Alex Ross on Music, Culture, and Criticism (Ep. 105)
To Alex Ross, good music critics must be well-rounded and have command of neighboring cultural areas. “When you’re writing about opera, you’re writing about literature as well as music, you’re writing about staging, theater ideas, as well as music,” says the veteran music journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, explores the complicated legacy of Wagner, as well as how music shapes and is shaped by its cultural context.
Alex joined Tyler to discuss the book, what gets lost in the training of modern opera singers, the effect of recording technology on orchestras, why he doesn’t have “guilty pleasures,” how we should approach Wagner today, the irony behind most uses of “Ride of the Valkyries” in cinema, his favorite Orson Welles film, his predictions for concert attendance after COVID-19, why artistic life in Europe will likely recover faster than in America, Rothko’s influence on composer Morton Feldman, his contender for the greatest pop album ever made, how his Harvard dissertation on James Joyce prepared him for a career writing about music, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Today I am here with Alex Ross, who is music critic for the New Yorker, author of the best-selling The Rest Is Noise. But most importantly, he has a new book out, fascinating work called Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Alex, welcome.
ALEX ROSS: Thank you so much. Wonderful to be here.
COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?
ROSS: That’s an interesting question. There are a great many wonderful Wagner voices today, and there’s always a little bit of a dearth in one category or another. We never seem to be at the moment where there is a surfeit of outstanding voices for every role, but there’s no lack of wonderful Wagner singers.
But it is true that there was this extraordinary outpouring of recordings in the ’50s and the ’60s, and I think it had something to do with all of these singers. It was just an extraordinary generation of singers to begin with — Hans Hotter and Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson. A little later, Wolfgang Windgassen.
But I think because the Second World War created this caesura, and a bunch of singers went into exile, and others remained in Nazi Germany and collaborated or didn’t collaborate to whatever extent. And then after the war, they all came back together, and Bayreuth resumed with what seemed to be a brilliant new philosophy and a new approach under the Wagner grandsons. And so, suddenly, there was this explosion as if it was pent-up energy.
But it isn’t just about the singing quality. There is an expressive power to those voices, and it’s a question — this comes up throughout opera, not just in Wagner — the high technical quality of voices today, but it’s not so easy to find this total expressive conviction, whether in Wagner or Verdi or Mozart. I think, in terms of the training of opera voices today, there might be a little too much emphasis on sheer technique and less on expression and the use of language and the communication of drama through the voice.
COWEN: Why is this different for Wagner? If we think about Beethoven piano sonatas, which also blossomed after the end of the Second World War — just in the last two years, you have cycles by Igor Levit, Jonathan Biss, Martino Tirimo, Daniel-Ben Pienaar, Steven Masi — no one’s heard of Steven Masi; he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page — and they’re tremendous, right? Fanfare says, “This is as good as Solomon or Pollini or Kempff.”
Nothing like that for Wagner. They’re both German composers. Why hasn’t the meaningfulness been drained out of Beethoven pianists in the same way?
ROSS: [laughs] Again, I wouldn’t say that the meaningfulness has been drained out of Wagner singing. We have some tremendous singers right now. Lise Davidsen, the young Swedish soprano, I think has incredible potential to become possibly a singer almost at the level of Nilsson in terms of sheer technique. We’ve had this great run of performances from René Pape, and there are younger singers in that category who I think could easily carry that on, Günther Groissböck and some others.
The tenors, maybe a little less so. I’m not as much a fan of Jonas Kaufmann as some others are in terms of his Wagner singing. It seems a little contained to me, but I wouldn’t put it quite as starkly as that.
But definitely, I don’t feel this overall sense of dramatic immersion. And I think just because this opera is so much more complicated in terms of putting all these ingredients together and making an effective fusion in terms of having the right singers, the right conductor, the right stage director. A pianist on his or her own can make a great Beethoven recording without needing all of these cogs and wheels and working pieces to depend on.
So Wagner — it’s always tricky. And people are always saying that all the great Wagner singers are in the past. People said that in the ’50s and ’60s. They said, “Oh, you should have heard so-and-so.” So this bemoaning of a lost golden age is a very familiar syndrome in the conversation about opera.
COWEN: But it seems, also, the conductors are an issue. So there are maybe more wonderful conductors today than ever before, but there’s not a single one doing Wagner that I really should care about, it feels to me. Is that wrong? Is it overly homogenized, and is that part of the bargain with modernity — higher quality, more uniformity in interpretation?
ROSS: I do agree with that. That’s absolutely a general issue in musical interpretation these days. You just don’t have these geographical distinctions among orchestras in different countries that you used to, where a French wind section sounded quite different from a German one.
It’s been called the Americanization of orchestral sound because the great American orchestras of the 20th century tended to smooth out those regional differences. Even as they incorporated players from so many different traditions, they tended to smooth out those differences. And then, I think, that attitude has spread backward, back to Europe, in terms of European orchestras just don’t have as much of that distinctive sound anymore.
