For more than a decade, New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross has been showing readers why music composed in the past century—or the past week—matters. Still safely under 40 and a fan of Radiohead, the Velvet Underground and Björk, as well as Aaron Copland and John Adams, Ross has never succumbed to the institutional elitism, insularity and conservatism that have pushed many potential listeners away. Ross' new book, The Rest Is Noise (Farrar Straus Giroux, 640 pages, $30), extends that broad perspective, as well as his storyteller's gift for the engaging anecdote, humor and evocative description, to the 20th century's kaleidoscopic, tumultuous, non-pop musical history. It turns out to be a fascinating, colorful story, and Ross will share some of it at the downtown Powell's on Monday, Oct. 22.
i]WW[/i] : Why did you see a need for another history of 20th-century music?
Alex Ross: There've been quite a few histories and textbook surveys, but I felt there was an opening for a book that took on the subject in a much more general way—the personalities of composers, the cultural and social context, the whole surrounding clamor of events in 20th-century music...a book that would appeal not just to connoisseurs but also to more general readers of history, and also to pop-music listeners curious about the classical music world in its modern manifestation. Whether you call it cultural history or intellectual history, I wanted to show where this music came from and how it hit the world.
Portland is a big indie-rock town. Why should nonclassical music lovers here care about this story?
In college, I discovered the noisier end of rock through the classical avant garde and free jazz, which bore a close resemblance to the avant-garde end of rock. People may be able to discover classical music along the same path but moving in the opposite direction. When I was writing the book I very often had in mind people who'd grown up with pop music and developed a passion about some of the more out-of-the-way noncommercial areas of pop music. [Those] who might be curious about the 20th-century classical repertory that so often feeds into that music: Duke Ellington taking an interest in Debussy and Ravel; to Charlie Parker and Coltrane listening closely to Stravinsky; to the Beatles' putting Stockhausen on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's and being influenced by his electronic-collage procedures on their later, trippier songs; to bands of today such as Sonic Youth and Radiohead and Joanna Newsom, Björk and Sufjan Stevens, who knew 20th-century music quite well and studied it in school. It'd be great if people picked up this book and followed that story back in time and found out where this music came from.
Along with being hip to contemporary music like Radiohead, you were one of the first to blog regularly about classical music—you've even put up a 20th-century-music playlist on iTunes and, on the blog, MP3 samples tied to your book.
I started in the spring of 2004. I was startled to find that people read the thing. It turns out that my blog and others have filled this hunger for a national conversation about classical music, which is pretty much shut out of national magazines, and is generally shabbily treated in mainstream American culture—in contrast to 50 or 60 years ago when [Arturo] Toscanini and [Leonard] Bernstein were stars on radio and TV. Now it seems to write itself—I get so many suggestions from readers, links to things that are kind of weird, and fascinating stories from all over.
There's a big discussion online about whether classical music is dying or thriving or something in between. You primarily cover New York, but you also recently hit the road to check out the regional scene. What did you find?
In a way, it depends on where you are. People have been predicting the demise of classical music for decades now. Some of the orchestras really are in a serious state, facing falling audiences. Others seem to be thriving—the L.A. Philharmonic is doing amazing things and getting a great response. On major labels classical music is much diminished, but all these indie labels are growing by leaps and bounds. Smaller-scale organizations, string quartets and new music ensembles—there's so much happening across the country, more than ever in a way, but it's not being talked about on a national level. So the Internet has allowed this conversation to happen without editors passing judgment on whether classical music is of interest to the 18-to-24 male demographic. Young musicians are coming up who are alert and imaginative and feel a great urge to communicate their love of the music, but they don't feel a sense of entitlement that some earlier generations have had. They're used to growing up in a culture that generally pays very little attention to classical music, but they don't see it as a crisis; they see it as a challenge: How can we engage with this culture? And they're coming up with these fantastic ideas.
You can get an audience for anything here [in New York City], but even in a lot of smaller towns, new music ensembles are putting on great concerts. For example, the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble in Michigan did a workshop with Steve Reich, came back to New York and played his music in an all-night marathon where 400 people watched the sunrise, and now they've gone back and made a fine recording, and they're using the Internet in a creative way for homemade publicity.
These kinds of things are springing up everywhere. With the Internet now, people can become informed and listen to samples in way that would have been difficult a few years ago. With the right kind of canny outreach, you can find the hidden audience which is present even in relatively small cities.
Everyone needs to have a spirit of adventure and be open to the really multifarious nature of the art form right now and not define it and put it in a box.
What 20th-century classical music would you recommend to people who like indie rock and other progressive pop music? If you have a need for the primal energy and visceral sensation in music, there are plenty of works in the 20th century-repertory that give it to you in spades—from [Igor Stravinsky's] The Rite of Spring onward. Everyone of every background ought to know that piece. It was an extraordinary phenomenon, music of every extreme of beauty and complexity and mesmerizing repetition.
Those who consider 20th-century music to be only noisy and violent can't have heard [Olivier] Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time or [Aaron] Copland's Appalachian Sprin g or Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa— music of pure and concentrated beauty.
Contemporary composers such as John Adams have taken the Romantic legacy and transformed it in an interesting and aggressively American way. His Harmonielehre had an electrifying effect on me when I first heard it. I couldn't believe that a living composer could produce music of such breadth and moody power as this. It was so exciting to discover it being made by a guy living in California right now.
There's a lot of music to explore if you start with Steve Reich or Philip Glass and look at where they came from. People growing up with pop music have and instinctive attraction to classic Reich pieces like Drumming , Music for 18 Musicians , New York Counterpoint . He was hugely affected by bebop and went to see Coltrane 50 times and was also excited by early R&B like Junior Walker, and James Brown. He didn't copy it but responded to it on a deeper level. People sense that when they encounter his music.
That music, when it emerged, had a huge impact on pop music—Brian Eno and David Bowie were paying close attention to Reich and Glass early on. So many rock and electronic artists that came after were affected by 18 Musicians ; it's part of pop music history in a vital way. So where did that music come from? You can listen to the composers Reich found compelling: he was deeply affected by the Rite of Spring and also Stravinsky's music of the 1920s. Looking at the pre history of minimalism might lead them to Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison and John Cage, Harry Partch and La Monte Young. It's a great story of ideas being passed along from one composer to another.
Alex Ross reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Oct. 22. Free. For more about Ross' new book, as well as his recommended playlists of 20th-century classical music, see therestisnoise.com.