The New Yorker music critic who linked Wagner with Game of Thrones

by Elizabeth Kerr / 12 May, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Alex Ross New Yorker

Alex Ross.

Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, is shifting from stalls to stage on a visit to the Auckland Writers Festival.

As a teenager, Alex Ross was alarmed when his piano teacher put Austrian composer Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata on the music desk. “I had the sensation of the language dissolving under my fingers,” he says. “It’s a transitional work from tonality to atonality. I was also intrigued.”

The challenging music of Berg and his contemporaries in the early 20th century is sometimes blamed for audience flight from recent music. Ross realised he was “running 100 years behind”, so began his journey towards the music of his own time.

“In classical music, there’s a tremendous bias towards the past. As a critic, I’m always pushing attention towards the present, bringing people up to speed with what’s going on.”

Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker since 1996, covers classical, opera and avant-garde music as well as pop, literature, history and gay life.

This month, he is visiting as a guest of Chamber Music New Zealand and the Auckland Writers Festival, introducing a programme of 20th-century music on a national tour by contemporary ensemble Stroma and talking at the festival.

His 2007 bestseller, The Rest Is Noise, a major contribution to our understanding of 20th-century music, earned a string of awards. His years as a music journalist informed a lively account of the century’s music, embedded in its social and political contexts.

His audience is broad. “The New Yorker has a philosophy that anything can be made interesting to a reader who knows nothing about the subject. That’s a challenge; you don’t want to get too technical, to baffle the uninitiated, nor so basic that the specialist becomes irritated. It’s finding that balance.”

Richard Wagner. Photo/Getty Images

Richard Wagner. Photo/Getty Images

Plurality was the strongest feature of 20th-century music and Ross explores many pathways in The Rest Is Noise.

“I wanted to emphasise the different narratives. At the beginning of the century, there was a kind of explosion in terms of what music was, and 100 years on, we’re still unpacking those lines of development.

“One strand concentrated on innovation, atonality, modernism, successive waves of the avant-garde. Then there’s a more conservative narrative, from Sibelius to Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten to John Adams. Some composers moved backwards and rediscovered earlier periods, and some leapt far forward, exploring technologies and abandoning conventions, such as John Cage with site-specific and performance art.”

In a provocative chapter titled “Beethoven was wrong” (a phrase attributed to Cage), Ross comments on the Beatles, Frank Zappa, American minimalists Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Morton Feldman and 1960s psychedelia. Schoenberg, the Velvet Underground and Miles Davis may be unlikely bedfellows, but the links Ross draws between them are so persuasive, it all makes perfect sense.

Frank Zappa. Photo/Getty Images

Frank Zappa. Photo/Getty Images

During his Stroma tour, Ross will emphasise those connections, with commentary on a programme beginning with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and ending in 2000 with short fall by American minimalist David Lang.

Ross says that Stroma’s concerts illustrate the mobility of the small ensemble. “Not being tied down to an institution with all its traditions is an important aspect of the century. You got that early on with Pierrot Lunaire and now Lang and his cohorts in [the New York musical group] Bang on a Can show up in a gallery, a warehouse, a bar or outdoors.”

Political themes are important in The Rest Is Noise, with chapters called “The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia” and “Death Fugue: Music in Hitler’s Germany”.

“Composers often found themselves in very dangerous positions,” says Ross, “which affected what they could or were allowed to write.”

Stroma will play Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a prisoner-of-war camp, and Luciano Berio’s tribute to Martin Luther King, O King.

Miles Davis. Photo/Getty Images

Miles Davis. Photo/Getty Images

Ross now regrets having given “rather minimal” attention in his book to women composers – “We have many more women composing now than were able to do so 100 years ago” – but Stroma’s programme redresses the balance: New Zealand works For Seven, composed by Jenny McLeod in 1966 in Europe for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s virtuosic ensemble, and the sextet Manutaki by Gillian Whitehead will be played alongside Oi Kuu (For the Moon) by Kaija Saariaho, a Finn who is one of Europe’s foremost contemporary composers.

At the Writers Festival, Ross will also talk about the subject of his next book, Wagnerism. Richard Wagner died in 1883 but Ross mentions him many times in The Rest Is Noise, acknowledging the German composer’s importance and his own interest in a towering if controversial figure. In a recent New Yorker piece, he wrote about what he saw as connections between Wagner’s Ring cycle and the incestuous goings-on in fantasy series Game of Thrones.

“The list of writers, artists, choreographers, architects and film-makers who found Wagner inspiring or thought-provoking is extraordinary: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Kandinsky, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Eisenstein and on and on. That’s the heart of the new book. It enables me to continue talking about this confluence of music, politics and the wider culture.”

Alex Ross: On Wagner and The Rest Is Noise, Auckland Writers Festival, May 18-19; with Bianca Andrew & Stroma, Chamber Music New Zealand tour, May 20-30.

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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