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.

4 thoughts on “Alex Ross: Pomo Pied Piper Saves the Western Canon!

  1. Marc

    Hang on a minute, and take a deep breath. Now take another.

    TRIN is a great book, with loads of insights and a unique way of joining musical history to cultural history to political history, and I’ve said so. Ross is an exceptional writer, and his blog is the hub for a great deal of classical activity on the web and in the blogosphere. But “He is the answer to all the lamentations about who will build the new audiences”? No one can live up to that, not even SuperAlex. It’s a bit of a conceptual leap to believe that people with only a passing interest in classical music up till now will become avid concertgoers, or even occasional concertgoers, once they’ve read TRIN. More likely, they will be glad they know a great deal more about the way composers lived and worked in the 20th century, what they created, and they’ll move on to the next artform that piques their interest. CD sales may spike a little, and Sibelius may even achieve a bit of newly kindled popularity among orchestras. But suggesting that any critic has the ability to reroute the passions—and passions are what move people to open up their wallets and buy concert tickets, or anything else—is a bit much.

    I’d love to be proved wrong on this point, of course, and maybe I’m just preternaturally pessimistic, but the line from reading TRIN to lines forming around the block when they didn’t before doesn’t seem to be a straight one, to me.

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  2. MarkNGrant

    But suggesting that any critic has the ability to reroute the passions—and passions are what move people to open up their wallets and buy concert tickets, or anything else—is a bit much.

    Nope. Tain’t so. Historical precedents of classical music critics concretely affecting audience taste, ticket purchases, and orchestra programming abound. Olin Downes, to take one example, almost single-handedly turned Koussevitsky into a Sibelius champion, and the athletic Downes brought many new fans to classical music who previously thought classical music too “sissified.” President Truman’s public lambasting of critic Paul Hume’s pan of his daughter Margaret’s song recital increased awareness in the nation’s capital for classical music and kindled support for what became the Kennedy Center. There are many other examples too lengthy to go into here, all detailed in my book Maestros of the Pen.

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  3. jodru

    It is an enormous stretch to say that Alex has achieved anything like the influence and recognition of someone like Bernstein. Among the sector of classical music enthusiasts who actively read the internet (a small sector of a small sector), Alex is, of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

    But step outside of that very small ghetto, and Alex is just any other guy. His best attributes are the absence of malice in his writing and his profound (but not delimiting) sensitivity.

    However, TRIN is a reflection of Alex’s tastes, first and foremost. As far as hand guides to 20th century music go, it’s a first-rate tool, but another twelve volumes of similar probity could be written from a dozen different perspectives on this past century.

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  4. Garth Trinkl

    “Sibelius may even achieve a bit of newly kindled popularity among orchestras” (mg)

    I thought that Sibelius had already attained newly kindled popularity over the past generation, in the U.S., under travelling conductors such as Osma Vanska. I was fascinated to note, however, that over the next two weeks the University of Maryland Orchestra will be performing the Sibelius Symphony #7 (paired with Shostakovich Symphony #13) and the Catholic University Symphony, in Washington, will be performing the Sibelius Symphony #3.

    I also seem to recall that the University of California Berkeley Symphony has regularly performed Sibelius’s works; starting perhaps in around 1976 — the year that the University of California Press published Erik Tawaststjerna’s tome on Sibelius: 1865 – 1905 . (I have always imagined that that book influenced Ingram Marshall and John Adams.)

    Since I believe that Mr Ross liked Ingram Marshall’s composition ‘Kingdom Come’, I wish that his critical influence could have persuaded more American orchestras to program that new American work. I believe that such programming would have attracted some younger audiences to American orchestra concerts. (I don’t think that the National Symphony has programmed Marshall’s ‘Kingdom Come’, even though Leonard Slatkin tried, during his tenure, to present a general survey of his tastes in contemporary American composition.)

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