Mon Ross En Rose

Music critic and former object of C.C.’s affection, Alex Ross, made an appearance on Charlie Rose Tuesday night, and C.C. was just sober enough to take in a little of the action.

Our suspicions were confirmed, however. It seems that A. Ro., as we affectionately refer to him around here, is kind of the enemy.

Why “the enemy,” you ask?

Well, in terms of history, A. Ro. has it down. He’s done the research. He’s familiar with the materials. He can tell you virtually anything you’d like to know about 20th century classical music. We think he’s a little prone to molding everything into narrative, in fact, the premise of his book, The Rest Is Noise, seems explicitly to be to explain what happened, which ultimately leads to storytelling. Even if this story is based on a lot of evidence, The Rest Is Noise is essentially an effort to rationalize the musical events–and choices composers made–of a century that was largely irrational in its evolution.

(C.C. is reviewing The Rest Is Noise at a snail’s pace. Click here for previous entries.)

But aside from the historical inevitability that Ross tries both to debunk and reinforce (debunk for Schoenberg, reinforce for Reich), the prescriptions he gives for the present and future course of classical music lie at great odds with little old C.C.’s deepest beliefs about art music.

(BTW, was Charlie Rose lit or something? He seemed kinda of out of it, like Liz Taylor out of it. Did you see when he confused Tchaikovsky with Toscanini, and A. Ro. politely didn’t say anything until Rose caught himself and asked for Ross to correct him? Brilliant.)

Anyway, the first comment that really had the hair standing on our neck, was when he claims that a lot of contemporary composers “have given up on the idea of innovation.” It sounds like a sexy, hot-off-the-press hypothesis, but it’s pretty much a total fallacy. Innovation and experimentalism is at the heart of music’s innate will to progress. Even pop music derives its constantly renewing index of sound from technological innovations.

So where does Ross get this idea? My guess is that it comes from his preference for music that is largely eclectic in its aesthetics, music that is in fact backward-looking. John Adams and John Corigliano are two composers he mentions in the interview (even though he’s talking about the presence of their music at a concert Michael Tilson Thomas programmed several years ago, he’s still using them as examples of “the new” in music). One has managed to turn the subtle, introspective language of minimalism into a platform for film-score ready romanticism. And the other is a self-professed (if I recall correctly) leader of the “Neo Romantic” school.

Indeed, if you take the case of these two composers, if you believe that’s where new music is at, you might well develop the idea that aesthetic progress has halted. They are both idly schmaltzy and take almost no real risks.

But Ross seems to also believe in a future–that he outlines in a fleeting moment, so watch out for it–where the lines between classical and jazz and all the other genres will dissolve, leaving, I think what he says is, one vast “continent” of music.

I’ve argued against this idea on various blogs (Post Classic and Sandow). I don’t think the way forward is to be less individual, less bold, less different. Classical music, as art music, has, for better or worse, become an alternative popular music. It serves a specific purpose. In the modern world, to create an alternative is to create art.

(BTW, wasn’t anyone there to straighten out his tie?)


  1. A darling friend of C.C. just sent us this tasty email:

    “Just read your post on Ross. I haven’t watched the interview, but as I was reading your post I was listening to an audio blog by Ross about a program of contemporary music he programmed at On the Boards in Seattle. Here’s the link to the blog:

    “I will forward you the concert info. Basically, I could not agree with you more–he seems a bit tone deaf to contemporary music. Of the composers he’s chosen for the the Seattle program–all of them are in their 20s and 30s–I have only heard the work of Mason Bates and Nico Muhly. And, to me, both make music that is about as exciting as a commercial for a new Apple product that you didn’t know you absolutely needed until now. Other descriptions come to mind–sappy, schmaltzy, romantic, introspective, quasi-religious, Bjork when she is bad and boring (now now, I do love her work when it’s good).

    “I KNOW there are LOTS of very groovy, supremely talented and intelligent composers out there. I think you are absolutely right to begin a dialogue with him on music of the 21st century. His predictions about the future of composed? (contemporary? art? classical?…even our language fails us) music sound hokey. Like a speech by Barak Obama. I’m gonna go off here, making irresponsible connections across worlds that may or may not relate to each other: both Ross and Obama seem to like to gloss on the future, saying stuff that sounds really great but is also woefully inadequate, unspecific and, in the end, inarticulate. It’s hard to refute this kind of discourse without sounding cynical, defeated, dated or worse. Indeed, both seem to be laying a rhetorical trap. Who wouldn’t want “one vast continent” of peaceful people living in harmony, listening to lots of new music and solving America’s problems together? How do you respond, debate, adjust, critique, correct, such an all-encompassing vision? I need to think more about this.

    “Thank you for keeping it real.”

  2. Ross often reads like a classical music Ken Burns. His iPod lecture at OtB in 2006, “My Twentieth Century,” with its “major figure” historical narrative, really brought this home. I can’t wait to see “Icebreakers IV” at OtB, however. I’d be delighted to have these judgments of mine proven wrong.

