Monday, June 29, 2009


Alex Ross came back to New Haven! It was part of this Arts & Ideas Festival they've got goin' on here; he came & gave his spiel-with-music, and everybody was there. The lecture-hall was packed with festivalgoing bluehairs, hipsterish music-lovers, and of course the mainstays of New Haven's new-music scene: Ingram Marshall! Jack Vees! Timothy Andres! We all went up and said hi to him after, and even mobbed with admirers he was very very nice. The lecture itself was an entertaining defense of twentieth-century music, not a bad thing to drag a loved one to should Ross make a stop in your town, and he totally said my name! and also big-upped Eduard Tubin, whose birthday it was. Anyway, I got to write the preview for the local paper, but as you can see there was barely room to say anything beyond "Hey you guys should go to this." So below is the full transcript of our email interview, complete with fawning and redundant questions. I made just a couple notes, too.

So what's going to happen at this talk, in your words? It's titled "Listening to the Twentieth Century"—also the subtitle of your book. How does the lecture complement Noise? What has the audience response been at lectures like this? Has it been different from what you expected? Crazy things are going to happen at this talk. It's going to be total insanity. Prepare to be astounded, disgusted, and transfigured. Well, in fact, no. What I'm going to do is off an audio-enhanced overview of the twentieth century and also a little memoir of my own progress as a listener, going from Brahms to Berg to Xenakis to Cecil Taylor to Sonic Youth and on from there. A number of times I've given a more formal lecture in which I've tried to sum up the entire century in about an hour, à la Lenscrafters, but when I'm pressed for time it sometimes devolves into a dizzying barrage of names and soundbites. This will be more leisurely. I've had a nice response from lectures in the past. The audience is usually a mix of connoisseurs who already know a lot about the subject and people who are coming to it for the first time, and I always enjoy trying to find the middle ground between them—as I do every time I write for the New Yorker. I thought it was interesting that you subtitled the book, "Listening to the Twentieth Century Music." It's catchier, obviously, but it also suggests something a bit more personal than a conventional history. What were your intentions in writing the book? What do you hope people take away from it? Yes, it was a conscious choice to give the book a more oblique title. It's mostly about classical music, but with a few extended detours into jazz and rock. So I didn't want to limit it by calling it a purely classical-music book. If I'd called it a history of music in general, that would have been deceptive as well. And I wanted to get across the idea that I wasn't writing only about music but also about the wider culture, about politics and social changes and technological transformations. The idea was that by following the lives of certain composers you would experience the century itself in a different way. Yes, it's quite a personal endeavor. There's no authorial first person between the Preface and the Acknowledgments, but everything is colored by my own experiences and passions. If feel it re-creates the journey I took when I was in college, when I started out as someone who thought music ended with Mahler and wound up with a far wider musical horizon. My main hope is that readers will take the same kind of journey themselves, whether they were classical nuts who haven't yet developed a taste for modern music or pop listeners who are curious about noise on the classical end. The response to your book has been huge, and overwhelmingly positive. In what ways were you surprised by its reception? Were there any aspects of the public or critical response that disappointed you? In the months leading up to publication I was in huge suspense. Of course I feared that a bunch of weighty people would dismiss the book out of hand—how dare this little upstart journalist presume to write about Schoenberg! But even more I feared that it would disappear without a trace, lost amid the thousands of good books that come out every season. Sure I dreamed idly that it would become a titanic bestseller, but my practical hope was for a less than total disappointment. So, yeah, I was really stunned by the fact that so many people seemed to pick up the book and actually read it. The New York Times Book Review made a big difference by sending the signal that it wasn't a specialist work. I've been particularly amazed by the response in the UK, where few people read the New Yorker and I was an unknown. It would be very churlish of me to complain about any aspect of the reception! Negative criticism of the book seems to have focused not on what it says, but what