Alex Ross and a Classical Challenge

The Times

November 28, 2012


There were men playing cacti, performers speaking over one other, discordant violins and a lot of clanging. A day immersed in the music of John Cage, accompanied by Alex Ross, the classical music critic of The New Yorker, had been designed to test whether I could fall, knowledgeably, in love with classical music — and I could talk about it afterwards beyond: “That was great…hmm…great…er. . . shall we go for tapas?”

We honoured the centenary of Cage’s birth at a number of events at Symphony Space on New York’s Upper West Side. “You don’t have to like Cage,” Ross said. “Hating Cage is part of the fun. One friend shouted, before walking out of one of his concerts: ‘I love you dearly, John, but I can’t take it any more.’ Even at that moment of rejection, Cage would have thought something had ‘clicked’ for that person.”

Ross, the author of the erudite, best-selling 2007 history of 20th-century music The Rest is Noise, (which has now inspired a major London festival), has many friends who “blunder in a few times a year” to classical concerts. “People may have seen many things, but feel uncertain about how to describe them,” he says. “Five minutes after you’ve seen a movie you’re out on the street discussing the acting and direction. But people find it difficult to describe what they liked and didn’t like in a concert hall. They shouldn’t be afraid of hashing it out in whatever language comes to hand.”

Between January and December there will be 100 concerts and 150 events in Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival, which was launched yesterday. It is not just a survey of a century of music but a bold, multi-disciplinary attempt to woo a new audience and banish a few myths about “difficult” 20th-century composers. The festival will feature the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, music from Sibelius to Rachmaninov to Britten to Gershwin, as well as screenings of some key 20th-century films. BBC Four will also be screening a complementary series: The Sound of Fury: A Century of Modern Music. Ross, who will give five talks during the festival, the first on January 19 and 20, hasn’t been involved in its programming, but his most desired ticket is a production of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera on March 2.

Our day of Cage — “Caged”, Ross called it — was both treat and education, Ross as wryly illuminating and eloquent in person as on the page. He started listening to Cage in college. “I don’t love everything he did, but there are some incredibly beautiful and powerful pieces — taking a bunch of junk instruments and crafting a compelling piece out of differences in timbre.”

We watch a recitation of Cage’s Lecture on the Weather featuring composers speaking as a collective melée. Adam Tendler played Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (a piano with objects placed inside to change its sounds). “It could be more aggressive,” Ross says. Like all the best teachers he’s a tough crowd.

So, how should one become a classical convert? “Go to several concerts,” Ross advises. “Be patient and willing to try again. You’ll begin to make comparisons, especially if you see the same piece performed differently. You’ll find yourself saying: ‘That latest performance took it pretty fast. I enjoyed the visceral excitement of it; the other one appeared sluggish.’ ”

To hone your critical vocabulary, Ross advises reading. Paul Griffiths’ The New Penguin Dictionary of Music “elegantly explains historical periods and technical terms”. Leonard Bernstein’s The Joy of Music and The Infinite Variety of Music have “terrific enthusiasm on the page”. Aaron Copland’s What to Listen For in Music is “excellent”. Feast online, Ross recommends: the San Francisco Symphony has mini-sites explaining famous works while in London the Philharmonia orchestra is about to introduce an app that explains all the instruments of an orchestra.

The 20th century has been “the greatest era” for musical development”, insists Ross and a good “way in” for the classical music newbie. “I’m a very big believer that you don’t need to begin with Bach or Beethoven, but rather Stravinsky, Messiaen and Steve Reich. In Beethoven’s time the ‘new’ was prized; it was only during the 19th century that classical music began to hark back to its deep past.

“Now contemporary composers are accused of turning off audiences because of their experimentation. That’s nonsense: there are a lot of melodies and tonality in modern music, but even if there weren’t I’d recommend people listen to modern classical. Think of it as you would a modern work of visual art which can seem strange and alien when you first see it, then it becomes thrilling and leads you to other things.”

There is no “perfect point of entry”, he adds, but “it’s pretty essential” to listen to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. “Every strand of 20th-century music, from pop to jazz, takes cues from it.”