COWEN: What’s the production function behind that? It seems the musical world would love to have additional excitement. Someone like Dudamel comes along, but whatever one thinks of him. It’s certainly been good for his career, right? Why doesn’t some orchestra, some opera company deviate from the homogenization norm? What stops that from happening? What is it people can’t do anymore?
ROSS: It’s just such a highly professionalized field in terms of how players are chosen and this lengthy, lengthy process of the audition process. And before the audition process, the conservatory training process. And people take the sheer question of technique very, very seriously and take pride in it, as they should because the technical level of orchestra players today is higher than it’s ever been.
If you go back to the classic recordings, you might hear more expression. You might hear more a sense of musical understanding. The playing is not going to be as good as it is today in sheer technical terms. That’s a tradeoff that deserves to be questioned because when you go back to those old recordings, sometimes you just don’t care if there are a few more horn flubs or a slightly sour wind sound when you’re getting this wonderful sense of expression.
So I think it’s that professionalization, the specialization, the self-consciousness. Scholars have written about how the advent of recording itself made orchestras much more self-conscious about their sound, more eager to avoid mistakes, getting away from that looser, slightly more chaotic understanding of orchestral ensemble that Furtwängler, for example, prized. He never liked it when everyone was absolutely smack together in this precise way, and he criticized Toscanini on those grounds.
So it’s shifting aesthetics, shifting standards of taste. I would love to see certain orchestras, certain conductors really shake things up and step away from that extreme concentration on the pure technical standard. But who’s going to be the first to do it? Because the first person to do it will be questioned and criticized. “What’s happened to the perfection of our sound?” So it’s a tricky move to make.
You see it in early music. You see this much looser, more improvisatory, more flavorful approach in early music. And I wish we could bring some of that spontaneity into 19th-century orchestral playing of the Romantic repertory as well. Maybe it’ll happen. We’ll see.
COWEN: What would Wagner himself think if he showed up at Bayreuth and heard some of the playing? What would surprise him the most?
ROSS: I think he would be very pleased by the technical standard. It’s very hard to say. When you go back to the 19th century, the singing style was so different. If you listen to those recordings right from the turn of the century, the very early cylinder recordings, it’s a very different kind of vocal delivery. It’s less finished, less burnished in terms of the tone quality. It has a more, I think what we consider to be a folk-ish sound, slightly rougher in terms of timbre, almost more conversational in terms of the delivery. The voices weren’t as big, also.
So I think he’d be surprised, and he might not be altogether pleased by this finished, ringing power of the sound. He might well say, “Oh, that sounds great, but I can’t hear the words. I want to hear more of the words at every moment. I don’t care if the C-sharp is perfectly sustained in the soprano if I’m losing the meaning of the words.” Because he was always a dramatist as well as a composer, and the words mattered a great deal to him. And this general sensibility that we have now of voices always in danger of getting swamped by the orchestra, I don’t think would have pleased him at all.
I think [Wagner] would be surprised, and he might not be altogether pleased by this finished, ringing power of the sound. He might well say, “Oh, that sounds great, but I can’t hear the words. I want to hear more of the words at every moment. I don’t care if the C-sharp is perfectly sustained in the soprano if I’m losing the meaning of the words.” Because he was always a dramatist as well as a composer, and the words mattered a great deal to him. And this general sensibility that we have now of voices always in danger of getting swamped by the orchestra, I don’t think would have pleased him at all.
COWEN: As an outsider, let me ask you a very naïve question. I have a single CD version of Wagner’s Das Rheingold by Rudolf Kempe. You probably know this recording. It’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful mini-opera, just the highlights. I can listen to the one disc. Why should I ever listen to the whole opera? I enjoy the one disc more. Can’t we just take out the highlights?
ROSS: No, that’s perfectly valid. The orchestral syntheses that were devised by Stokowski and many other conductors are very entertaining to listen to. And it’s an interesting question about excerpts and Wagner. He always had an ambivalent attitude toward the extraction of excerpts from his works.
On the one hand, it was a great marketing device, and he was a brilliant marketer. He was a master of publicity and branding and all these modern techniques, and he knew that pulling the music of the “Ride of the Valkyries” out of Die Walküre would spread his fame because that piece had an electrifying effect on audiences from the moment it was first heard. The same with all the other excerpts from The Ring and the other operas.
But at the same time, he always felt that something was lost and that the dramatic purpose of these excerpts tended to disappear when they just became orchestral show pieces. Take, for example, the end of Rheingold, the entry of the gods into Valhalla. It’s grandiose, splendid — not quite uplifting, but it’s very energizing. It makes you feel grand and important listening to it. It’s just the sheer pleasure and the power of masked orchestral sound. But in the context — and I talk about this in the book — it’s absolutely ironic. This is a catastrophe unfolding.
The gods are entering Valhalla, ignoring the pleas of the Rheinmaidens to return the ring to the Rhine. Wotan has struck this evil bargain to pay off the giants for the building of Valhalla. And it’s always funny to remember that The Ring is a story of contractors not being paid for their work. So it is dramatically ironic. It’s an empty spectacle. It’s a hollow spectacle. I compare it to the end of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus entering the palace at the end of Agamemnon.
