Atonally Yours

Alex Ross Explains Ojai Music Festival's Contemporary Classical Challenge

Ojai Music Festival, June 10, 2007.
Robert Millard

The 62nd annual Ojai Music Festival-the preeminent celebration of 20th- and 21st-century classical music in our region, and for that matter the West Coast-opens tonight, which makes this an excellent time to assess the state of contemporary composition. No one is better qualified to address that subject than Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker magazine and author of the critically acclaimed book The Rest Is Noise.

This year’s festival is typically eclectic, with performances ranging from a recital by soprano Dawn Upshaw to a screening of the silent film classic Modern Times with music director David Robertson conducting a live performance of Charlie Chaplin’s score. The composer in residence is Steve Reich, who startled the classical world in the 1970s with his minimalist aesthetic.

As part of the festival, Ross will give a talk on West Coast trends in 20th-century music at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 6, in the Ojai Presbyterian Church. I spoke with Ross by phone last week.

The post-World War II era was one of experimentation in all the arts, from the absurdist playwrights like Samuel Beckett to the bebop revolution in jazz. While those trends have gradually been assimilated into the mainstream, the mostly atonal classical music that dominated that period has not. Was that form a creative dead end? There is certainly a different response to atonal music [than there is to] abstract painting, which was also a total departure from what everyone was familiar with. But museum-goers came around to [abstraction in visual art] in a big way: Now you can have a blockbuster exhibition of Picasso or Pollack. It intrigues me why there is such a different response to experimental music. I think sound gets under our skin in a way that visual images don’t.

But there’s also the issue of conditioning. In this culture, people are prepared to accept modern art from a very early age. You’re taken as a kid to the museum to see these paintings. Whereas atonal music is something people generally aren’t exposed to until after they’ve fallen in love with classical music in a traditional sense. They go to a concert hall and suddenly they’re confronted with this “thing.”

I think it’s possible a wider audience would fall in love with this music if we had the kind of education that taught us how music history works and what a composer is trying to say. You may not get the warm response people have with Mozart, but I think you’d get respect. People would be intrigued by it.

So what is it about a piece of music that makes an audience sit up and respond? It all depends on whether the composer is working passionately and with conviction. If he or she is, the audience tends to respond no matter what the style is. It’s ultimately a matter of whether the composer is saying something individual and memorable, using whatever vocabulary he or she has chosen.

Of course tonality will probably have a better chance of winning an audience over, at least in the short term. But there are exceptions. I’ve witnessed wild responses to Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron and Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera. It goes over easier when people can see on a stage people acting out emotional situations that match the atmosphere of the music. There can be extremely difficult sounds in a movie soundtrack, and no one even questions it.

Also, I’ve seen again and again that if a conductor spends two minutes talking about a new piece, explaining where it is coming from before playing it, there is a dramatic difference in terms of how the audience reacts. Instead of the usual befuddlement and irritation, you get “That was interesting.” I’d like to see more of that.

Steve Reich, who will be on hand at this year’s festival, is part of a group of composers who rejected atonal music in favor of a repetition-heavy, almost trance-like style. His music was originally dismissed by highbrow critics, but it has slowly gained acceptance. Has Reich’s work grown richer over the years, or have we gradually gotten on his wavelength? There was a very interesting disparity of responses to Reich’s early minimalist pieces. There was a group of people who “got it” right away. They included a lot of people in the art world, since a lot of his early concerts took place in art galleries. Progressive pop composers like David Bowie and Brian Eno showed up at Reich’s concerts.

Since then he has become more and more mainstream, but that process has taken place mostly outside of the concert-hall tradition. In fact, one of the last great concert-hall riots of the 20th century happened when the Boston Symphony played Reich’s Four Organs at Carnegie Hall, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. One woman was banging on the edge of the stage with her shoe; another tied a white flag to her cane or umbrella (indicating surrender). Today, when he and his ensemble play Music for 18 Musicians (his 1976 breakthrough work) in New York, it’s a sellout. There’s a rock-concert atmosphere.

From the start, Reich was working with tonal materials-familiar chords.

But he was presenting them so aggressively, leaning on them so hard, that people rejected them. It’s an amusing irony that audiences were pleading with composers for years to stop writing this crazy dissonant music and go back to tonality. Then the minimalists gave them the tonality, and they rejected it!

Minimalism directly evolved from 12-tone writing, but it was also a reaction against the nervous, agitated atmosphere that went along with so many 12-tone pieces. This is the sort of thing that fascinates me about 20th-century music history. Everything is constantly evolving. You can’t divide it into camps. There are these amazing moments when bridges stretch out from one movement to another.

Does “difficult” music require more sophisticated marketing? Yes. If the selling point of a concert is “new and challenging,” difficult music will get a better response than if it is coming after Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It also depends on what group of people you’re looking at. If you’re looking at subscribers to orchestral concerts, they’re there to hear the classical repertory, from Haydn to Brahms to Shostakovich. You’re almost guaranteed never to get a warm response to music in an atonal idiom from that group. But there are other people who get more enthusiastic the wilder and more experimental you get.


The Ojai Music Festival runs night and day from Thursday, June 5 to Sunday, June 8 in and around Libbey Bowl in Ojai. For ticket information on the Friday symposium with Alex Ross and all the concerts, call (866) 420-OJAI, or go to


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