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Alex Ross Interview

Posted on 13 September 2007. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

C:T talks to Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker since 1996, author of the forthcoming cultural history of music since 1900, entitled The Rest is Noise and of a very popular and similarly-titled blog

Alex Ross
First off, tell us about your new book, "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" which is published this autumn and which you describe as "a cultural history of music since 1900". How does it distinguish itself from other books on the subject such as, for example, the two by Paul Griffiths.

My book differs from many prior histories of twentieth-century music ó such as the superb books by Paul Griffiths, Arnold Whittall, Joan Peyser, Glenn Watkins, and Robert Morgan, among others ó in that it devotes nearly as much space to cultural and political events as to purely musical ones. It is more a history of the twentieth century told through music rather than a history of music itself. I have endeavored to give as complete a picture as space will allow of the context surrounding such developments as the breakthrough to atonality, the rise of populist idioms in the 1930s, and the explosion of the international avant-garde after 1945. The book is intended very much for the general intellectual reader, who may or may not be able to read musical notation; hence, you wonít see musical examples or very dense technical descriptions of individual works. However, I am hoping that there will be passages of interest to those well versed in the literature. For one thing, Iíve devoted considerable space to figures such as Sibelius, Copland, Shostakovich, and Britten, who often figure marginally or not at all in twentieth-century histories, on account of their apparent lack of innovation. My aim, above all, has been to integrate ďconservativeĒ and ďprogressiveĒ strains in modern music, often by questioning the ideological underpinnings of such terms. As a listener, I take equal delight in Xenakisís Metastaseis and Brittenís The Turn of the Screw, both written in the 1950s, and I hope to encourage readers to do the same. You clearly have catholic tastes in music, but where is your heart?

My heart lies with classical music, however defined, whether it is Ockeghemís Missa Prolatonium, Schubertís B-flat-major Sonata, Bergís Wozzeck, or Feldmanís Rothko Chapel. In the twentieth century, I think I am most fascinated by works that stage confrontations of consonance and dissonance, or of historical and modern languages. Both the Berg and the Feldman fit that description. Richard Straussís music fascinates me because of its propensity to stage such collisions; thatís why I begin the book with Salome.

What trends do see emerging in contemporary music at the moment?

Contemporary music is obviously in a fluid and unpredictable state, though, for me, also a hugely promising one. It is often said that the modernist strain is exhausted, but to hear works by very young, twentysomething composers influenced by Lachenmann or Ferneyhough indicates otherwise. Again, itís the meeting of extremes, the integration of seemingly irreconcilable possibilities, that seems to fascinate me most. We may be in a period where composers will work on synthesizing the innovations of the last fifty or hundred years rather than seeking out new sounds. Incorporating techniques from popular music and from global folk sources is a very lively area right now, although composers always have to be concerned about glibness when it comes to appropriating non-classical traditions. I wonít make any predictions about where itís all headed. Whether or not composers attempt a grand synthesis or pursue particular avenues in pure-minded fashion, I think itís the job of listeners to be as eclectic as possible, to reject nothing on a priori grounds.

How would you describe the new music scene in the US as compared to Europe and elsewhere?

The obvious difference between American and European trends is that many more American composers are open to the idea of using tonality or tonal materials in one form or another. Tonality is not exactly verboten on the Continent, as a visit to the Netherlands will show, but itís much less common. Speaking off the cuff, I would say that American music is, as a result, rather more diverse in its attitudes, with some following Ferneyhough and some following John Adams and some trying to follow both. However, if I lived in Europe and heard more live concerts I might be aware of a diversity that is presently not so easily evident to me.

What do you see as the role of newspaper-based music criticism?

I havenít done newspaper criticism since 1996, but itís hugely important, because, especially in America, newspapers are among the very few general-interest media venues where classical music is allowed a (small) place at the table. In this country classical-music coverage has all but disappeared from general-interest magazines; at the New Yorker I am one of very few critics writing in a national magazine on a regular basis. I believe that critics in such positions have an extra responsibility not merely to deliver objective judgments on the musical scene but in some way to serve as the face of classical music itself, and to explain it to a wider public. Some critics would disagree strongly with that prescription; they donít want to be advocates or appreciators. For me, I relish that role; it gives me a certain sense of social usefulness.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

To young composers just starting out, I would advise strongly not to become too behold to a particular technique or method of training, not to become limited by a purely intellectual or academic conception of the composerís role in society. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, Debussy warned that too many modern works ďsmell of the lamp, not of the sun,Ē and that warning certainly became all the more relevant after 1945. This is not to say that you should adopt some very simplistic or readily communicable language. Itís that the intellectual and the emotional sides of the equation must be kept in balance. Xenakis was always aware of this. Despite his mathematical constructs, he wanted most of all for his music to have a purely visceral impact, and he succeeded. So, whatever language you are using, seek ways to make the emotional dimension of the work transparent. What is at stake? What is it that must be said and cannot be said in another way? These are vague questions, but as a listener I know that certain works answer them with extraordinary specificity and urgency, whether itís Osvaldo Golijovís St. Mark Passion or Georg Friedrich Haasís in vain.

You write for the New Yorker, you've written a book, you blog. What else are you up to?

Writing a book is a full-time job in itself, so for several years Iíve essentially been holding down two jobs simultaneously, while also launching this blog, which became more of a daily activity than Iíd initially planned. (Itís a highly addictive medium.) So I havenít been doing too much else on the side. But I try to keep up with reading. This summer I read the second volume of Simon Callowís Orson Welles biography, Richard Powersís remarkable though rather troubling musical novel The Time of Our Singing, Robertson Daviesís very entertaining Cornish Trilogy, and the second volume of Proust ó reading Proust is a long-time project that has been slow getting off the ground.

What are your plans for the future?

In the immediate future I will be devoting myself to my New Yorker job full-time. I plan to do more traveling than I have in the past few years, and to work harder at catching a maximum variety of concerts in the city, whether they involve famous musicians or total unknowns. The volume of concerts here is mind-boggling; there can be up to ten worthy new-music events in a single night at the height of the season. Obviously, if I were ten people, my job would be easier.

How can people find out more about you?

To find out more about me, you can visit my blog,, which contains a partial archive of my New Yorker articles, materials relating to my book, and daily posts both serious and silly.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

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