Ross can’t remember “a period when I wasn’t listening to classical music”, growing up in Washington DC, the younger son of two geologists. His parents had many classical records. “I was listening more than they were: Toscanini conducting Beethoven and Brahms, Mozart, Don Giovanni. Around 8 or 9 I heard Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica. It was my gateway to classical music culture: listening to something again and again, then different performances and recordings, and that being the jumping-off point to other pieces.”

Ross had a “wonderful” piano teacher “who was very gung-ho on Schoenberg”. He recalls hearing Berg’s Piano Sonata for the first time (Berg had studied under Schoenberg), “which starts out like a tonal piece, then the chords become strange”. He had “a visceral, emotional response” to it.

He was a “pretty quiet” teenager; music was his refuge. “It became my way of avoiding social, sexual issues,” he says. Ross is gay and came out in his twenties, after college. “It was the era of Aids and rather dark,” he says. “I wasn’t bullied, but I was content to busy myself by myself,” he says of his teen years. By 10 he was composing pieces and by 14 he “was writing quite a bit and not totally hopelessly”. At college, where he studied English literature, Ross hosted a modern classical radio show.

The young Ross was “very much a classical music purist, shutting out pop”, but researching The Rest is Noise and alighting upon bands such as the alt.rock band Sonic Youth, he realised that his “idealised distinction” of classical music was “redundant”. He developed a passion for the indie band Pavement and likes Radiohead, Björk and the singer-songwriters Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens. “In my late twenties I discovered the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Something you weren’t paying attention to or flatly rejected suddenly starts speaking to you.”

Did Ross, like many of us, ever struggle with “getting” classical music? “Schoenberg’s atonality for a while,” he says, and the “principles and ideology around him. But you have to separate the politics from the artist. I understand classical music can sound strange when you first encounter it, alongside this formidable body of thought accompanying it. I wish people would expect the unexpected, to be confused and bewildered. It’s part of the experience. They may not ‘get it’, they may never get it. That’s OK. But something might spark.”

Part of the problem is setting: “In an [art] gallery you have physical freedom; in a concert hall you sit in silence. The popularisation of classical music didn’t happen as effectively as it did for modern art.”

Is classical music in good health? “No,” Ross answers with a laugh-snort. “The economic disaster is hurting a lot of institutions. Endowments have shrunk, donations fallen. Money is a bigger problem than audiences. There are more people listening to classical music than at any time in history. It’s perceived as an elite pursuit which is nonsense. It’s dwarfed by the true ‘elitism’ of the pop world, which has close alliances with global corporations and massively wealthy entities.”

Pop is easier to access, surely. Ross shakes his head. “If kids are able to spend hours figuring out some numbingly difficult video game or a four-hour Lord of the Rings movie, clearly not everything has to be easily digestible. People can handle complexity. The question is how to put classical music in front of them better.” He laughs about seeing people on dates at recitals: “She’s thinking: ‘Hey, this guy’s taking me to see an orchestra,’; he’s desperately flicking through the programme notes. Both are baffled.”

Ross, who has been with the New Yorker since 1996,wanted The Rest is Noise “not to be a total embarrassment: some nice reviews and respectable sales”. But it became a bestseller and, with Ross’s wonderful blog, which includes music samples and illuminating commentary, has converted many to modern classical music, which makes him “really happy”. His next book, Wagnerism, will focus on Wagner and his influence on artists, “starting with Baudelaire, Proust and Mann”. Wagner is associated with “fascism, bombast and Hitler, but there’s a great deal more to him, like this sense of erotic excess and liberation. He was also an inf luence for the left and anarchists.”

As our “Caged” day drew on we loved Branches, in which musicians use objects, including striking cacti, to make music. “Cage changes not just the concert experience, but also activates something primitive in ourselves,” Ross says. “He makes you use your ears as your primary sense organs. When you walk in the city listen to the sounds: it’s like a Cage experience.” What should I learn from today, I ask. “Cage always said there was no right answer to the question of what art or music is,” Ross says. “What I prize is the sense of possibilities opening up, his attempts to explode boxed-in notions of ‘music’.”

A day with Ross did the same for me. I love going to the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall and you might now find me recognising the swelling in a rising arpeggio, subtlety of phrasing or the precise aggression of a pianist. So I’m a convert, thanks to Ross, gingerly knowing why I am enjoying something that previously I just enjoyed. Hopefully the Rest is Noise festival will work the same magic on you.