Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alex Ross on Music and Noise

FOR my money, there is no more important and provocative essay about classical music over the last 10 years than an Alex Ross that begins this way: "I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past." And he goes on: "For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority."
Ross's new collection, out this week

Hoarder that I am, I've still got the original 2004 New Yorker pages with that article. But those less obsessive than me can check back into this piece -- "Listen to This: Crossing the Border From Classical to Pop" -- and others on the enigma of Schubert, Radiohead, Bjork, classical music in China, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the majesty of late Brahms. Even though I've read a lot of this stuff before, this new collection -- Listen to This -- is the most fun I've had with a new nonfiction book in ages.

Anyone telling the story of classical music over the last century or so would have to pay attention to composers, audiences, orchestras and conductors on the West Coast. Ross's first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century took deep looks at Gershwin and Schoenberg's time in Los Angeles and the career of Bay Area composer John Adams. Listen to This gives us "The Anti-Maestro: Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic." (The piece ends with the arrival of Dudamel.)

I spoke to Ross when The Rest is Noise came out. Here is that interview; the first question went like this:

Q: Why does classical music from the last 100 or so years -- unlike the visual art from the same period -- remain what you call "this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture"?
A It's had a struggle to find an audience, especially compared to other art forms. The first blasts of Modernism in painting and literature and so on all caused scandals: Audiences rebelled at first, but they quickly caught on, and Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for $100 million a canvas. The esoteric has become popular in these other art forms, and that hasn't really happened in classical music.
And let me direct readers interested in the LA Phil to Sunday's excellent Reed Johnson piece about the Phil's  president, Deborah Borda. 

No comments: