Listen to This: Alex Ross comes to Town Hall

Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, is out with a new book.  It follows on the success of The Rest is Noise, a wide reaching historical survey of classical music in the 20th Century.  The new book more or less eschews one narrative that runs from beginning to end in favor of a collection of essays drawn from his time at the New Yorker.  Many of the essays have been substantially enhanced, amended, or edited.  One essay — Chaconna, Lamento, Walking Blues– is brand new for the book.  This essay forms the basis of his talks on the fall book tour, including the one at Town Hall this Tuesday evening.

Ross took time between travels to Long Island and travels to other parts of the country to answer a few questions about the new book.  If you are planning on going to Town Hall for the reading, be sure to watch the video posted below.  It is a snapshot of the talk Ross will be giving.


Zach: The Rest is Noise had an identifiable theme or narrative arc — the history of classical music in the 20th Century — is there a similar, overarching theme for Listen to This?

Alex: My aim was to present a kind of landscape in sound—music in all different places, from all different angles. The underlying theme is that you can find continuities, winding paths of influence, all through that landscape. In a way, this was also the underlying theme of The Rest Is Noise—it’s an obsession of mine, I guess!

Z: Perhaps it’s just me, but this book feels more autobiographical. If not autobiographical, certainly more personal. The opening chapter is the most obvious example of this, but it’s not the only one. Did you purposely set out to make this book more personal?

A: Absolutely! The Rest Is Noise was a bit of a dark monster of a book, and after the preface I didn’t appear anywhere in it, as an “I.” Of course, my approach to the material reflected a personal point of view, but as much as possible I tried to get out of the way of the churning drama of the story. In Listen to This I felt much more free to speak in my own voice. The entire book might be the autobiography of a listener—how I discovered parts of a world through music.

Z: Many of the chapters are expanded versions of essays you’ve written for the New Yorker where you’ve been the classical writer since 1996. How did you decide what made it into the book?

A: It was an interesting process. I wanted maximum diversity: pop-music pieces, classical pieces, essays, profiles, personal reflections. I haven’t written that much about pop, so those choices were easy. When I looked at some of my earlier attempts at profiles—Valery Gergiev, Thomas Adès—I felt dissatisfied: I hadn’t really pulled them off, I decided. Writing profiles is very tricky: you need a lot of experience not only in writing them but also in researching them. You learn what tricks and techniques elicit the material you need. While working on the Radiohead piece, in 2001, I had a breakthrough: I stopped asking so many questions and simply sat back and observed everything I could. My number-one piece of advice to younger writers is this: write everything down. If a coffee machine is making a weird noise, write that down. Later, it may be the detail that makes a description snap into focus.

Z: You wrote Chaconna, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Musical History for the book. It traces music history using bass lines that emerge in everything from classical to pop music but it also provides a frame for reading the rest of the book. Do you agree?

A: Absolutely! Classically trained readers will already be in the habit of recognizing common features in pieces from different eras, but for many others it may be a more unfamiliar practice, or at least something they haven’t done consciously. They may sense that, say, Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” have an element in common (other than the word “fate”), but they may not be able to spell it out. As the book proceeds, I keep returning to the themes of chaconne and lament. I revised the older pieces in order to take note of how Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, and Brahms handled these forms and motifs. Not to mention Dylan, of course! The book ends with the great chaconne from Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. If I wanted to be really pretentious, I’d say that the book has its own ostinato bass line.

Z: This chapter is the basis of your talk at Town Hall this week. Should we expect a typical reading or will there be ample musical examples?

A: There will be many, many short audio examples—up to sixty, time permitting. Everything from Ockeghem to Led Zeppelin, with a good helping of Purcell and Bach at the center.

Z: In your essay on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson you talk briefly about critical distance and your difficulty in writing about her as a performer. Do you think the importance of critical distance is overstated?

A: That’s a tough question. I do think that classical criticism has been a little too reserved and opaque in recent decades, especially when you go back and read the over-the-top commentaries of Berlioz and Schumann. We critics need to express ourselves more passionately, and that’s what I tried to do in the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson memorial. But I don’t like music writers who insert themselves too ostentatiously in front of the music. I’m always working on this balance, swaying a bit in one direction or the other.

Z: In same spirit as the last question, how does it feel to be one of the most respected critics in America? Do you ever worry readers might take your opinion too seriously in lieu of forming their own?

A: Well, I’m very flattered to be thought of that way! From the feisty letters I receive—“Mr. Ross, you and I could not possibly have been at the same concert….”—I am pretty sure that I am in no danger of placing readers under some sort of spell. In the end, you can’t tell people what to feel about music: it is too intensely personal.

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