September 07, 2004
Alex Ross Interview

Excellent interview with Alex Ross

People have been trained to think of classical music as something "dignified," "civilized," "serious." That attitude smothers the life force that originally brought the music into the world. And the social code around classical music is so stupidly superficial. People think that if they dress a certain way, if they keep quiet and purse their lips and look thoughtful, read the program notes and murmur, "Ah, Mozart," then they're having a serious experience. It's thinking from the outside in. It's just as much of a pose, no, more of a pose, than any punk with a sneer and a nose-ring and purple hair. The ultra-stuck-up behavior only really appeared toward the end of the 19th century, when commercial popular music came into existence and upper-class symphony-goers tried to set themselves from the vulgar crowd. It had nothing to do with music-it was reactive, defensive, _un_serious. The word "serious" should be expunged. Everyone who commits a life to music is serious. Basically, we in classical music are so full of ourselves--we have a peculiar kind of arrogance that's internalized, that comes off as impenetrable standoffishness.

Also a few recommendations:

If you like the white-noisy end of rock, then you'll almost certainly get off on Xenakis' Metastasis or Ligeti's Atmospheres and Requiem. Then you could move backward in time to Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and the Rite of Spring. Then keep going back to Mahler and Strauss, the semi-dissonant late-Romantics. People who are deep into electronic, DJ, and experimental music, Warp and Rephlex Records stuff, the Eno seventies classics, etc., are already aware of Steve Reich, who kind of invented that whole thing. Music for Eighteen Musicians will take your breath away if you've never heard it. Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, Cage's Williams Mix, the pioneering electronic works are the next step. The OHM electronic compilation is an excellent introduction. From there you can climb on the same Ligeti-Schoenberg-Mahler bus as the Sonic Youth brigade, though if you fall in love with Reich you might also immediately understand the rapid hypnotic patterning of Vivaldi and Bach, or Dufay and Machaut. If you live for U2, Led Zeppelin, one of the grander rock bands, you could easily acquire a taste for Mahler, who once imagined his music being played in stadiums. The Resurrection Symphony is many people's starting point. Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra is in the same ballpark, and, of course, Wagner, the original hammer of the gods. Emo listeners might find a kindred spirit in, I don't know, Schubert's gorgeously self-pitying Die schöne Müllerin cycle, or John Dowland's Lachrimae, or John Adams' Harmonium. This is getting risky, though. There's so little rhyme or reason to the mechanics of taste. A Dillinger Escape Plan fan might suddenly get all tweaked out by Haydn's string quartets, who knows. Some music simply conquers all hearts. Schubert's String Quintet in C, for example. If that music doesn't bring you to the edge of tears, it's time to adjust your Wellbutrin. Ditto for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Bach cantatas, or Jessye Norman singing Strauss' Four Last Songs.

Posted by Bill Stilwell at September 07, 2004 10:10 PM

Thanks so much for posting this, Bill. This sort of discussion is totally up my alley, and I'm planning on having a blog dedicated to music discussion (history, theory, comparisons/contrasts between modern and "classical" in the HMV sense).

I think Mr. Ross's list of classical-music-that-rock-lovers-might-like is rather biased towards 20th century works. There are tons of medieval and renaissance works, for example, that I like to "rock out" to, that would be relevant today. Some English madrigals from Henry VII and VIII's times, for example, and some stuff by Monteverdi. Not to mention folk songs! But I guess I'll save it for my blog.

Posted by: gill on September 7, 2004 11:46 PM

Many thanks for the link and kind words! Agreed that I showed something of a 20th-century bias in the quoted paragraph, and that Monteverdi is as stupendous and radical a musician as ever lived.

Posted by: Alex Ross on September 17, 2004 12:21 AM

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