Alex Ross: Pomo Pied Piper Saves the Western Canon!
Believe it or not, there was a time when American classical music critics were public figures. Take the New York Tribune‘s Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923). Enrico Caruso drew a famous cartoon caricature of him. The Tribune boasted of Krehbiel on an ad billboarded above Broadway. The bison-like, walrus-mustachioed Krehbiel was frequently mistaken for President William Howard Taft when he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera. At his funeral, tributes poured in from foreign capitals and from the greatest musicians of the day; the other New York newspaper critics served as his pallbearers. Composer Deems Taylor (1885-1966) used his own notoriety as music critic of the New York World as a catapult to Metropolitan productions of his two operas, radio commentation for broadcasts of the NY Phil and Met, narrating Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and heading ASCAP. The New York Times‘s Olin Downes (1886-1955) even played himself in a Hollywood movie, Carnegie Hall (1947). These and many similar anecdotes about the crossover fame of classical music critics in yesterday’s pop culture are retold in greater detail in my book, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America.
Amazingly, it used to be a given in this country that a classical music critic was a kind of dignitary. But in the 21st century it’s become almost impossible for a classical musician—let alone a critic—to achieve this kind of optimum product placement in the American marketplace. In fact, not since Leonard Bernstein has any American musician done it.
Well, Alex Ross has succeeded. As I write this, Amazon.com ranks The Rest is Noise not only number one in music history and criticism, but, astoundingly, number one in 20th Century world history, ahead of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. An insider has told us that the New York Times Book Review will soon run a page one review of The Rest Is Noise. Prior to now, the NYTBR under Sam Tanenhaus’s editorship has given short shrift to classical music books (while on the other hand dutifully reviewing Phyllis Diller’s autobiography). Let’s see if The Rest is Noise becomes the first book about classical music to crack the bestseller list since Oscar Levant’s A Smattering of Ignorance in 1940. (Though not yet a movie performer in 1940, Levant was then already a media celeb for his appearances on the popular radio quiz program Information, Please.) (Deems Taylor, too, was on Information, Please. See what I mean?)
I haven’t finished The Rest is Noise yet, but anyone who can write that Janáček’s rhythms “move like a needle on a gramophone, skipping as if stuck in a rut” and that the syncopation of the third movement of the Symphony of Psalms is “almost like the Charleston” has thoroughly original insights worth reading. I haven’t read a book that so cogently cross-links geopolitics and musical culture since Albert Glinsky’s 2000 Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, nor one that portrays composers in their mundane, non-storybook dimensions so elevatingly.
But Alex Ross’s book’s success is good for classical music, not just good for him. He is the answer to all the lamentations about who will build the new audiences. Who will guide them? Alex Ross will. Because he himself is widely regarded as “cool” in a way that no other music critic seems to be at the moment, and because he admits “cool” music into the continuum of the western canon, he is in a unique position among critics to grandfather the European canon into the tastes of the pomo/downtown generation. With his popularity, he can “drag-and-drop” the new audience into classical music. He also has tapped that market segment of cultured generalists who used to be followers of new music but for decades had defected to dance, painting, performance art, etc. Ross’s book, and the wide barrier-jumping curiosity it has roused, has succeeded where no orchestra conductor or TV program has in rekindling general cultural interest in serious music.
How has he accomplished this? Not just with brilliant writing and analysis, but with greater bandwidth and hyperlinkability than any other music critic past or present. He’s FiOS while the NY Times critics are cable modem and individual music bloggers DSL. Ross has his own blog, his New Yorker articles, his posts on his Amazon book page, his podcast interviews. And now, his four-minute promotional video, which can be viewed either on his website or at YouTube. This comprises a new paradigm of cyberviral global exposure for a music critic that would have been technically impossible even three years ago. Ross is the first ubiquitous critic since Krehbiel. And I say, cheers and bravo to him, and to the resurrection of interest in “classical music” he has pied-pipered.