Interview with Alex Ross

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Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, won a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Premio Napoli, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2013, the Southbank Centre in London will mount a year-long festival inspired by The Rest Is Noise. Ross has also published an essay collection, Listen to This. He is now at work on a book entitled Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. [Source]

I have booked coffee with  The New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, whose stun- ning history of the twentieth century in music, The Rest is Noise, caused such a sensation when it came out in 2007. He’s more recently been writing about how professional playing was changed by the advent of recorded sound – and how that changed the relationship between professional and amateur music-making. This was what I was keen to quiz him about. We meet in his cramped office, stacked from floor to ceiling with books and CDs, with a tiny space in which to work – by the low glow of a Philippe Starck light.

To begin with I ask him to sketch out his thoughts on the impact of recording. ‘I guess it’s a sort of complicated series of transformations that took place at the end of the nineteenth century. Obviously, there was at that point much less of a distinction between professional musician and passive listener. I mean, so many of the listeners played themselves, in their homes.’ He thinks that if we were able to hear professional music-making from that period, it would probably strike us as very ‘amateurish’. ‘I think if we heard performances, perhaps even by some of the most famous virtu- osos of the day, we might instinctively hear them now as sloppy, as less controlled than so much of what we hear nowadays.’

Ross says he isn’t trying to make this case himself – ‘I only read in the field’ – but a number of commentators believe that the advent of recording at the end of the nineteenth century changed not just how people played, but how they listened. ‘It was a sort of a mirror moment. Certainly, musi- cians became much more conscious of how they actually sounded. It was quite jarring and frightening to a lot of people that they could hear these mistakes or approximations or, I think, expressive gestures in their playing. Even if the musician was, in fact, totally in control of what he was doing, you could suddenly hear a slide or a portamento in a string section, rolling chords at the piano, or an effect where the right hand was maybe moving a little ahead, or a little behind, the left. I think all these kinds of gestures were done deliberately for expressive reasons, but, after recording came in, there was just increasingly this emphasis on precision, on togetherness, on technical control.’

And how exactly did recording change the listening audience? ‘Well, people became accustomed to listening to multi-movement symphonies or quartets in the silence of one’s living room.’ This silent atmosphere was then echoed in the concert halls. Before recording there was sometimes applause during the pieces, not just after, and there were far more calls for encores. With the advent of recordings, as Ross put it, things started ‘quieting down’.

Recording also brought about an increasing distinction between composers and performers. Prior to recording, this distinction didn’t exist. ‘Until the latter part of the nineteenth Century there were very few pianists at least, or conductors, who weren’t also composers themselves.’ This meant there had been a culture where the performer gave a more ‘creative element’ to the piece. ‘A movement of a multi-movement piece might be repeated; pianists would introduce works with an improvisatory episode – ‘preluding’ it was called – then as they finished they might add something of their own to sort of link up with the next piece.’ As recording accelerated what Ross refers to as ‘the cult of precision’, these flourishes vanished and the composer– performer was replaced by the pure, and more technically proficient, performer.

The ‘cult of precision’ reached a climax, Ross thinks, during ‘the golden age of the LP, maybe stretching into the early CD era’ – so from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. By this point things had almost become artificial. Behind the scenes, the precise and perfect recorded performance ‘was to some extent the creation of a great deal of splicing together of takes and retakes’. This would create almost impossible pressures for the pianists, the orchestra or the string quartet that would have to live up to these semi- artificial creations and sustain that level of technical control in the live performance. It created a culture in the conservatories of endless practising in pursuit of this ‘perfect performance’.

However, Ross thinks that things have been changing. He tells me that ‘it seems as though then we’ve been moving into an age more recently where, though that conservatoire culture is still very much present, I do feel as though there has been a certain loosening up. There certainly are performers now who are investigating improvisation – a soloist writing his or her own cadenzas for a concerto. They are cultivating again the more creative end of performance.’

Is this just a result of frustration with how things have been? ‘Quite a bit of this is rooted in the early music movement,’ Ross says. ‘Early music we think of in its early days as highly antiquarian and academic in its sensibility. But then, after a certain stage, performers began studying the manuals for performance, accounts of how music was really made in the seventeenth, eighteenth centuries especially. They decided, “We need to begin ornamenting in the fashion of those days and perhaps even improvising and just to bring a lot more spontaneity to the performance.” So now you have these sometimes shockingly, wonderfully rambunctious, performances of Vivaldi concertos or the “Brandenburg” Concertos or other Baroque pieces.’

But has this trend begun to infiltrate the core Romantic repertory, the performance of nineteenth-century music which up to now has seemed almost sacrosanct? ‘I haven’t really seen this happening yet – but we may get to a point where some of that same mentality comes into it. But we’ve heard these pieces done more or less the same way for so long that for an interpreter to come along and decide to improvise something at the begin- ning of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata leading into the opening chords would be just unimaginably shocking whereas, with a relatively obscure Vivaldi opera, people take this kind of experimentation a lot more easily.’

We finish our conversation discussing how the digital revolution has affected the world of classical music. It certainly seems to be the case that the technology which allowed recording to reach that high point of preci- sion and perfection has now started to destroy the economic basis of the recording industry. ‘Absolutely,’ agrees Ross. This means that studio record- ings, though still made, are no longer the goal of a performing career. ‘The young conductor doesn’t imagine now, “I’m going to go and do a studio one day and record my complete Mahler symphonies cycle, or the Ring cycle.” No one is thinking that way any more and the recordings are emanating from live performances more often.’ The result is that imperfec- tions, or rather ‘expressive gestures’, are coming back into the recordings.

But then there is the question of distribution. As Ross puts it, ‘So many performances now are streamed on the internet or go out on internet radio or even on high-quality video transmission. So there’s actually a lot more music just accumulating, being preserved now, sort of building up all over the internet and finding its way on to people’s hard drives, whether legally released or not.’ I tell Ross about the number of Ballade performances I’d discovered through Twitter, each one of which might have anything from a hundred viewers to 20,000 viewers or 200,000 viewers depending on whether it’s a cute little 11-year old, or a rising star. I put it to him this is a return to a form of music sharing that has more in common with the nineteenth century – breaking down the barriers between the professional and amateur – only on a much more significant scale.

‘Yeah, and it feels absolutely healthy. The complaint that I’ve had about classical performance culture for a while, is that we’re surrounded by this highly specialised, highly professionalised, proficient culture of performance which yields, generally, excellent performances night after night in concert halls. I seldom go to a performance in any leading concert hall that goes below a certain base level of technical proficiency, but it doesn’t so often rise far above that level. There are thousands of very good performances and rather few really great ones. So I think this moment in which everything is starting to seem much more chaotic and a sort of a partial breakdown in the filters that have controlled who becomes known, in a sense, who finds an audience, [is healthy] . . . In a way it does feel like a return to the culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, except now on a global scale as opposed to a much more local scale. I think it’s just fundamentally healthy for this system, this rather monolithic and highly routinised classical system – the agencies, the orchestras, the conservatories above all, the conservato- ries are at the heart of this system, the publishers for composers, record labels. You know, it is being shaken up in an interesting way. Critics as well, of course. We now have so many voices outside of newspapers and magazines on the internet and I think that’s healthy too.’