So when you pull out the excerpt, you lose those levels of irony, those levels of dramatic richness. But it’s impossible to resist. You can’t listen to the entire operas end from end every time. You want to experience the highlights as the feeling moves you. But I do feel that Wagner is always at his richest when you take the entire conception in the theater, when you experience it as theater. That’s when it really comes alive and reveals its full power.
COWEN: Should we think less of Wagner because there’s so little humor in it? Or do you think there’s more humor in it than is commonly realized?
ROSS: He was not a great humorist by any means, but there is a heavy wit. There’s always this question about Die Meistersinger, and this is supposedly his great comedy. I don’t find it to be a particularly hilarious piece, and of all the Wagner operas, it’s the one I’ve always had the most difficulty with, for various reasons that we can maybe get into.
But The Ring certainly has irony. There’s a sense of detachment from the characters. The characters are being observed from various angles. So if not quite laugh-out-loud humor, there are alienation effects in Wagner. There are moments of rupture where you’re breaking out of the character’s own delusional ideas about what’s going on and seeing it from another angle, and there’s a darker kind of wit in that.
Even in Tristan und Isolde — there are moments in Tristan that make you smile a little bit. I always loved the moment at the end of the first act when King Mark is mentioned, and Tristan says, “Which king?” He’s so completely lost in this potion-infused bliss of the love with Isolde that he’s forgotten who the king is, who is his uncle. [laughs] And the whole idea is, he’s bringing Isolde to his uncle so that he can marry her. And he’s just so out of it that he asks, “Which king?” It’s a moment of borderline humor in Wagner.
But no, he’s not the composer you go to for laughs and light moments by any means.
COWEN: Who in popular music or rock and roll, today, would count as a valid successor to the Wagnerian ethos? It wouldn’t be Taylor Swift, right? Who or what would it be?
ROSS: I don’t know, again, because Wagner is a theater composer. So it would have to be someone from the theater world. It’s not about songwriters. So I would look to — I don’t know if there’s anyone in the Broadway musical world who is working in this fashion, but that’s the world where you would expect a Wagnerian effect. It’s not a musical, but I always think of Angels in America as a very Wagnerian enterprise because of its scope and its interweaving of realistic and mythic elements and the layers to it.
People talk about the Wagnerian in rock. This is a very loose understanding of what it means to be Wagnerian. It just means grand and heavy and pounding and enormous. And of course, that’s only one side of Wagner’s aesthetic, but it’s a very well-known side — the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the “Entry of the Gods,” “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” — these just very powerful, heavy-hitting moments in Wagner.
So there’s always been this kind of rumor, just a hint of Wagnerian in heavy metal, and I think going back to Led Zeppelin and their fascination with The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien brings them into the zone of the Wagnerian, the hammer of the gods and so on. So maybe that’s one area where you can talk about the Wagnerian in popular music.
COWEN: One theme of your book, as I understand it, is that Wagnerism historically is more diverse than many people realize. There was a branch of Zionism that loved Wagner. There’s an African American tradition that’s quite interested in Wagner. Maybe you can talk me out of some of the worries I have when I listen to Wagner. When I listen, I feel better if I’m listening to Von Klemperer, who is Jewish, and he was a refugee, and he left Europe to come to America. I feel I’m offsetting something in Wagner that disturbs me.
And if you think about what Wagner has become, it seems the problematic element in Wagner — it does somehow match up to the music in a way which is hard to escape. No one listens to Wagner and comes away saying, “Well dull, bourgeois life, as you find under democratic capitalism, is underrated.” No one comes away from Wagner saying, “I now have a greater appreciation for methodological individualism.” Right?
ROSS: [laughs] No.
COWEN: There’s something ominous about the music. How should we, as listeners, come to terms with that? Should we feel guilty when listening to Wagner, given the association with anti-Semitism, Nazis, and much more?
ROSS: I think you should always be wary, let’s say, to Wagner. My whole history with Wagner was, actually, I started out really averse to the entire sound world. When I was a kid growing up with classical music, I tried listening to Lohengrin. I checked records of Lohengrin out of the public library, and I put them on, and I only could stand it for 10 minutes or so.
Of course, I knew nothing about anti-Semitism and Nazism and the connection with Hitler. It was just purely a question of the sound. I found the sound disturbing and this seasick feeling of bobbing from one chord to another without clear demarcations. I just had this instinctual revulsion to it.
When I started revisiting Wagner in college, it was always from the point of view of the intellectual problem of Wagner. I was, by that time, very conscious of Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the chain of influences that lead to Hitler, and I just saw him as this problem of intellectual history, this problem of cultural history. I spent a lot of time studying the period of the fin de siècle, the culture and history of that period, especially in Europe, and Wagner was just this shadow, this lurking presence.
It wasn’t until later, until I was in my 20s, that I began really seriously listening to Wagner as music, experiencing him as theater and beginning to have a less negative and, eventually, a much more enthusiastic or deeper engagement with music — but always with wariness, always with a consciousness of how this extraordinary figure, who really had it in him, I think, to become a cultural figure on the scale of Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare. There’s a universalism.
