Alex Ross sure knows how to do a book tour! As classical music writer for The New Yorker, Ross is one of the most erudite commentators on the arts in the country today, and he’s the author of the new culture history, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Not content to just talk about music, he brought along the Turtle Island String Quartet to offer musical examples and made the event a party.
Being a frequent and avid reader of his writing in The New Yorker, I came expecting a challenging and inspired conversation. And until near the end, I was disappointed. Little of what he said had the depth of his writing. His reading of excerpts from the book just pointed out how facile much of the presentation really was.
For example, in talking about the early twentieth century, the two big stories he focused on were the riots inspired by the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Shostakovich’s composing under the oppression Soviet domination. For most of the people familiar with Ross and interested in hearing him, those would be familiar stories. And there was nothing particularly new or revelatory in his retelling.
Part of the problem may have been that the event was being taped for broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio. Fred Childs, host of Performance Today on National Public Radio, was the moderator. Ross could only answer the questions he was asked. And while Childs’ questions might generously be called populist, they were, in reality, rather shallow and superficial.
The presence of the Turtle Island String Quartet also felt out of place. These were splendid musicians and their performances raised cheers, particularly in a work by Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and excerpts from their new CD, A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.
But they seemed to have little connection with the main point of the evening. In fact, Ross had plenty of illustrative musical examples of his own that he played on his computer. Those might have been more extensive had the quartet not been present. And worse, they seemed to be part of the dumbing down of the evening. They followed a discussion of Milton Babbitt, one of the twentieth century’s most challenging and difficult composers, with an excerpt from West Side Story. It’s hard not to be cynical and think that their presence was primarily a marketing decision.
All that said, there were indeed moments of great wit and genuine insight in the discourse. Ross started out rejecting the whole term “classical music,” feeling that it burdened even the most forward-looking compositions with the stigma of music from the distant past. “Awesome music” was his suggested replacement (though he acknowledged that we are probably stuck with classical). He spoke of the 1920s as an era of an “explosion of possibilities” in terms of the synthesis of popular and classical styles and drew some significant parallels with our own age.
In fact, it was in discussing the current the state of music that he became much more absorbing, making a strong case for the interconnectedness of pop and classical genres. He played excerpts of pop singer Björk and of Dawn Upshaw singing a song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov, making a strong case that if you did not know, you might legitimately think that the former was the classical piece and the latter the pop one.
It was in his assessment of the future that Ross became the most passionate—and the most compelling. Far from seeing the fracturing of twentieth-century music as signaling the end of concert music, he sees it leading to a renaissance, a new golden age of infinite possibility. He sees the traditions as not dying, but multiplying, so much so that it’s hard to keep up. In reframing the issue, he offered exciting possibilities, even for the most traditional of symphony orchestras. And he left me wanting to read the book.