In 1996, when celebrity editor and tastemaker Tina Brown hired a young Alex Ross to take over classical music reviewing at the New Yorker, no one knew how putting a twenty-something critic in charge of covering some of the world’s most distinguished—and stuffy—arts organizations and performers would work out. Fourteen years later, Ross is still there, a shining example of what really successful, intelligent criticism can do for what is often considered an esoteric pursuit. His weekly reviews and essays have become must-reads not only for classical music fans, but for all readers with a passion for new insights into the role of music in society.
In 2007, Ross published his first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, a compulsively readable and remarkably comprehensive guide to the major (and minor) composers and schools of modern music. Now Ross is back in hardcover with a new volume, Listen to This, which collects many of his most substantial New Yorker pieces and combines them with essays written especially for the book. This Wednesday, Ross appears at UCSB’s Campbell Hall to present one of the chapters, an essay called “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History,” as an audio lecture. I spoke with Ross by phone last week from his office at the New Yorker.
Has the day-to-day work of writing reviews had an impact on your taste? To be a critic and to be attending concerts night after night really gave me a much deeper appreciation of music that I thought I knew. The perspective of live performance allows you to understand a whole lot more about a piece of music than any recording.
The first reviews I wrote were for Fanfare, and I wrote hundreds of them, often about music that was new to me. Having to write about things, and especially about things that I was predisposed to find uninteresting, forced me to face the music itself and, while in many instances my first impressions were correct, there were also some great discoveries and, in general, a tremendous broadening of my frame of reference that wound up being very useful to me later on. I am very happy to report that even with 20 years of experience, I am still often surprised, and pleasantly surprised, by things that I don’t expect. My taste is still changing, and the music itself keeps moving.
People often decry the declining fate of serious music in contemporary culture. Where does classical music fit into culture today? Desperation and uncertainty can actually be a real spur to creative activity. When I started writing 20 years ago, we were approaching the end of the great sleepy golden age of classical music in America. The big city symphony orchestras were, for the most part, still pretty healthy; they had big budgets, and their concerts were well-attended.
As the 1990s went on, that mainstream acceptance ebbed, and the audience for classical music began to be seen as aging, and shrinking, and things began to slide into a sense of crisis. Now, it feels like we are finally coming out of that period of decline, and it’s at least partly because of the ferment that was caused by the supposed decline.
The self-run, offbeat ensembles of the 1990s are now actually the trendsetters, and the musicians who are from a generation younger even than mine—people who did not grow up with Beverly Sills making appearances on the Tonight Show, and who never knew a time when classical music was part of mainstream pop culture at all—are coming into their own, and for them, the absence of these institutions that I grew up with has been liberating. They are free to imagine how to make the music they enjoy interesting to their peers without reference to obsolete models of the orchestra and its audience.
Alex Ross will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, October 20, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.