There is this profound psychological understanding, coupled with this flair for painting on a huge canvas and manipulating mythic motifs. He had this extraordinary combination of creative qualities — the ability to compose, to create the text for his operas, his skills as a theater designer. He essentially designed the space of Bayreuth, which was revolutionary, in the late 19th century as a director of theater, as a theorist. Just a very singular, almost unprecedented, unsurpassed collection of qualities, fusion of qualities. But —
COWEN: Isn’t there something human —
ROSS: — it all went wrong. It all went wrong. He had the potential to become that kind of universal figure, and he did not because of his anti-Semitism, because of his extreme nationalism, and so it shadows his achievements. There will always be this asterisk next to Wagner, and you’re always aware of that issue.
But I think that, in a weird way, enriches the experience for me, to be conscious of all this darkness. It takes this body of work out of the realm of the ideal — this idea that music just lifts us up and takes us into this other world for a little while, and we’re entertained or led into this sublime sphere, and then we come back to reality.
With Wagner, you never leave reality, and everything sublime and magnificent and moving in Wagner is inseparable from this corruption, this darkness, this evil. And I think that makes him a very human, unfortunately, exemplary human phenomenon, where the greatness and the darkness are all mixed together because that’s who we are as a species. And Wagner really exemplifies our species, in some ways, in terms of this mixing together of creative and destructive energies all at once, and you can never separate them — if that’s not too drastic. [laughs]
COWEN: Maybe it’s our enthusiasm itself for Wagner that we should worry about. In your book, you mention, of course, Apocalypse Now — Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the music from Die Walküre when the helicopters are bombing the countryside, and there’s some combination of terror and beauty in the music that does make that a thrilling scene.
Shouldn’t we be repulsed by our very attraction to Wagner? And thus, we’re always wanting to keep it at a distance. Maybe we listen to it two or three times a year just to remind ourselves of why we don’t treat it as we would Beethoven or Mozart, who were classical liberals, very human, very vulnerable figures, had a strong sense of humor.
And the whole tradition of Wagner’s descendants, and how they connected with Hitler and the Nazis — shouldn’t we keep it at a very real distance from ourselves, but periodically pull it out of the drawer to remind ourselves why we’re attracted and then run away as fast as we can?
ROSS: I don’t think so. I don’t feel there’s a clear and present danger with Wagner in today’s culture. If you look at what’s going on in the world, if you look at the threats that we face, if you look at racism in contemporary America, if you look at inequality across the globe, Wagner is not lurking behind, really, any of this that’s happening today.
What is at work in ways that I don’t think we’re fully conscious of, or we haven’t analyzed enough, is all of this American popular culture that we think of as innately good and pure and innocent. It’s our music. It’s music from the people, and yet it is unquestionably mixed up with American history and present-day American politics.
Wagner isn’t to blame for any of this. And just because classical music no longer has anything like the role that it once had on the world stage in culture today, I just don’t think you’re going to see some kind of new Hitler arising, enthused by Wagner and unleashing terror on the world. So I think we can go too far in demonizing Wagner. I think it’s a mistake to say that Beethoven and Mozart and Bach were all these wonderful, pure, liberal, humanist figures, and Wagner was this evil, irrational, protofascist, nationalist anti-Semite.
The Magic Flute by Mozart is unambiguously racist in a way that no work by Wagner is because Jews are not present explicitly in any of Wagner’s operas. It’s theorized that there are stereotypes at work, but there’s no one labeled a Jew in Wagner. There are no Black people in Wagner. There is this atrocious stereotype of Monostatos in The Magic Flute. I think that is a problem to be conscious of. Beethoven was a misogynist, and so many of these composers were misogynist.
Wagner had a lot of bad qualities, but he was not the most evil person who ever lived. And so I think, again, to create this black and white where these composers, on the one hand, are pure and innocent, and Wagner is infused with evil is a mistake. Wagner teaches us not to idealize Wagner in that way.
COWEN: Talk to us through your favorite recording of the Ring Cycle and why you find it so valuable and interesting. Which would it be, if you have to pick one?
ROSS: I would pick the 1955 Ring Cycle from Bayreuth, conducted by Joseph Keilberth, who’s not one of the most celebrated conductors. His name is not instantly recognizable as Furtwängler is, and Toscanini and some of the others, but it’s, I think, maybe precisely because he didn’t seem to have some great interpretative scheme to bring to bear. He just disappears into the music, and the music itself comes alive. It feels very spontaneous. You hear more of the constant shifting of moods, the constant psychological instability.
But above all, it’s just an incredible cast. Astrid Varnay is my favorite Brünnhilde, and she just sings splendidly in that recording. Hans Hotter sang Wotan magnificently in any number of recordings. Somehow, there he’s at least as good as he ever was, if not better.
It just feels so of a piece. It was recorded for release, and then this recording never came out, so it sounds very good for its time. But you could really go to — there’s also 1953 — pretty much the same cast with Clemens Krauss conducting. Krauss is probably a greater conductor, maybe makes more out of certain expressive moments, and so that has much to recommend it, as well.
