Taking the Music to the People
Alex Ross on the highs and lows of the 20th century
BY SUZI STEFFEN
When classical music writer Alex Ross started contributing to The New Yorker in 1996, the magazine didn’t have any kind of music critic. Now both Ross and popular-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones provide gorgeous, solid and fascinating writing about all kinds of music history, theory, sound and impact. But Ross also just published The Rest Is Noise (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30), a heavy but fascinating tome about the oversized personalities and historical clashes of 20th century music. We had the opportunity to speak with Ross the day before he flew off on his book tour.
Tell me about the process of writing the book while writing for The New Yorker. How did you find the time to produce such a well-researched work?
It’s two jobs, a day job and a night job, and I spent three years writing and two years cutting. The trick was to produce a book that would have a narrative for general readers who may not know a lot about the subject. There’s so much drama inherent in the subject, but it’s a really amazing cast of characters to work with in the 20th century itself. Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Strauss, Britten — they’re all extraordinary people, and you have them in this seething context of politics, history, social change and technological advance. At every turn, there’s some unbelievable situtation to recount, these moments where you can tease out strands that lead in all different directions instead of seeing this music as something separated from society and completely isolated.
In your famous 2004 New Yorker piece “Listen to This,” you say, “I don’t listen to music to be civilized; sometimes, I listen precisely to escape the ordered world.” Why do you think so many people associate the idea of classical music with an order and civilization that we must rebel against?
A lot of people very deliberatedly cultivated that attitude within classical music over the years. Orchestras were conceived as bastions of civilization that hold a common culture of vulgarity at bay. Rituals and codes of behavior became ingrained in concert experience — no applauding between movements, for instance. These are codes of conduct invented in the early 20th century that are foreign to what the composers originally had in mind.
It’s just a tragedy because, you know, the great composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, this is music that does not stand aloof from some kind of mass society, the life of the street. This music is shot through with folkish melody and earthy emotion and primal rhythm. That could not have been created in the classical culture we have today, the self-consciously high-falutin’ kind of world. Without just vulgarizing the concert experience and making it purely silly, I think we can loosen up a little bit in terms of concert dress or this really inane focus on when to applaud and when not to applaud.
Sometimes I wonder about the interaction of cinema scores with our experience of listening to classical music. It seems nigh-on impossible to hear the music without being tempted by visual accompaninment.
It’s an interesting phenomenon which I’ve thought about in terms of how classical music is perceived in America particularly. In the ’30s and ’40s, movie scores were written by gifted or leading composers. This late Romantic musical language, and a lot of modern languages too, became embedded in these iconic music images. When you hear a big string section swelling, Bette Davis weeping appears in your head. When you hear atonal chords or flashing Bartok figures, they make you think of Psycho. It’s a stumbling block for people who have to dissociate sound from the movies in order to get at music itself. But the music came first, and the movies came later.
Why should people who think the symphony is only for old, white people start listening to [classical] music? And where should they start (other than getting your book as a holiday present)?
It does have that image, and the concerts aren’t super diverse in terms of age or race, although sometimes when I go see indie rock outfits, I tend to see a lot of white people there too — but that’s another matter. The new music audience looks quite different and is composed differently; there are a number of boisterous music ensembles. Maybe don’t start with going to hear Beethoven at the symphony. Get a symphony of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, classic 20th century pieces, and work back from there, rather than confronting mainstream classical music repertory.
But it’s not one thing, not one [single type of] sound; classical is a thousand years of music covering the spectrum from pure avant-garde noise literally to John Cage’s silence to medieval chant to 19th century Romantic opera to Baroque dance pieces to minimalism to every conceivable area. The sound you desire, you can find it somewhere in the classical canon, no matter what it is. I’d encourage people to be open to the possibility that classical music is still here after a thousand years for a reason: It has something incredibly important to say.
Alex Ross reads from The Rest is Noise at 7:30 pm Monday, Oct. 22, at Powell’s on Burnside, Portland.