  3. I’m crazy about Nico Muhly and his music, so I’m probably more biased than I think I am—what’s more, I still haven’t bought The Rest Is Noise, though I’ve certainly read plenty of Ross’s stuff, and I CERTAINLY didn’t see Ross on Rose. (I’d chew my leg off to escape an episode of Charlie Rose.) So, disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer.

    But my guess is, what you’re reacting to is the fact that it’s much more difficult to pen a positive critique than a negative one. It’s always easier to be mean. In this post, for instance, you and your friend each hold up two composers for ridicule without managing to name a single living composer whose music you enjoy. I love Ross when he goes on the offensive—why do composers insist on titling their music to sound like science experiments? he asks, or, why are Boulez’s interpretations of neoclassical Stravinsky so tepid?—whereas his old article on the Golijov Pasión, a piece that Ross of course loves, is my least favorite thing he ever wrote. And I love Boulez! I love those science-experiment pieces, too!

    What’s admirable about Ross is that he is so much more interested in writing about his enthusiasms than about those things upon which it would be so easy to heap a helpin’ of facile critical scorn. For instance, in his NPR interview re: Noise, he was quick to defend Schoenberg’s music, however misguided Schoenbergian teleology must seem (to him, but hopefully to all of us?) in retrospect.

    I agree that it’s nearly as foolish to fashion a narrative in which eclecticism is the Ultimate Triumph of Musical Aesthetics. A severe, uncompromising aesthetic can be bracing, refreshing, and an all-inclusive one can be an insipid muddle. But these are functions of the individual composer’s craft, not just his or her insistence on Purity or Newness. I mean, John Adams, composer of the Chamber Symphony, a “fashioner of idle schmaltz”? Really? Corigliano, composer of the String Quartet? These are composers who reward close analysis as well as casual listening. I think that’s a nifty twofer.

    You suggest that Ross’s concept of “the new” is inconsistent here; it seems to me that what Ross is advocating, and rightly so, is an embrace of the new, along with an end to the fetishization of innovation for its own sake. I think that we should admire composers like Adams and Corigliano for their eagerness to synthesize the work of mavericks like Reich and Nancarrow with our inherited language of musical sentiment. They may “fail” to break with the past, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also making something terrifically new.

  4. Good points everybody. It’s hopeful to see that people are interested in having a conversation about these issues.

    Maybe “schmaltz” isn’t the right word to describe Adams, but there is something idle about his work. It just doesn’t go far enough. And, listening to both him and Corigliano, I don’t feel like there’s much to learn from either composer. Their music, even though they sound quite different as composers, rings of a similar self-gratification.

  5. “Ross often reads like a classical music Ken Burns”

    Ouch! (I hated Burns’ baseball and jazz docs). That’s true, but I think one of the issues is that the publication and subsequent success of the book obscured the idea that it was never intended to be an academic exercise. I knew going in it wasn’t going to be a rigorous survey of the 20th century orchestral/operatic literature, it was going to be a book about his enthusiasms, an expanded version of his New Yorker columns, if you will. Fair enough, I share some of those enthusiasms (Salome, Britten, Schreker), some I’m totally opposed to (minimalism). He had to structure his book and he chose The Great Man narrative.

    What I find funny is one of the complaints about the book has been the sections on the last 30 years; I’m 48 and about 10 years ago, I realized that I saw music from a lens of when I first became obsessed by it. In my case, it was the acid rock of Hendrix and Cream, which lead to prog rock, which lead to classical and opera. I’ve never liked basic 3-chord “good time rock & roll” ever, can’t stand reggae etc. So, here I am, 40 years after being blown away by “Wheels of Fire” and “Electric Ladyland” and I’ve accepted that there’s never going to be a really big sea change in what I look for in music.

    Mr. Ross’ equivalent of Cream and Hendrix is minimalism, obviously, specifically Reich and Adams. I remember one of the few times I’ve read anything of his that came across as angry was when Adams’ “The Flowering Tree” got trashed by some European critics. I LOL’d because I recognized that: the Adams fanboy didn’t like his hero having potshots taken at him. Mr. Ross seems oblivious/uninterested in a lot of European trends of the last 30 years, but that’s OK, it’s his book, not mine.

    As for Adams, I think he’s past his best, to say the least. I loved the stuff up to ca. “Nixon in China”, but “I Looked at the Ceiling” is the most godawful thing I’ve ever heard from a major composer and most of the stuff since is……what’s the correct damning with faint praise word?….pleasant. I was at the premiere of “Doctor Atomic” in San Francisco and as I said to a friend afterwards “Since he’s often stated he doesn’t like opera, I wish he’d quit writing the damn things”. It was amusing to hear the music start to use modernist cliches that were passe 40 years ago and mein Gott in Himmel is the text setting bad.

    As for Corigliano, I’d say he’s a pastische-ist. I think his best work has been the soundtrack to “Altered States” actually, though I’m curious to hear what revisions he’s done to the poor “Ghosts of Versailles” when the Met revive it in a few years.

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