate, sympathetic man — not something you can say about most geniuses.

[Alex Ross on 20th Century Music: 4/1/07]

  • Note: Young Literary Salon (ages 35 and under) $10 tickets are available for this event.
  • Previous: Y Music Talks

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