June 22, 2006

New Yorker Music Critic Alex Ross Addresses the 2006 Graduates at Convocation

Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, delivered the following address on June 17 at the School of Music Convocation in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

Thank you, Dean Montgomery, and thank you all for inviting me here. I want to talk about a rather vague and sprawling and important-sounding topic, which may not be so important in the end, but will hopefully give you a little food for thought as you head out into the musical world. Namely, what is the value of classical music to society? How should we talk about that value? How can we maintain it and celebrate it in a rapidly changing and diversifying and technologically evolving society? The odd thing is that all of us here already know inside ourselves what the value is. When someone says, "Köchel 488," or "the Mahler Adagietto," or "Des Pas sur la neige," something stirs in us, something glows in us, the memory of a performance we may have heard or played in, the anticipation of the next performance. Nothing more needs to be said. When you are with someone who gets it, you simply nod and smile. The trick is in putting that glow into words, in communicating to other people why it is so extraordinary.

I think there are two basic positions on this issue, although most people would probably find themselves somewhere in between. One insists that the value of classical music is fundamentally at odds with our modern, sped-up, video-game-playing, iPod-listening, hip-hop-dancing contemporary culture, and that if it takes any steps toward that world it will become infected with its ambient stupidity and vulgarity. The other position is that there is no essential contradiction between classical music and modern society, that classical music has for too long been stuck in unchanging rituals that have nothing to do with the twenty-first century or even with most of the twentieth, and that it needs to loosen up and get up to speed and relax and in a certain sense get over itself already.

Rhetoric around the question of classical music's core values easily becomes heated for the simple reason people are afraid. They are afraid of the possibility that this tradition might be on the verge of terminal decline, and that something drastic needs to be done to save it. I happen to believe that both sides are quite wrong on this point. I am not one of the death-of-classical-music people. In fact, I happen to believe that the death of classical music is dying, if indeed it is not already dead. I am one of those peculiar few who think that we are actually living in a golden age for classical music, that more people, billions more, are listening now than at any time in previous centuries, and that people who talk about this tradition dying out are engaging in self-indulgent melodrama. Debussy once said, Wagner is a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn. Classical music right now is a dawn mistaken for a sunset.

But I wouldn't deny that we're going through a time of dramatic evolution, which may bring about some fairly agonizing surface changes, including the marginalization or even the disappearance of some organizations that we hold dear. But change is necessary to evolution. Species and societies that do not adapt die out; this is a fact of biology and history. Looking around at classical music today, one sees an incredibly diverse world in which some institutions seem to be resisting adaptation and others seem to be embracing it. Some institutions seem very healthy, and others seem to be in trouble. You know the litany: graying audiences, dwindling audiences, stagnant subscriptions, and so on. It's easy to become distracted by the problem cases, by those institutions that are in various kinds of trouble. The symphony orchestra comes to mind. The composer-critic Daniel Felsenfeld recently made a funny comment about all these worried discussions over the fate of this or that symphony orchestra or opera house. He said: It's as if you were to say that the movies are dying out because the Loews theater chain is in trouble. These organizations are conduits for music. They are not music. This may not sound like a very heartening message for those of you who are planning to make a career in the orchestral world, but, actually, I don't for a moment believe that orchestras are going anywhere. It is simply important to realize that we could function without them. They should not dominate our view of the musical world.

We should not let our sense of the value of classical music be determined by surface phenomena. Consider some of our sacrosanct rituals, such as the habit of keeping quiet between movements of a symphony or concerto. As most of you know, this is a recent development, one that cropped up in the early years of the twentieth century. It was alien to Mozart, who not only expected to hear applause after movements of his works but even during the movements, and wrote effects in the "Paris" Symphony intended to draw applause. As he reported in a famous letter to his father, the tactic worked. Now we tend to consider applause after the first movement of a symphony the sign of an ignorant audience. God knows what we'd think if people started applauding while the music was playing. Do we know more about music than Mozart did? At the very least, we should be careful of taking a disapproving attitude toward concert-hall novices who do not display what we consider to be proper decorum. Why this insistence on silence during the music? There are practical reasons for it. It allows us to hear the music better. But there are less practical reasons for it, too. It allows us to feel that we are present at a ritual that is something more than or other than entertainment, that approaches the sacred. There is no harm in this. There is something wonderful about creating a new sacred space in a secular world. But we have to be careful not to let that attitude shade over into a feeling of superiority. It can lead to a perception of classical music as something defined against society, apart from society. And that perception becomes a major obstacle in the way of wider appreciation of the music.