The one recording that I don’t like is Georg Solti, and this is the classic. This is the first complete studio Ring. It was a great feat of recording for its time in terms of the use of stereo, but Solti hammers too hard. It’s always overbearing. It’s an unnecessarily brutal edge.
And not coincidentally, it’s the Solti recording of “Ride of the Valkyries” that you hear in Apocalypse Now because that’s just the most aggressively hard-hitting one, and it goes with this spectacle of masculine aggression. The great irony of that scene, of course — and there’s so many other usages of “Ride of the Valkyries” — is it’s all men. It’s male soldiers exalting in their lust for destruction. The scene in Die Walküre is all about women. It’s all about these unusually powerful women.
At the turn of the last century, as I talk about in the book, Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries became feminist icons to some extent. The culture of those days didn’t offer so many strong female archetypes, and Wagner certainly did. So there’s a number of models that define plays, other works, paintings, and visual arts where that female power of the Valkyries is celebrated, and it was inspiring for some women of the period. So that’s maybe an irony that Coppola was conscious of as he put together that scene.
COWEN: Would Lars von Trier’s Ring have been any good?
ROSS: I expect not. I’m not a fan of his work.
COWEN: Why not?
ROSS: I’m not a fan of his use of the Tristan prelude in Melancholia, his apocalyptic, end-of-the-world movie. Another planet is about to collide with Earth, and you hear the prelude over and over again until it seems to wear itself out and become this kitsch object.
Who knows? Maybe he would have done it brilliantly, but I’m just not the biggest enthusiast of his work in general. There’s all kinds of problems with Lars von Trier because of his attitudes on various subjects, so it probably wouldn’t have been the ideal choice for Bayreuth at the moment.
COWEN: What’s the best Orson Welles movie and why?
ROSS: My favorite is Touch of Evil. I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it “the best” in terms of sheer technical accomplishment. Citizen Kane will always be remarkable because that’s the movie where he had the most resources and the most control.
But I just absolutely love Touch of Evil, taking this rather seamy, sleazy genre picture and investing so much weirdness and darkness and slyness and menace into it — I think it’s an astonishing achievement. I get this visceral pleasure out of watching it every moment. It’s wildly entertaining and also, I think, rather deep in terms of how it talks about power and his character, the policeman who frames the guilty man. [laughs] It’s a wonderfully complex problem that it poses for the audience.
COWEN: What is the best Franz Liszt piano transcription for capturing the essence of an opera? He was amazing at that, yes?
ROSS: Yeah. And there’s so many. I immediately think of some of the Wagner transcriptions. This incredible transcription that he made of the first transformation sequence in Parsifal with the ringing of the bells. It departs somewhat from the opera, from Wagner’s score, but it feels as though it’s very much still of Parsifal’s world.
And Liszt had every right to do what he wanted with Wagner, because Wagner took from him and Liszt also took from Wagner. They had a very complex relationship. There was a great deal of mutual borrowing that went on. So when he arranges Parsifal, he is, to some degree, arranging a couple of his own ideas as Wagner appropriated them, and taking them back. So that’s a wonderfully rich relationship there.
COWEN: I think I would say Reminiscences of Norma from Bellini.
COWEN: It’s that kind of excerpt where I would rather listen to the transcription than the whole opera itself.
ROSS: Yeah, yeah. That’s a wonderful one.
On COVID-19’s impact on live music
COWEN: The classical music world — what will be the long-term effects of lockdown and having had a pandemic? Assume there’s a vaccine. We’ve recovered. Older people are still scared. Five to seven years from now, what will the concert world look like in New York City?
ROSS: I don’t know. On certain days, I feel as though the classical world may not recover or go back to anything like what it was before because the damage has been very severe. And once people get out of the habit of going to concerts, it can be very difficult to persuade them to come back. This is what happened to the Metropolitan Opera after 9/11. For a little while, people were just very reluctant to come into the city, and some of them just never came back. They just developed new cultural habits.
So some days, I’m very worried. Other days, I feel it could be more or less total recovery, and perhaps five to seven years from now, it will just be this strange nightmare that we all went through before going back to normal.
But classical music — it’s going to be the very last to come back, along with, really, the other performing arts forms. It’s an art form that subsists on crowding people into an indoor space and then having to crowd people onstage for a certain period of time. Even if the medical question is resolved, even if there is a vaccine, there’ll still be a psychological block against people coming back. There’ll be a fear of crowding into spaces.
So I am fearful of what’s going to happen, especially to the bigger institutions. I think the smaller ones can be more resourceful and more spontaneous in terms of how they react, and so they might recover more quickly in terms of chamber music and solo recitalists. That end of the business should be okay.
But it’s also the artists. There’s thousands of artists who aren’t being paid, and some of them are just going to give up and get other jobs, even extremely talented ones, and that also may be a tragedy. And when you look at the difference of the situation in Europe, where artists who are out of work have nothing to worry about. They’re being taken care of financially. They have health plans they can afford. They’re able to wait it out.
