Putting music to the words


American classical music critic Alex Ross is a fan of the Dunedin Sound. Photos: Supplied
American classical music critic Alex Ross is a fan of the Dunedin Sound. Photo: supplied

As a critic for The New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross is usually in the audience, taking notes for a review, but on his New Zealand tour he is part of the show. He tells Rebecca Fox about the role reversal and being a fan of the Dunedin Sound.

Alex Ross enjoys setting aside his ''critical identity'' occasionally.

The author of best-seller The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, , has a day job as a music critic for The New Yorker.

But every so often he puts that role aside and takes on a collaboration with a music ensemble - most recently touring with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

''I can't do it very often since it conflicts with my role as a journalist, but I enjoy setting aside my critical identity every so often.''

This time it is with New Zealand's Stroma and mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew (currently a member of the Opernstudio with Oper Frankfurt) as they bring his book to life, performing excerpts by 13 composers.

''But the programming really comes entirely from Stroma - I'll be providing commentary and giving a sense of what to listen for.''

 New Zealand ensemble Stroma will create the soundtrack to Ross’ book. Photo: supplied
New Zealand ensemble Stroma will create the soundtrack to Ross’ book. Photo: supplied

Stroma's co-director Michael Norris says Ross' book provides an ''entertaining and illuminating peregrination though the history of modern classical music, so this concert will provide the soundtrack''.

It is also a departure for Ross to be on stage rather than in front of it.

''It's very strange. Honestly, I don't feel I belong onstage with skilled musicians such as these, but I'm honoured to be given a cameo role.''

The book is an extension of Ross' passion for classical music and writing.

He grew up in Washington in a family of non-musicians, who loved attending concerts and listening to music.

His interest in classical music developed at an early age.

''I don't remember not loving it. I especially loved Beethoven's symphonies and piano sonatas. I paid no attention to pop music throughout my childhood and adolescence, which, as you can imagine, made me very popular in school.

''Certainly, my parents' love for music affected me, but I think something in me responded to classical music with particular force.''

Ross (50) studied piano and oboe and, until he was 18, wanted to be a composer.

''At the same time, I was deeply immersed in writing, and was, frankly, better at it than I was at composing.''

So in college - he studied music and literature at Harvard University - he began writing about music for his college radio station.

''I wrote little essays that I read on the air, for the benefit of perhaps three or four people listening. We published some CD reviews, and those were my first attempts at music criticism.''

He began contributing to The New Yorker in 1993 and became the magazine's music critic in 1996.

''It's the perfect place for a writer, or, at least, for a writer like me. I am allowed to pursue my passions, but I also have a superb staff of editors and fact-checkers to make me look better and smarter than I actually am.''

Not only does he critique and write about classical music from the Metropolitan Opera to the ''downtown avant-garde'', he also writes about non-music topics.

''For example, the gay rights movement in America, the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Willa Cather, and, a personal favourite, Death Valley.''

Mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew. Photo: supplied
Mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew. Photo: supplied

For Ross, the role of the critic is to begin a conversation about what is going on and to inform readers on what might be worth their attention.

''I never think of myself as one who is laying down the law or rendering final judgements. Rather, I am offering up my idiosyncratic but, I hope, reasonably well informed perspective.''

His role means he does not socialise with musicians, although he sometimes interviews them for profiles.

''[I] find it very valuable to see how they think and work behind the scenes.''

From there, it was natural for him to write a book about music as he believes a sense of history helps in the appreciation of any art form, whether it is music, literature or film.

He started working on his book in 2000 choosing the title The Rest Is Noise, as a play on Hamlet's last words (''The rest is silence'') and, more widely, the perception that classical composition devolved into noise as the 20th century went on.

But its success came as a surprise. The list of accolades is seemingly endless - winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, the 2008 Guardian First Book Award, a 2010 Premio Napoli prize in foreign literature, the 2011 Grand Prix des Muses, and a Music Pen Club prize in Japan; finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction; shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; one of the New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2007; also on best-of-the-year lists in the Washington Post, the LA Times, Time, The Economist, Slate, and Newsweek ...

''It was a sensational experience. I had no idea that The Rest Is Noise would meet the sort of response that it did - I merely hoped that it wouldn't be a total fiasco, so that I'd be allowed to write another book.''

Alex Ross’ best-selling book, The Rest is Noise.
Alex Ross’ best-selling book, The Rest is Noise.

His second book is the essay collection Listen to This.

Ross is now working on his third book, Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. It is about German composer Richard Wagner's vast influence on art, literature, and culture, from Baudelaire and Proust to Philip K. Dick and Apocalypse Now.

This tour, which includes an appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival, is Ross' first to New Zealand.

''Indeed it has lived up to expectations. I'm particularly looking forward to visiting Dunedin, since I'm a big fan of the great Dunedin rock bands of the 1980s.''

In a recent blog, he rated Dunedin as a ''wellspring of some of the best pop music of the late 20th century''.

''I interviewed Graeme Downes once in the '90s, when I wrote an article on NZ rock for [online magazine] Feed [1995-2001], and I look forward to seeing him again.''

To see

Alex Ross with Bianca Andrew and Stroma
Monday 7.30pm.


American classical music critic Alex Ross is a fan of the Dunedin Sound. Photos: Supplied
American classical music critic Alex Ross is a fan of the Dunedin Sound. Photo: supplied

Add a Comment

Local journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Otago Daily Times reporters and photographers continue to bring you the stories that matter. For more than 158 years our journalists have provided readers with local news you can trust. This is more important now than ever.

As advertising drops off during the pandemic, support from our readers is crucial. You can help us continue to bring you news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter