Alex Ross Provides One Good Reason to Take Music Hum

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Way back when, Ashraya Gupta, Bwog’s Blue Notebooks correspondent, attended a BN-sponsored conversation with music critic Alex Ross. Even a series of technical (and editorial) snafus couldn’t keep her report from reaching the masses.

At the most recent Blue Notebooks event, The New Yorker critic and recent author of The Rest Is Noise, expounded on some of his favorite topics: the death and life of classical music, his love for Doctor Faustus, and exactly what the Beatles owe to John Cage.

Ross’s new book, The Rest Is Noise, traces a connection between 20th century composition and broader cultural and political history. His blog of the same name does that on an everyday basis. Where else are you going to find out that Jamie Foxx is not only a classically-trained pianist, but is now taking cello lessons from a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

His interview last Monday dealt less with Foxx and more with names you might not know unless (a) you’ve taken Music Hum, (b) you’ve read his book, or (c) you actually listen to classical music. As audience members entered 501 Schermerhorn, Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” which does indeed make an appearance in the Music Hum textbook, could be heard. Ross kept fiddling with his iPod and laptop, appearing anxious to share more. Once he was certain everyone had found their seats, he turned down the volume and turned to his interviewer, Linden Park.

The conversation began with the most pressing question: is classical music dead, and does it matter? Ross immediately pointed out that there are now more symphony orchestras than there were fifty years ago. If classical music is dead, it can certainly be heard more now than ever before. If all that’s true, then how come the question doesn’t stop getting asked? Ross thinks it has something to do with the aestheticization of politics. The supposed death of classical music came with its link to totalitarian regimes and warfare. These days, the connection between a villainous soul and a taste for symphonies is made apparent in such caricatures as Hannibal Lecter. Somehow, classical music has become the soundtrack of the cold-hearted.

Except, of course, in Ross’s case. He’s warm, affable, quick to joke about the obsolescence of the term “modernism.” His original intent was to not even use the word in the book, but that proved too difficult even for him. Still, his primary concern is how so-called “modernist” music connects to the art and history often thought of as independent of it—namely, politics and pop music. Quickly turning to his laptop, he played a comparison of John Cage’s Williams Mix and the Beatles’ foray into tape loops, “Revolution #9.”

It was moments like these that perhaps held the greatest interest for audience members without a classical music background. Ross was nascent of the fact and explained that one of his aims as a critic is to write for the uninitiated. In classical music, which has so often become a genre dominated by connoisseurs, generating interest among the general public can prove difficult. But Ross is doing his best, analyzing the Velvet Underground as responses to minimalism and garnering praise from Bjork for doing it.

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  1. awesome!  

    music for 18 musicians is beautiful

    but is the use of "nascent" correct here? maybe "cognizant?"

    but great article

  2. actually  

    many music hum classes use the textbook listen, revised 5th edition, which does include music for 18 musicians

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