Here, people aren’t going to be able to wait it out, and they’re just going to give up and do something different. So it’ll be a dark period. I just don’t know exactly what form it’ll take, but things will be very different.
There could be ways in which there will be a healthy effect in the end if classical music becomes more local in focus. For decades, we’ve had this culture of constant jet-setting, conductors zipping around from continent to continent, singers zipping around, orchestras touring, probably unnecessarily. Just because of the fear of travel at this moment and other questions about the wastefulness of this kind of travel, that may be cut back.
And I think that could be a very healthy thing if conductors just spent more of their time with their orchestra that they are the music director of instead of feeling the need to guest conduct in 10 other places during a given season because they’re being paid usually pretty hefty sums of money, $800,000 or a million dollars or more.
Why not really concentrate your career in one place, work on building ties to the community immediately around you, and forget about this global marketplace? That end of the business will be much more difficult to negotiate.
COWEN: Should we maintain the norm and distinction where at popular music concerts, you’re actually encouraged to make noise. At so-called classical concerts, you’re forbidden from making noise. Obviously, it was not that way in the early 19th century. Is that going to change? And does that distinction still make sense? Why not let everyone make noise and play cards and talk and have a beer in the front row?
ROSS: Right. Well, there have been experiments in that direction. My attitude toward it is, there should never be hard-and-fast rules. So I object to this absolutely dogmatic sensibility that one must not ever make the slightest noise during a performance. One must never applaud after the first movement of a concerto or a symphony.
That kind of thing is nonsense to me because certain of these pieces — they cry out for . . . The end of the first movement of the Emperor Concerto — it just sounds weird not to have applause because Beethoven is working very hard to make the audience burst into applause. Even more with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.
So I think these rules could be loosened, but at the same time, there’s very good reason why audiences generally are quieter at classical performances because of the dynamic extremes. If people are making noise at the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you’re not going to hear this whispery, this ethereal tremolo. Of course, same thing with the beginning of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which begins almost subliminally with this deep E-flat and the double basses.
The tradition of Bayreuth is to become completely silent before that happens. For a full minute or so, there’s this total silence in the opera house. It’s a wonderful effect to be able to really experience music emerging out of nothing, emerging out of silence. It’s very powerful.
So there’s good reason for some of these rules, and I think, ultimately, it should be on a case-to-case basis. We have a thousand-year tradition in classical music with very different kinds of music, with very different social intentions and functions, so there should never be a hard-and-fast rule.
COWEN: Where in the world are classical music audiences the most appreciative and adventurous?
ROSS: Those are not necessarily the same thing.
COWEN: You can choose two places.
ROSS: Yeah. Just in terms of being whisper-quiet and concentrating at every moment — it’s a cliché, it’s a stereotype, but in the German-speaking world — that’s where you find this kind of audience, where it just seems as though everyone is concentrating, especially if you go to a chamber music concert in Germany or Austria. This music is just so steeped in the countries’ traditions, and so many people of different social classes and backgrounds have grown up with it, and it just feels so natural to them. So you get that appreciation.
Now, in terms of adventurousness — that’s a slightly different thing. Those same Austrian and German audiences may be quite resistant to 20th-century music and contemporary music because they love and know Brahms so well. That doesn’t prepare them so well for something different and new.
One of the most adventurous audiences I’ve ever encountered is at the Ojai Festival in Southern California, northwest of Los Angeles. That’s a festival that goes back decades in terms of its commitment to new music — quite adventurous, often avant-garde music. Stravinsky was there. Boulez went many times. So the attitude there is almost the complete opposite of what you normally encounter with a classical-music audience, where the more complex and the more difficult it is, the more excited people seem to get.
I had this wonderful experience of sitting in the audience once a few years ago at Ojai. There was a piece. It was quite tonal and repetitive and minimalist, and I think an average audience would have found it quite pleasant to listen to. It was in no way dissonant or modernistic. And afterward, the older couple sitting next to me said, “Oh, that was…”
And then there was a piece by Pierre Boulez right after that, and what that older couple said was, “Ah, finally some real music.” They didn’t like the tonal, easy music; they were waiting for the Boulez. So it varies very much from place to place, and the stereotype of the classical audience is that they’re not going to be adventurous. They always want the tried and true.
But over time, I think, when an institution, a festival really shows commitment to this repertoire, they can change the audience’s mind. And that’s also what happened with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. It happened to some extent in Berlin with Simon Rattle and various other places. And so, it’s not a lost cause in terms of converting audiences to the new and different.
COWEN: If you go to a second-tier American city — say, Washington, DC, which is by no means uneducated — and you go to the opera, what percentage of the crowd there is actually enjoying it in the sense that they are wishing it would last longer than it will?
ROSS: I grew up in DC, so I have some experience with this. I don’t know — it’s going to be a mix. I don’t know if I could put a percentage on it, but there are certainly quite a few people who go out of a sense of obligation. This is just the thing that they have their subscription tickets, and “The Joneses down the street are going, so we might as well go.”