is missing from the text—but I also remember that you blogged about the agonizing process of whittling the book down to publishable size. What was the hardest to cut? Is there anything you wish you'd left in, or added? I expected that criticism and tried to defuse it by declaring in the Preface that the book was in no way intended to be comprehensive and that a lot of great music was left out. Decisions about what to include were not made on the basis of merit; I wasn't trying to form a supreme canon. Instead, I found that certain composers lent themselves better than others to the kinds of stories I wanted to tell—music colliding with history, composers interacting with popular music, composers debating the future of the art, music as a religious or spiritual medium, and so on. And I really needed to avoid bombarding the average reader with too many names. I really regret cutting the sections on Vaughan Williams and Galina Ustvolskaya, among others. But I did the best I could.
Aside: Wow! When I got to that part, I felt a little twinge, imagining the parallel universe where there was room to give Galina Ustvolskaya a section to herself. And the more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became! Two of the big Noise narratives are about the liberation struggles of Oppressed Minorities: practically a whole chapter is devoted to America's failure to produce/nurture/support a great African American composer in its concert halls, and the emergence of the openly gay composer is such a prominent theme (Benjamin Britten, of course, gets his own chapter) that when Ross compares extremely out sex-and-power philosopher Michel Foucault to the rather less open Pierre Boulez with the remark, "What drove Boulez's own rage for order remains unknown," one might be forgiven for choking just a little on one's coffee, because OFF THE RECORD, oh honey. (Happy Pride.) But the story of women's lib, arguably the single most important such movement in the past hundred years, is treated almost quietly by comparison, which in the context of a book like this seems a little odd—so in that parallel universe where Galina Ustvolskaya gets her own nice, long section, one imagines that this must have been redressed somewhat? Unfortunately, parallel-universe The Rest Is Noise is also 1600 pages long, and only twenty-three people have read it. So I guess we're better off. Wait, I forget what I was talking about. Okay back to the interview.
And finally, some questions about actual music: Are there any composers or performers whose work you feel is especially underrated or otherwise due for reappraisal? I think of you as a very optimistic critic: you get to write about the things you love. Are there any trends in music that you find worrying? In music criticism? Carl Nielsen is one of the great unsung composers of the twentieth century. Ralph Shapey is the great, gritty American modernist who always gets overlooked (yes, in my book too). Among contemporary composers, John Luther Adams, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Stephen Hartke, Guo Wenjing, and New Haven's Ingram Marshall deserve to be much better known.
HOLLER AT ME. Have I not said "Hartke"? Did I not, JUST NOW, say "Ingram Marshall"?? YOU'RE WELCOME, people.
I remain optimistic about ye olde classical, although the economic situation is obviously going to put some big-budget organizations in jeopardy. It's possible we could have a sort of end-Cretaceous event where a bunch of dinosaurs disappear but smaller groups thrive. The trend in music criticism, alas, has been toward extinction—not because of the so-called death of classical music but because of the crisis in traditional media. The Internet is trying to take up the slack, with mixed success. I do see some discouraging trends in Internet music writing and in newspapers that try to sound "bloggy." On your blog you recently took note of this annoying kind of piece in which someone blurts out an outrageous statement along the lines of "Bach couldn't compose a decent fugue to save his life!" Plus he was a homophobe!" And a lot of people jump in and say, "No, Bach was the best! And he loved the gays!" And that goes on until the next made-up controversy erupts." The real gift of the medium is in letting you go infinitely deep into some weird topic, with no fretful editor telling you to keep it simple or brief. I love it when Jeremy Denk writes 8000 words about an ornament in the Goldberg Variations and then somehow connects it to an episode of Make Me a Supermodel. That's something totally new in the history of dancing about architecture.
The End. Note to self: do most people who interview people for a living make such great interview subjects? Look into this.

1 comment:

R. said...

Well, kudos to you and Alex Ross for a well thought-out and answered interview.

Which brings me to that episode of "The L Word" ...