Conversation: Alex Ross’ ‘Listen to This’

BY Tom LeGro  November 12, 2010 at 2:27 PM EST

“I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name.”

That’s the provocative first line of the first essay in a new book titled “Listen to This” by the music critic for the New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross. His previous book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I spoke to him last week.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name.” That’s the provocative first line of the first essay in a new book titled “Listen to This” by the music critic for the New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross. His previous book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alex Ross, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008, joins me now. Welcome.

ALEX ROSS: Thanks Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. That first line. You actually love classical music. What is it that you actually hate? How it’s written or spoken about? How it’s talked about? Perceived? What?

ALEX ROSS: It’s really the perception, and this name, “classical music,” creates the image of an art that lies entirely in the past, that is stuffy and remote from contemporary society and is a little lacking in passion. And I know, and I think everyone inside this art form knows, that there’s a great deal of passion here, and our reparatory is wonderfully full of crazy people from beginning to end, yet it’s not seen on the outside as an art which is engaged with the emotion. So in my writing I’m trying to bring that to the forefront.

JEFFREY BROWN: But all that conspires to effect how we listen to it, our experience of concert going certainly and whether some people even decide to go to concerts.

ALEX ROSS: Yeah, there are a lot of rules and regulations surrounding classical music, and a lot of these are a very recent inventions. People don’t realize that. For example, this rule that you shouldn’t applaud between movements of a large scale symphony or concerto really only got going in the early 20th century. Nineteenth century audiences, that is the audiences for Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Brahms, would have found it totally baffling that someone would be telling, Don’t applaud.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, that person who says, Shhhhhh.

ALEX ROSS: Yeah, it was totally different. And back in Mozart’s period people would applaud while the music was playing if they heard a tune or a sort of an end of a phrase that they liked. There would be a little bit of applause, as happens in jazz performances after the solos. So it used to be a lot looser and more informal, and it became constricted in a lot of ways over the past 100 years. And I think this is part of the problem that we’re facing now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you in your role get around that, or reach through it? And this is book is filled with essays of a wide range of musicians and questions of classical music, whether it’s education or institutions or performers. How do you see your role?

ALEX ROSS: I’m always trying to find the connections between classical musical in the pure sense and the outside world and our contemporary culture and other forms of musical expression. And there are so many links to be found. I grew up actually as a bit of a classical music snob. It was all that I listened to up until I got in college.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I read that in the first essay. I was a little surprised. So that made you an unusual kid and teenager.

ALEX ROSS: Not the most popular kid in high school, but you know, I could always talk about “Raider’s of the Lost Ark,” and movies and TV, but music — I had very little to talk about with so many of my contemporaries. But then I discovered in college, oh you know, there are actually these amazing conversations that happen between, say, avant garde musicians after the second World War and people in the jazz world and later people in the rock world. Remember how the Beatles went through their avant garde period and were listening to John Cage and Stockhausen and you could hear that reflected in later Beatles’ records. So there are many connections like that to be found. I’ve written about classical music, I’ve written some pieces about pop and I’m always on the lookout for that link, which actually allows — it’s not only an interesting musical topic — but it allows listeners to cross from one genre to another.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are you picking these subjects by their ability to give you a way into this broader theme of music and how we experience it?

ALEX ROSS: To some extent, yes. When I wrote about Bjork or Radiohead — these are artists who know classical musical quite well. Bjork studied it seriously in her childhood. The guys in Radiohead were all involved with it to one degree or another. So that’s a natural topic for me to address. I also write about Bob Dylan, where the links are much less obvious. There’s no sort of big classical music element to what Bob Dylan is doing, but I think I was drawn to him because he has that huge complex career going through many phases, and many phases of society and culture as well, which just reminds me of the great careers of classical composers of the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing you write about, and it comes back to where we started, this sort of connection to contemporary society, is the lack of musical education and a lack of musical experience for a lot of young people. You have one of your articles reprinted here, something we’ve looked at in the program, something you and I have talked about. What do you see? One thing you do find in this article that you wrote on it, that there actually are some things going on, some positive things right?

ALEX ROSS: Oh, yeah. Yes, music education is being slashed in so many schools. It’s a sad state of affairs, and unfortunately it’s hard to see how this could be addressed immediately. With the large economic situation that we are in, it is so unlikely that anyone it going to decide to spend billions and billions of dollars to bring music education back to life, but there is a lot else to be done and there are people like Sebastian Ruth and Community MusicWorks, who I write about, taking up the slack and just sort of doing it on their own. This is a string quartet who could have had a very good career in the usual circles and instead really decided to devote themselves to education, and that becomes part of their expression of creativity. It would be great to see more and more younger musicians applying themselves both to pursuing that professional career and also to education, because this is really where the audience of the future can be found. But it’s not just kids. I think there’s also adults, and you know, anyone at any age can suddenly feel the power of this music coming out of nowhere. It’s just a question of creating the right circumstances where they can have that experience, and sometimes it just takes a little nudge, not just sort of putting the music in front of them but explaining it to them it a little bit and showing how it really can connect to their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Before I let you go, let me put you on the spot here, because this is a book about your journalism experience, and this is the sort of thing people ask me all the time, so I get to ask you: a favorite journalism experience that surprised you, a story or performer that you profiled that really just was not what you expected or was just exciting to do?

ALEX ROSS: I would say the piece I wrote about Bjork was surprising and wonderful, because I was a little intimidated by her, and she had this image of being, you know, a little bit wild.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of you is thinking, What am I doing here?

ALEX ROSS: Yeah, and I think I’d written a few times about pop musicians, and there were all these hoops that you have to jump through and people saying, You know, we can have 10 minutes on this Tuesday and five minutes the following Thursday. But I showed up in Iceland and I was in this hotel, and Bjork pulled up in a cab and got out alone. And this immediately let me into this world. And it’s the just dream of a journalist for someone that interesting and who has that much to say to just let you stand there and sit back and watch her work. So that’s one of the very best experiences that I’ve had. And it took so little really hard work on my part. It was just watching it happen and then going home and writing it all down and shaping the piece from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And that piece can be found in “Listen to This.” Alex Ross, nice to talk to you.

ALEX ROSS: Thanks. Great to be here.