That’s always been a component of the American orchestral audience or the opera audience, but especially the orchestral audience in terms of these orchestras that have become real civic institutions. And certain families — wealthier families — in the city have supported them for generations. And it’s just there. It’s a fixture, and people show up without necessarily being deeply involved in it, but you need those people. You can’t have an audience —
COWEN: But what’s your percentage number on that? How many are having fun and they want an extra hour of Verdi or whatever they’re hearing?
ROSS: I would say at least 50 percent. If I’m optimistic, 60. You never know.
On the top composers and conductors
COWEN: I have a question about the time profile of creative achievement. To be a top conductor, it’s physically very demanding, of course, and it’s also very demanding on the memory, even if you’re using a score. If there are so many figures in the history of classical music who are doing truly first-rate conducting, maybe at the age of 80, or at least the late 70s — Stokowski, I think, kept on going until 95. That was not his peak, but just that he was able to do it.
So what is it about conducting that appears to defy the laws of nature, that you just keep on going and you’re amazing? When you would think, “Well, these individuals would peak at age 62.”
ROSS: Right. Now, it is an amazing phenomenon. It’s not anecdotal. I think it could be statistically verified that conductors live longer and keep working longer than most professions, perhaps almost any professions, when you have Toscanini active well into his 80s, Klemperer active to quite an advanced age. He was really physically quite decrepit. He just had enormous physical challenges, and yet he kept conducting. Even with minimal movements on his part, he elicited these extraordinary performances.
I think there are two sides to this. On the one side, just in terms of conducting and its physical demands and its mental demands — hard to verify, but there seems to be something in terms of the intensity of this mental activity of memorizing scores, of this particular mode of upper-body exercise — it does seem to encourage longevity, and it does seem to keep people sharp in some way. I’m completely beyond my realm of knowledge in terms of the medical side of this, but just think anecdotally — it looks as though something like that is happening.
So there’s that, but at the same time, conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.
ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .
Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.
But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.
I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”
Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.
COWEN: Is Morton Feldman the greatest postwar American composer?
ROSS: He’s one of them. I love Feldman’s music. And Feldman did something really remarkable, where he took this modernist vocabulary, the vocabulary of Schoenberg, the second Viennese School atonality, and then John Cage, the student of Schoenberg, brought that vocabulary into the world of . . . He sort of created the postwar American avant-garde movement.
And Feldman was a figure, of course, a very important pioneer himself, alongside Cage, but it goes back to these unearthly, otherworldly, atonal chords of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. That’s the fundamental vocabulary of Feldman’s music, but it’s totally different in terms of its emotional temperature.
The dynamic level in Feldman is always quiet. Everything is spaced out, and these harmonies that can be prickly and alarming and unnerving in Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and so much other modernist music of the 20th century — in Feldman, they become distant, and they acquire this eerie beauty.
It’s as if you can step way back from them and contemplate them as art objects. And they become like . . . Of course, he loved Rothko’s paintings. He knew Rothko very well. He knew so many of these early abstract expressionist painters, but especially with Rothko — it has that misty, distant, unearthly quality, not at all assaultive, not at all aggressive, and it becomes this totally new world of radical beauty.
From the moment I first heard his music, he just had an extraordinary effect on me, and I still find him one of the great originals in musical history — extraordinary, extraordinary composer.
COWEN: Who or what would even be a rival to Feldman? So much of Cage now sounds gimmicky, even though it was important. You could say the early Philip Glass operas — like Feldman, they’re recognizable who they’re by the moment you hear them. What else in American music postwar stacks up to early Philip Glass and Morton Feldman?
ROSS: In terms of music today, or music of that era?
COWEN: Postwar. Not 2020. Music of that era.
ROSS: There are a lot of wonderful composers from that era. It isn’t just a handful. Feldman actually has a lot of followers in late 20th- and early 21st-century music. A lot of people have been intensely attracted to that aesthetic. Some of them are mere imitators, but others have managed to come up with a very individual reaction to his sound.
There’s a group of composers called Wandelweiser. They live in different countries, and they specialize in a very quiet, very spaced-out kind of aesthetic, and there’s an obvious, very strong influence from Feldman. Jürg Frey is a Swiss composer who just writes some of the most incredibly beautiful music around today — string quartets — and he more or less worships Feldman.
But Michael Pisaro is an American composer who is also of that school. It’s this aesthetic of radical quietude and separateness, I think is a very powerful one. And I think, particularly at this moment of frenzy and chaos, this music is quite appealing to go back to.
COWEN: What’s your favorite Beatles song?
ROSS: Beatles song?
COWEN: Not the best one; your favorite.
ROSS: My favorite Beatles song. I’ve never been a Beatles person. I’m more a Dylan person. For some reason, I’m tempted to say “Helter Skelter” right at the moment, but I don’t think that’s actually my favorite Beatles song.
COWEN: If that’s what comes to mind.
ROSS: The White Album — I love the White Album especially, I think. “A Day in the Life” is one of their most extraordinary achievements. Certainly, I go back to that a lot.
COWEN: What’s the best Dylan album? Is it Bringing it All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks? The much later work?
