Alex Ross: The Cult of Art, The Classical Music Canon, and WHRB Memories

Courtesy of David Michalek


Allison Pao from WHRB Classical spoke with Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, writer for his blog The Rest is Noise, author of two award-winning books, Harvard alum from the class of 1990, and former member of the Classical and Record Hospital departments of WHRB. It was an honor to speak with Alex in the studio of WHRB where his career as a music critic arguably began. Listen to the entire interview above or read on for some of Alex Ross’s insights on the “cult of art” in contemporary society, his opinions on the traditional classical music canon, and his fondest – as well as his most absurd – memories from his time at WHRB.

Allison: I want to start by asking you about the book you are currently working on called Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. I was lucky enough to attend the lecture you gave yesterday at the Harvard Department of Music called “Wagner, Hitler, and the Cult of Art.” In your lecture, you argued that Wagner’s role in the rise of the Nazi regime is more complicated than most people realize, and that while Wagner did influenced Hitler as an individual, we cannot assume that Wagner’s music served the entire Nazi political movement. At the end of the lecture, you briefly mentioned that examining Wagner’s role in Nazi Germany could reveal insights about our society today. Can you speak about any parallels you see in the role of art between Nazi Germany and society today?

Alex: That’s the aspect of Wagner’s influence and posthumous reputation – that’s the subject of my book – that most people are familiar with. If anyone knows one thing about Wagner, it’s that he was Hitler’s favorite composer, that he was a major figure in Nazi culture, and that’s the climax of the book in many ways. But this phenomenon called Wagnerism has many other aspects to it, and I think people have forgotten to some extent the degree to which he influenced so many turn of the century artistic movements: symbolism, early modernism, his effect on 20th century theater, his impact on painting, on Kandinsky and many other painters, and on and on. And he influenced the entire political spectrum. There were many on the left who were very strongly attached to Wagner and who saw him as one of their own, because the younger Wagner was very much aligned with the revolutionary energies of the year 1848. [In my book] I’m just trying to sort all this out and really give a picture of the breadth of the phenomenon.

In terms of how we might think today about the role of art in society and what Wagner might teach us, I think the danger with art is when we put art on too much of a pedestal and almost dehumanize it by making it this object of veneration instead of seeing it as something of real human complexity. I think we should just never worship art. We can be deeply appreciative of art and have it be a central element of our lives, but that attitude of making it sacred is dangerous. And I think looking today at how we treat culture, and especially popular culture, and the kind of veneration we extend to celebrities and popstars, there’s a risk that that could go awry in all kinds of ways. So it’s just good to be skeptical.

Allison: Going back to the complex intersection of politics and music, how do you see the role of music critic fitting into all that? What role do you think you have to play today, and what goals do you have in mind when you write?

Alex: I’m always trying to push past the image of classical music – which is, of course, what I write about – as background music in our culture. Even when people are giving it their full attention in the concert hall or at home, they often prefer to not think too deeply about it; they just let it wash over them. There’s nothing wrong in that, and I listen to music in the same way, but I’m always pushing to think about, “where does this music really come from? What does it mean?” To have a more analytical approach to it, while also holding onto that basic appreciation of music which is what drew me to it to begin with. I just think of myself as starting a conversation around music. So many people go to concerts and they’ll say, “oh, that was lovely!” But what do you say next? So I think one of the roles of the critic is to engage in this kind of conversation and get people to move past that passive reaction…of course, a very big part of my job is also to talk about new music, which for many people who grew up with classical music, is not necessarily what they’re interested in, but I think it’s so important. And as an ex-composer myself, it’s really central to what I do.

Allison: I really enjoyed your recent article for The New Yorker on Florence Price, who was the first African-American female composer who really tried to enter the western classical canon. We’re actually organizing a five-hour orgy on her works May 7th. I wanted to ask you, what’s your opinion on the classical music canon? Who defined this historically, who defines this canon today, and if you could singlehandedly change the canon, what would you do? As a music critic, do you think you’re in a position to make some of those changes?

Alex: Ultimately, it’s the job of the administrators who run the orchestras. They pay a little bit of attention to what the critics say, but we don’t have that kind of power to turn things around. And they’re really focused on what the audience wants. And the issue is if you take a composer like Florence Price, even if people will probably enjoy the music once they get a chance to hear it, the name will be unfamiliar to them, so there’s the danger that they won’t sell that many tickets, because unfamiliar names are a problem at the box office. That’s the biggest obstacle to changing the repertory. So many people who go to concerts just want to hear the same composers over and over again. They want to hear their Mozart, their Beethoven, and their Brahms, and they don’t view the concert hall as a place of discovery and adventure and challenge.

How the repertory came to be is a really interesting question. Musicologists have talked about how it’s not simply a matter of these great geniuses arising, and people hear the music and are automatically converted to it. It’s a complicated kind of negotiation. You see composers rise and fall. 100 years ago, or even 75 years ago, Cesar Franck was heard all the time – the Franck Symphony was just unavoidable, but now you very rarely hear it. You actually still see his name in Paine Hall [in the Harvard Department of Music].