For more than a hundred years we've been in the habit of defining classical music as "great" music, "good" music, "serious" music, "art" music. I don't doubt any of these terms. It's great, it's good, it's serious, it's arty. Let's go all out and call it Awesome Music. But whenever you stick a label on something you limit it. And I would not want to limit this music to being merely serious, merely artistic. It is too important to be called serious, if you know what I mean. I want it to have the freedom to be silly, or absurd, or vulgar, or violent. Consider the case of the great Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-three. Ligeti was a very serious man, but some of his music is anything but serious in appearance. In the nineteen sixties he wrote aPoème Symphonique for one hundred metronomes, which he conceived as a dadaistic sort of joke on classical tradition. A hundred metronomes are put on the stage and let loose, and they tick away in a mad frenzy. Then, the ones that are moving faster begin to wind down and stop. So after a while there are only fifty left, and then only twenty-five. And gradually you start to hear overlapping patterns, polyrhythms, emerging from the cloud of ticks. And by the end there are only a few left, forlornly ticking away, their little arms tiring and stopping. It turns out to be an unexpectedly sophisticated and even moving piece. But it doesn't fit anyone's dictionary definition of "serious." Ligeti wanted the freedom to write this kind of wild work. He did not want to spend his life delivering solemn utterances in traditional forms. And people were captivated by his music; millions were mesmerized by Atmosphères and Lux aeterna and the Requiem on the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ligeti penetrated to a huge audience because he did not work in a narrow gamut. He wanted music to embrace everything, as Mahler once said.

As you go out into the world, you will find that people will do a double take when you say you are involved with classical music. OH! They will say. And then they will often add, "Well, I don't know anything about classical music." It's a subject that brings out defensiveness in people. They expect to be reprimanded for not knowing enough about it. They expect its practitioners to be very serious and great and arty people who will look down on those who lack sufficient knowledge. So I think an important job of being a musician these days is to know how to conduct this conversation. It is to present a face for this music which is more human, more contemporary, more worldly, more emotionally intelligent, as opposed to intellectual. It is to break down people's discomfort about classical music and to encourage them to look past the stereotypes that are so prevalent in the media and in the movies — you know, the nasty billionaire who listens to opera before launching some horrible deadly scheme that the rock-‘n'-roll-loving hero has to stop. That's who we are in the public mind. It's profoundly annoying, but we cannot get around the fact that we, over the past century, with the values and rituals that we have attached to classical music, have helped produce it.

When you strike up that conversation, one thing you can say is that there really is no such thing as classical music. Classical music is about composition, and composition is a way of working with and playing with and twisting around and transcending and rendering sublime music that is already out there. It has been going on for a thousand years, and it embraces an indescribably huge gamut of sounds. It goes from the austere masses of the Renaissance to the volcanic virtuoso display of Liszt, from the Queen of the Night hitting her surreal high F to Mahler's trombones blaring low like the crack of doom, — from noise to silence, and, somewhere in between, John Cage slapping a piano with a dead fish. It has incorporated every kind of popular music, folk music, dance, vocal style, and instrument that has ever existed. It is the music that transforms all other music. It deserves the deepest respect not because it is necessarily higher or deeper or greater than any other music — listen to Mahalia Jackson singing "Come Sunday" on Duke Ellington's Black Brown and Beige and try to tell me that woman isn't serious — but because it has been around for a very long time and is still as young as the eager composers coming out of conservatories now, listening to Bun B and the Animal Collective and looking for the next thing to devour.

And composers, who are, I believe, our core value, they are what sets us apart from other kinds of music out there, have always been very wise on this subject. Mozart, for example, once wrote a letter to his father in which he seemed to be describing a divided music culture very much like the one we have now. He wrote, "The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must either write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it." Doesn't this sound familiar? Although Mozart might be blown away to discover how huge the division has become — between an American Idol contestant singing Queen covers on the one hand and a student of Milton Babbitt writing ultra-complex twelve-tone music on the other, and everyone secure in the sense that his or her music is the only true music, and this great expanse of possibilities in the middle being overlooked, that happy medium of unexpected combinations where Mozart lived his entire life, never accepting one dogma or another, always moving between extremes, always seeking the ultimate fusion of everything he had ever felt and seen and heard — "the truth in all things."

The same theme was taken up in a letter that Debussy wrote to Paul Dukas in 1901: "To you, possessed of a brain of steel and a cold, blue, unbending will (guarantees of your influence on the twentieth century, both now and later), to you I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It's just that I find the actual pieces — whether they're old or modern, which is any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there's the desire to amaze one's colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There's no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they're incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that's to say one that can't be found on the map."

Thank you.



Alex Ross has been the music critic of the New Yorker for the past ten years. He previously served as a critic for the New York Times from 1992 to 1996, appointed to the position at the age of twenty-four. Ross's work has appeared in the magazines The New RepublicThe London Review of BooksTransition, and Lingua Franca, and has also been featured inBest American EssaysDa Capo Best Music Writing, and Studio A: A Bob Dylan Reader. He is the recipient of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism, a Holtzbrinck fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, a Fleck Fellowship from the Banff Centre, and a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for significant contributions to the field of contemporary music. His first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, a cultural history of music since 1900, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the fall of 2007.

Ross was born in 1968 in Washington, DC. He studied piano with Denning Barnes and composition with Russell Woollen, and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, where he pursued studies in music, European history, and English literature. He has lectured at Harvard, Columbia, New York University, the University of Michigan, and the Peabody Institute, and at numerous conferences and events nationwide.