ROSS: Blood on the Tracks. No question, Blood on the Tracks, yeah. But the original version, not the Minnesota remix. The original New York sessions without the big band — that’s the greatest pop album ever made, in my opinion.
COWEN: What is it in music that you are embarrassed by liking?
ROSS: People ask me that, and I don’t have guilty pleasures. I feel that it buys into this idea that there’s some exalted level of genius and then this embarrassing realm down below. But to honestly answer your question, I do like certain Oasis songs — that’s slightly embarrassing. [laughs] “Champagne Supernova” I like.
COWEN: That’s great.
The final segment of our chat is what I call the Alex Ross production function. And this has to do with you, a few questions about your history. Did writing a thesis about James Joyce at Harvard at all influence your music writing and how you approach music?
ROSS: Oh, sure. Joyce was one of the most musical writers who ever lived, a fine singer, a very acute listener, a very comprehensive knowledge of different eras of repertory going back to the Renaissance. Joyce cultivated a taste for me. I fell in love with Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, before I really got to know the classic works of the 20th century. I read Ulysses at age 18. At that stage, I was still struggling to come to terms with Schoenberg and Stravinsky in the early 20th century.
Ulysses gave me a taste for a kind of sprawling, comprehensive, all-devouring . . . it’s not strict and spare and disciplined modernism. It’s the modernism of all-engulfing chaos. And in music, that happens to be a mode that I’m quite fond of, whether it’s the symphonies of Charles Ives or Bernd Alois Zimmermann or certain later 20th-century composers.
So yeah, Ulysses, I think, influenced my listening and prepared me for unexpected and perhaps irrational juxtapositions of different styles.
COWEN: How did Leon Wieseltier discover you as a potential music critic? What is it you think he saw in you?
ROSS: He read my Fanfare reviews, some of my Fanfare reviews and not much else. I forget what I originally sent him to look at. But he absolutely started my journalistic career. He gave me my first journalistic assignment, and then it was through him that the New York Times became interested in hiring me as their fifth-string critic. When that opportunity came my way, I was reluctant to do it. And Leon talked me into moving to New York and taking the job, so he had a huge effect on my early career, but what he saw in this 23-year-old kid, [laughs] I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.
COWEN: If someone wants to be “the next Alex Ross,” what else do they need to know besides music? If one looks at your writings, you could write about minor works by Heinrich Mann, much less Thomas Mann, without too much effort. Is that important to you, being the music critic that you are? Or is that kind of accident?
ROSS: I think music critics need to have command of neighboring cultural areas because music is just not separate from the rest of culture, from the rest of our world. When you’re writing about opera, you’re writing about literature as well as music. You’re writing about staging, theater ideas as well as music. So every music critic can’t be a pure specialist. Most of my colleagues — I think they all have side interests, and they’ve all had a well-rounded cultural education, so I think it’s essential.
I feel very lucky in that I have been able to pursue a lot of writing at the New Yorker which is not strictly musical, and I’ve been allowed to pursue this range of interests, which includes some natural sciences–type travelogue pieces in the last few years on Death Valley and the Bristlecone Pine Forest, as well as pieces on literature and history.
I think it makes my musical writing better. I think it also makes a case for classical music. If someone has read what I write about Dylan or Radiohead or the Bristlecone Pines and sees my name at the top of a piece about Mozart or Salieri or whoever, they might give me a chance, having read those other pieces. “Oh, this is the guy who wrote that interesting piece. I don’t care about classical music, but I’ll give this a try anyway.”
So I think that helps me in an inevitable aspect of my role as a critic, which is not merely to be this objective, cold, detached commentator, but to some extent be an advocate, a face of the art form itself, and expanding its audience in my own little way. I think that helps with that mission.
COWEN: Last quick question — what music will you listen to today and why?
ROSS: Well, it’s going to be Wagner today [laughs] —
COWEN: Which Wagner?
ROSS: — I’m afraid. Well, I’m getting ready for the publication of the book. I’m building pages on my website, which are a kind of guide to Wagner’s works beyond what I do in the book. And so I’m going to be recommending recordings, as well as giving the synopsis of the plot of the operas and pointing out crucial musical moments.
I’m actually working on Rheingold right now. I’m listening to Karajan’s Ring Cycle, which has never been one of my favorites, but I’m revisiting it. And actually, his live Rheingold in 1951 from Bayreuth is amazing. It’s a great recording. He connected that one year in Bayreuth and then never came back because he was Karajan, and there were problems. But it’s a really vigorous and spiky and lively reading of Rheingold, which was always considered the scherzo of the Ring.
And he really brings out that quality, quite different from the later recordings, which are rather more polished and slightly overburnished in terms of the texture. It’s all incredibly beautiful, but not necessarily that dramatic. This Rheingold is really fiery and alive. I never really listened to it before, and I was quite pleased to discover it. So anyway, more Wagner today.
COWEN: Alex Ross, thank you very much. And again, everyone, I’m very happy to recommend Alex’s wonderful new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Thank you, Alex.
ROSS: Thank you, thank you. That was wonderful.