It’s not that any one person is making a decision; it’s just kind of this herd mentality where people move in one direction or another. And I think we’re at this very important point where we need to really go back and think about the fact that this entire repertory is almost entirely a white, male repertory. There are historical reasons for that – women were not even permitted to enter the field, and there were enormous obstacles for people from various minority backgrounds. And yet, I think we can find figures like Florence Price, whose music is absolutely worth listening to, and it’s refreshing. Instead of playing that Brahms Symphony one more time, to substitute these figures who enrich our sense of history, change the complexion of our programs, and give encouragement to composers now is very important. I’m hoping that this will gather steam. It’s wonderful that you’re doing a Florence Price orgy.

Allison: You’ve talked about how you think the concert hall should be a place of discovery for the audience. But maybe the audience is more concerned with gaining aesthetic pleasure from a performance. What do you think is the role of classical music, why do you think people should listen, and what should people expect to gain from the concert experience?

Alex: Well you can’t dictate to people: “you should be listening this way,” and it’s always very personal. What I’m always working toward is really the idea of listening as an adventure, as an exploration, as an artform. It’s interesting how people react differently to music than to visual arts. When people go to a museum, certainly a contemporary gallery, they’re much more willing to challenge themselves with the unknown. And, of course, you find that 20th century artists, even the most avant-garde, are enormously popular. When you have a big museum exhibition of Kandinsky or Jackson Pollack, there are big crowds in the museums, and these are artists who were very challenging in their day. There’s a certain shock element when you first see their work, and yet people are willing to have that attitude of adventure. So I’d like to see more of that in the concert hall, that it’s not simply about pleasure, but it can be about surprise, even shock, strangeness, the unfamiliar, but then finding your way into it and coming to know it.

Allison: To zoom out now, I wanted to ask you, how did you get your start in music journalism? Was this something you always aspired to, or is this career path more of a surprise for you?

Alex: It was more of a surprise! I grew up totally immersed in classical music, I played piano and oboe, and I tried to compose (I was never really successful). Music was something that I wanted to do, not write about. But I read voraciously, I was always checking out composer biographies from the library…I also liked writing, but more like essays for school, and I had never thought about the convergence of those interests [music and writing]. It started happening right here, actually, in college – well, not here physically, the studios used to be in Memorial Hall under Sanders Theater. WHRB is absolutely where I first started writing about music, talking about it, thinking about it – sort of moving into being something like a music critic…I’ll always be incredibly grateful to WHRB for really starting me in that direction.

At that time, David Elliott had the idea of publishing CD reviews in the program guide, so I started writing those, and those were my first attempts at written music criticism. And I would write these rather rambling essays that I would read aloud on the air when I was doing my orgies on Benjamin Britten and Shostakovich and Nielsen and Mahler and so on. I don’t know how many people stayed through to the end of these disquisitions, but that was also preparation. And above all, it was just the education of going through the record collection here, really acquainting myself with 20th century music in all its forms and discovering one composer after another – this was where I first John Adams, and got acquainted with the later 20th century avant-garde, and Ligeti, and Stockhausen, and Morton Feldman – I discovered all these composers.

Allison: Did you program any memorable orgies or features that you can still recall? Can you tell us about some of them? Or maybe your favorite memories?

Alex: There’s so many memories, and I’m still friends with some of the people I met here. I also got to know people in other departments. When I arrived here, I was just a pure classical music geek. That was all I cared about. Everything else was rubbish. And I started to get to know jazz, and there was the Record Hospital – this was very alien to me at first, when I first heard this music, it just sounded like people yelling. But the people were so interesting, they were so smart, and so devoted to these obscure bands, and methodical, and fanatical about them. So I thought, there must be something to this. My transition to listening to any kind of rock music seriously was weirdly through this post-punk avant-garde world of bands like Sonic Youth. Some of their music, the noisier, dissonant, free-form aspect, resembled avant-garde classical music that I was listening to. Same thing when I started listening to jazz – Cecil Taylor first, free jazz. I made those transitions here, really through the people as well as through the music. And that was just so important for my development, for my awareness of the wider landscape of music, as well as getting to know these people who are still really good friends of mine.

In terms of my programs, my orgies, I did the big composer orgies, Britten, Shostakovich, Nielsen, my final project here was Mahler…I did also some shorter, sometimes more eccentric orgies. I did a Bax orgy. I did a Ligeti orgy which was great. I actually wrote to Mr. Ligeti, I found an address somewhere, and I was trying to track down a recording of his Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. I wrote him a letter asking for a tape, and he wrote back saying “yes, write to such-and-such,” some obscure label. And I got the record and played it on the air. It starts out with 100 metronomes, it sounds like static. After a couple minutes, there was a caller who says, “you’re off the air, your signal is down.” And I said, “no, you’re listening to music!” And then we had a debate about what music was.

I also did these silly things in the one hour between the football game and the next program, I did an orgy called “Schnorgy,” which consisted of music from Schnittke, Schnabel, and Schnebel, that was very silly. We amused ourselves. And I did these collaborations with people at the Record Hospital which was just us in the middle of the night playing tapes and records simultaneously and people doing spontaneous poetry on the microphone, and it was really fun. I spent so much time here, I spent more time here than in my classes.

Allison Pao is a radio host for WHRB Classical. You can listen to her feature, The Language of Music, on Fridays, 6-7pm.