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Alex Ross '83: Music That Speaks On Every Level

An interview with Alex Ross ’83, New Yorker music critic, best-selling author and emissary of classical music

What do you remember about music at Potomac?
It was a fantastic music program. Allen Lentz was leading the program at that time. I remember that so many of the kids were involved. Allen was tremendously encouraging of my budding interest in composing, playing music and learning music theory and music history.
And of course there was the John Langstaff factor — some of my most unforgettable early musical memories were when he came for the Christmas celebrations and led the singing of Lord of the Dance. His voice was such a thrilling sound. I think he was very much the architect of the music program as it stood, with its emphasis on participation and on so many different kinds of musical traditions: classical, folk, a bit of popular. Music was just part of the fabric of life. It was not some kind of elite endeavor, but it was something anyone could do if they put their mind to it.

You bought your first LP at age 10: Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Why did your interest in music veer so much from the mainstream at that early age?
Well, I consider classical music mainstream, of course. For me it was what was playing in the house. [My parents] also took me to concerts, mostly chamber music concerts, around the DC area. I started buying records myself with money that I made from mowing lawns and cat-sitting and so on. My parents didn’t have any Bruckner or Mahler — the late Romantic composers. I started checking records out of the library, and then I decided I needed to own some of these symphonies for myself.
Classical music was absolutely natural to me. It didn’t seem unusual or strange. It was music that spoke to me on every level, emotional and intellectual, and I was somewhat puzzled to discover that all my friends didn’t feel the same. And I’m still puzzled by it, actually. I don’t know why classical music isn’t more a part of everyone’s lives because it’s such a powerful tradition. When people think about the visual arts, they want to know about the great Renaissance painters and Rembrandt and Van Gogh as well as today’s painters. Likewise I feel people should be more aware of the great history of music as well as what’s going on in the present time.

Why don’t music lovers make classical music a priority, the way art lovers make a point of learning about art history?
A lot of people just aren’t exposed to it early on. In so many schools, there’s a lack of a really good music education program. There are some classical music institutions trying to give people some of the information they need to understand this music, which for the most part explains itself. When you sit down and listen to a Mahler symphony, the emotion is overwhelming. The narrative is huge and compelling and sweeping and doesn’t require a great deal of prior knowledge to fall in love with this music. But it helps to deepen your appreciation, and that’s what’s needed now.
And when you look at the media these days, it’s completely fixated on popular music and almost entirely ignores classical music. I’m the only writer in the entire country who’s writing full time about classical music for a national magazine.

You’ve written that popular artists today do actually appreciate and draw from classical music.
It’s always been that way. Before the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t a real distinction between what was popular and what was classical. All the great composers of the previous centuries drew on the popular music of their day. And then this division started to appear at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century. A separate culture formed around popular music, and classical music [began] to withdraw somewhat from the mainstream. And yet there have always been these strong links [between classical and popular music]. In the 1920s you had Gershwin straddling the worlds of jazz and classical music. The same thing happened in the Second World War with bebop; there was a great deal of interchange between jazz and classical musicians and composers then. And then in the 1960s you had the Beatles listening to avant garde classical music — John Cage and Stockhausen and so on.
So in every decade of the 20th century there’s been a very lively conversation between the classical and popular worlds, and the same thing is going on today. A lot of [indie rock and pop artists] were actually trained in classical music. Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, Bjork and the members of Radiohead — they all have classical roots. And you have a lot of younger classical composers today who grew up with pop music, and they reflect it in their work. So this conversation seems especially lively right at the present moment.

How did Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu change your perspective on popular music?
I was so absorbed in classical music when I was young that I wasn’t listening to any other kind of music. Once I got to college, I became very involved in 20th-century classical music — avant garde composers like Cage and Stockhausen who experimented with the kind of music that bordered on noise. And then I realized that very similar things were going on in neighboring areas of popular music, in free jazz, in the kind of progressive end of rock. So the first rock bands I ever listened to seriously were Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. That was a very exciting discovery, and from there my perspective widened enormously. I realized there’s so much in popular music, not just the experimental end, but the much more mainstream zone, that I should be paying attention to.

How does one begin to cultivate a taste for classical music?
You can start anywhere. The idea is to find a sound that catches your ear and then to dig in and learn more. With classical music, the key is familiarity. So many people are used to a four- or five-minute-long song format. It can be quite intimidating to confront a half-hour-long or even hour-long symphony. But if you drive the same path a number of times in your car, you start to recognize all the landmarks along the way. It’s the same way with a long-form classical piece.
I can’t tell anyone in advance what kind of music they’re going to love. The really crucial thing is to go to a live performance. That’s where the music truly takes life. Recordings are wonderful, but this is a living art form. Musicians are making their living almost entirely from performances these days. So I definitely urge people to become part of the live performance culture because that’s how it’s going to be sustained. And pay attention to living composers.

How did you succeed in mixing your writing career with your passion for classical music?
I hadn’t planned on a journalistic writing career. After college I was doing a little writing on the side, first for a record review magazine that paid $2 for each review. But I got the free CDs and was able to listen to a lot of music and get a lot of practice writing, which is very important. A little later I got a couple of freelance assignments from magazines. On the basis of those, the New York Times became interested in hiring me as their junior fifth string critic. So I moved to New York in 1992.
A couple years later I started getting some articles in The New Yorker. It’s a paradise for a writer. So much attention is devoted to the writing itself — the wonderful copyediting and fact checking, the sense of freedom the editors give you to explore subjects that you feel passionate about. And you get a lot of time to work on the pieces. I enjoyed that so much that I basically started praying that I would someday get a job at The New Yorker, and that indeed happened. I’m very lucky to have had a series of opportunities come my way leading me to a job that I feel is absolutely perfect for me.
Alex Ross ‘83 has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. He is the author of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. His second book, Listen to This, is a collection of his essays for The New Yorker. Alex says in his opening essay, “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name.” Music, whether classical or popular is for Alex a central expression of the human condition, “It encompasses the high, the low, empire, underground, dance, prayer, silence, noise.”

"[At Potomac] music was just part of the fabric of life. It was not some kind of elite endeavor, but it was something anyone could do if they put their mind to it."

—Alex ross '83, Classical Music Critic for The New Yorker