New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross credits his parents' love of both classical music and European and American history for the intimate connection he made between the two disciplines at a young age.
“Composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven … we can easily see them as these colossal brains floating in space, but they were flesh and blood people. They were part of society and culture and shaped by that culture and society,” said Ross.
Ross made those connections in his critically acclaimed 2007 book "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century." He also showed the human side of these now mythical names, including their foibles and rivalries between and among classical composers including Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. Ross said those human connections helps show how classical music is a continuing tradition.
“You know the moment we sort of dehumanize these people and put them on a pedestal, it takes the music out of our contemporary lives,” said Ross. “Something that has strongly impelled my career as a writer and commentator on music from the beginning is my love of the contemporary side of classical music.”
Ross said he tried composing at a young age and discovered to his chagrin the difficulty of the writing new music.
“And I admire it because I know how hard it is and how I fell short trying to do it. If I have one overarching mission as a critic, it is to promote, criticize and talk about new music. Making the great composers of the past flesh and blood people really opens up a relationship between the storied past and our complicated present. That’s one reason I do it. The other is that’s just the way history should be written. I think we can understand these people even better and understand the music even better if we can understand its humanness.” said Ross.
And the connection those humans had with the people, places, and cultural and political surroundings of their time.
“We do have this tendency to treat music as this ethereal substance that floats through the air and comes from someplace we know not where, or these strange, magical people who stand outside daily life. And we often use music as a way of escaping daily and political life. We often want to find this zone of comfort and beauty. So it can actually bother people when we reintroduce the politics and the history because this is often what they are trying to get away from as they’re listening to music,” said Ross.
To Ross, that history makes the music more viable and miraculous. He uses Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time" as an example. The young French composer became a prisoner of war fighting the Nazis during World War II.
“There was a guard who took an interest in him and found out he was a composer,” said Ross. “He gave him music paper, pens and pencils, and space to work. From that arose this extraordinary eight-movement piece 'Quartet for the End of Time,' which is very religious in nature. Messiaen was a conservative Catholic. The score makes no overt or subtle reference to the circumstances of the war … it is based on texts from the Book of Revelations. But of course you can’t possibly not think about the circumstances of which it is written and first performed on this freezing cold night in this prisoner of war camp with hundreds of prisoners and of course the German guards in attendance.”
Ross will speak at Illinois State University on Monday at 7 p.m. at the ISU Center for Performing Arts. His topics will range from how classical music can remain relevant to younger generations - to who should be a composer. Ross was heartened by the Pulitzer Prize for music awarded to American rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar in 2018 for his album “DAMN,” the first non classical or jazz musician winner.
“That’s a sign our definition of composer is changing,” said Ross.
The music he’ll talk about comes out of the classical tradition, but he said there is so much else that could flow into the mix, as many composers today are in conversations with other traditions.
“Pop music with jazz and everything else, there are figures who we can’t even decide what genre they belong to. You have quite a few composers these days performing their own work who are singing. And an awful lot of them are women. This has been a very welcome sea change from an almost exclusively male tradition changing into something not quite yet perfect gender balance, but has made a great deal of progress in recent years,” said Ross.
The classical singer/composer model has him optimistic as a fan, as he believes playing the classics he loves to the exclusion of new forms is unhealthy for the music itself.
“It creates a very unattractive picture (today) of a very heavily white male tradition and it’s very hard to get around that,” said Ross. “I think one way to make classical music more diverse and representative is simply to play more new music. It will automatically happen if you pay attention to the composer who are active now and interesting now, the face of classical music will change.
Alex Ross will speak at Illinois State University on Monday at 7 p.m. at the ISU Center for Performing Arts.
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