Alex Ross, music critic, is the author of Listen to This, a collection of essays from The New Yorker. Amy Whipple and Ross discuss the relevance of classical music, Björk, and Aaron Copland’s checking account.
In September, Alex Ross released his second book, Listen to This, comprised primarily of work from his fourteen (and counting) years as the music critic to The New Yorker. His first collection, The Rest Is Noise (2007), comes from the same. Listen to This (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) discusses music as far-reaching as the beloved classical composers to Bob Dylan to Radiohead. The writing is surprisingly accessible to the non-music-savvy reader and, in the end, is more about the music-makers and listeners than the specificities of music itself. For those who need/want to catch-up or brush-up on particular musical pieces, the book includes access to a streaming guide of samples.
Amy Whipple In organizing the collection, what prompted your decision to begin on a classical note, so to speak? Is it just a case of “if someone’s going to ditch this book because it talks about classical music, then I don’t have to worry about alienating them anyway”?
Alex Ross That’s funny! I didn’t intend that message. Now that I think about it, maybe it was a good idea to let people know what kind of hornet’s nest they’re getting into! But the fact that the first chapter begins with the line “I hate classical music: not the thing but the name” should give a clue that I am not interested in classical-music business-as-usual. Of course I’m aware that many people may find the topic alienating or less than riveting. It’s not that they hate classical music per se—who really hates Mozart?—but that they don’t find it relevant to their lives. A major project in this book is to demonstrate the relevance: explain how Mozart or Verdi casts light on the world in which we live, how pop musicians like Björk and Radiohead have drawn on classical tradition, how something as simple as a four-note bass line can unite all these genres and mean almost the same thing.
AW What made the book accessible and interesting to me was how much it wasn’t about the specific music itself. It doesn’t matter that I’ve long forgotten how to read music or that “A-G-F-E are heard thirty-four times in succession.” Is that a conscious balance that you look for, if not in writing, then in revision?
AR Definitely. I always have in mind the different readers in my audience—those who may know all this musical vocabulary and those who know none of it. I do like to put in a bit of technical description, since it grounds the piece in reality. Baseball writers may talk poetically about the sound of the ball hitting the bat or the feeling of tension when the bases are loaded, but they also specify double plays and walks and other basics of the game. In the same way, I mention a chord here or a key there. But I don’t dwell on such stuff for very long. I think of it as a patch of thin ice that readers can skate over.
AW While we’re on the subject, how much time do you spend specifically researching and how much of this is the pleasant result of a life’s love? I mean, you’ve got the balance of Copland’s checking account. The book is filled with fun facts like that without ever seeming like filler.
AR I do like to put in research time on everything I write, even for shorter columns, where I can trot out only a fraction of what I’ve gathered. I enjoy finding the little detail that is vivid in itself while telling you something more substantial about a composer or a musical scene. The fact that Aaron Copland, one of the leading American classical composers, had $6.93 in his checking account in 1938—this comes from Howard Pollack’s biography—indicates his financial status relative to a popular artist like Gershwin, who was making a half-million dollars a year. It also says something about his generosity: he was always giving money to colleagues and to causes he believed in.
AW Many of the people in your essays decry various incarnations of the destruction of music as we know it. You, however, seem to be relentlessly positive. Where does that come from?
AR It’s funny—when I put this book together I realized that it did present a fairly positive picture of musical life. There are, of course, major problems, scary challenges. Classical institutions are currently struggling to figure out how to sustain themselves through financial crisis, and also to find new audiences in younger generations. This book consists of longer essays and profiles, though, and when I devote that much time to a subject it’s usually because I feel some passion for it. I get a bit snarkier in my shorter pieces. Although the institutions may struggle, I’m perfectly optimistic about the survival of the music itself. Bach—he’s not going anywhere. He’s survived for hundreds of years, and he has far more listeners now than he could possibly have conceived of when he was alive. He will be the last to die, after everything else is gone: “Did you know there used to be a thing called the Internet? Let’s listen again to the Ciaccona in D Minor.”
AW The large middle portion of the book is a series of portraits in the same vast range as the rest of your work. Is there someone you’d like to write about, but you haven’t yet figured out how to or whatever – or have you gotten to all your favorites?
AR That’s an interesting question. I have always wanted to write a big piece about jazz—Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, or Cecil Taylor—but I’m intimidated by the technical side of things. I simply don’t know enough about how jazz works to pull off an article like that. There are certainly many more favorite composers and musicians that I want to cover. I’ve never done a long profile of a singer, and I have yet to write about Claude Debussy, a personal favorite.
AW In looking at that idea from a larger perspective, in your preface you write, “The difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe a sound but to describe a human being.” Listen to This is an incredible search for a comprehensive vision of the music-makers. In looking at the pieces together, have you come to any greater conclusions about how we write about/understand musicians (or artists in general)?
AR It’s so difficult to observe someone’s craft and then to relate that work to the surrounding life and world. Every claim of cause and effect is tenuous. Sometimes you don’t need to know anything—and in the case of Bach, for example, we really don’t know much about what he was like. But I think it’s helpful to have information at your fingertips—facts, figures, stories, theories about the music. You can use it or ignore, as you wish. You may find that some odd bit of info opens a door into a world that seemed closed to you.
AW Also in your preface you say that you were able to revise some of the pieces from their initial publications. Some, like your Dylan profile, are over a decade old. How complicated does time-passed make your revisions? For instance, is it hard to let a piece remain in certain point in time rather than expand its end point?
AR When I was writing about active musicians like Dylan or Björk, I was taking a snapshot of a particular point in time. Obviously, each has continued to develop, so that the pieces have become historical documents, in a way. I was tempted to update them, but it would spoil the entire structure—I’d almost have to start over. There are some remarks in the “listening guide” appendix about their more recent work, but for the most part the revisions were concerned with style, continuity, making the pieces fit together. In particular, I inserted a bunch of short commentaries on the “chaconne” and “lament” themes from the second chapter. They show up throughout the book, the Dylan chapter included. “Simple Twist of Fate” has much the same bass line as Dido’s Lament, from Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas.
AW And, lastly, if you had to guess, what contemporary genre/musician might be exalted in two hundred years as classical musicians are today? (I know you write that every genre of music eventually becomes classical, but classical is still tops in its classicalness.)
AR Of course, as a classical type, I trust that contemporary composers like Kaija Saariaho and Georg Friedrich Haas will still be played in two hundred years. Other than that, hip-hop is the contemporary form that people will pay attention to. It is the most original music of our era—it doesn’t sound like anything that came before.