Alex Ross is the author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, a survey of classical music from the century that gave us Modernism, world wars, acid-house, and more. He's also the music critic for The New Yorker, for which he writes about classical music from the academy and the avant-garde, as well as occasional pieces on pop.
The Band, "Whispering Pines"
Alex Ross: I got into The Band through Bob Dylan. I didn't listen to pop music at all growing up, only gradually discovered it in roundabout ways. I grew up with 18th- and 19th-century classical music as far back as I can remember. My parents listened to it. I was a geek. In college, I started to go through 20th-century classical, which led me to the dissonant avant-garde, like Krzysztof Penderecki and Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti. And through that, I started to follow college-radio DJs who were into free jazz and post-punk—just crazy noise, Sonic Youth and bands like that. That lasted through the Dylan moment: I was in Berlin staying at a friend's apartment with only five records, and for whatever reason, it was a quasi-religious experience. You know when you're in isolation—William James talks about this in The Varieties Of Religious Experience—you're kind of prone to it. So I became this crazy Dylan fanatic, and then started working on a piece that took several years to write, for The New Yorker. During that period, I got into The Band. When I was working on the piece, I met Garth Hudson and tried to interview him about Bob. It didn't go very well. He was kind of in a weird mood, kind of hostile. [Laughs.] But I went off to Woodstock and saw Big Pink.
The A.V. Club: Did you find The Band complex in a way that many other bands of their era weren't?
AR: That's what kind of surprised me when I got into Dylan and The Band: They weren't the kind of [experimental] "pop music" that I was used to listening to up until that time, with weird chords and dissonances. This music was seemingly so simple, basic chord progressions and accompaniments for folk songs, blues, etc. So I wasn't sure why, after all my classical background, I found it so compelling. It is complex in other ways: The Band sounds so easygoing, but everything is carefully placed. They create this space around themselves with their songs. Garth Hudson is a genius with that. When I was writing about Dylan, I found it hard to put into words why I could listen to this over and over again, and kept getting new things out of it. I couldn't put my finger on why.
Henry Cowell, "Symphony No. 11"
AR: Henry Cowell was a totally interesting figure in American classical music, a teenage avant-garde prodigy who grew up in this very early version of hippie culture in Northern California. In the first or second decades of the 20th century, there were already little communes, people gathering at Pismo Beach, having séances, all that kind of stuff. He grew up in that world and was exposed to all sorts of different music—Chinese, Indian, Native American—so when he started composing, he was way separated from the European tradition. At a really early age, when he started playing the piano, he developed this technique of hitting large groups of notes with his hand or arm: cluster chords. And he used all of these avant-garde ideas that later John Cage would introduce. This piece is typical of him, kind of spread out and spacious. He was interested in repeating patterns or drones underneath a lot of his music, very non-Western techniques.
David T. Little, "Still Life With Tank And iPod"
AR: Oh, this is cool, a piece by a younger composer named David T. Little about soldiers listening to hip-hop on their iPods, from a group of songs called Soldier Songs. It's kind of an anti-war song cycle, and he's one of a group of composers based around New York that I find really interesting. For so long, composers were ghettoized by universities; they would write all this music that would only be heard by the few people who showed up at their kinds of concerts. But now they're touring around more and having other ensembles play their work. David is involved with this group called the NOW Ensemble that specializes in writing edgy political music. They're playing campuses, clubs, whatever spaces they can find—which is a tradition that goes back to minimalism, when Philip Glass and Steve Reich were putting on concerts with their own ensembles and trying to get out of the established classical community. Generation after generation, there are young composers who come along and write music that doesn't sound like classical music to people.
AVC: Is there a lot of overtly political classical music now? It would seem to be less hesitant than other genres about taking itself seriously.
AR: Yeah. And in a way, there's more freedom to be political when you're working in a non-commercial marketplace. There's no record label telling you what might not be such a good topic, what might come across as pretentious, etc. The fear is that it's getting up on a soapbox and ranting, but it can definitely be done artfully. I'm thinking of the composer Corey Dargel, who takes speeches of Condoleezza Rice and makes these very beautiful, elegant art-songs out of them. They're wonderful, because you're not sure where the irony is. Something very heartfelt comes out of her speeches. [Laughs.] And yet there's also something satirical at work. It's hard to classify.
Alexander Scriabin, "Fifth Piano Sonata"
AR: Scriabin was a mystically inspired turn-of-the-century Russian composer whose spiritual path led him to seek out ever-more-unfamiliar combinations of sounds. He worked at the piano and kept pushing the boundaries of harmonies, at the same time that Schoenberg was moving toward atonality and Stravinsky was moving toward The Rite Of Spring. In the first decade of the 20th century, it was decided that all the old rules of harmonies had to give way and new ways had to be developed, and Scriabin was one of the most far-out. Toward the end of his life, he was working on a piece called Mysterium, which was going to be played at the foot of the Himalayas. It was said that when this piece was played, the world would come to an end; it would destroy the world and lead to a transformation where feeling would assume an ethereal, as opposed to bodily, form. Fortunately, he didn't finish. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you started hearing avant-garde classical music, were you interested most in its unconventional sounds, or did you get into it from a formal standpoint?
AR: I had a piano teacher who was a composer and wanted me to discover 20th-century music, so we looked at Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Bartok. I was really disturbed at first. I knew this music was important, and I believed I should get to know it, but it made me feel slightly physically sick the first time I tried to play it. I was so used to these familiar sets of Western harmonies. And it's kind of shocking when you first encounter something else, even though you've heard all these chords in movie soundtracks for The Shining, The Omen, Psycho. We're very used to it when we hear it in that context, but when you put it in a concert hall, it's shocking to hear it come out of nowhere, without a visual context, just purely as music. The way the chords are put together makes for clashing frequencies. The chords rub our ears the wrong way. But then you can get used to it, and there's this whole pleasure you can find when you do. I think people go through that when they first see abstract painting. But because sound is so physical, it has an especially strong effect. If you trap people who have never heard Stravinsky in a room for 20 minutes while it's going on, audiences can start rioting.
Olivier Messiaen, "From The Canyons To The Stars: Cedar Breaks"
AR: Awesome. This is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Messiaen was a fantastic composer who brought together all these different styles in 20th-century music. On one hand, some of his music is very advanced and complex and dissonant and systematically put together. But there's also this side to him that loved simplicity, and he would come back to the most familiar chords of the major triad. He was deeply religious and old-school Catholic, but he was also fascinated by Indian and Japanese music. And he was fascinated by birdsong! This he wrote in the 1970s, when he was commissioned to write a piece for the American Bicentennial. At first he was uninterested, because he thought he'd have to write a piece about New York City or some metropolis that he hated. But then he found a book on the canyons of Utah, so he went to Utah and saw Cedar Breaks and wrote this huge hour-and-a-half-long piece about the canyons, the birds, and the whole religious view of it. It's this huge cosmic piece, one of the great 20th-century pieces. I heard this live in Tanglewood, on an incredibly beautiful summer day in 1994, and for the final movement, I went out and listened to it from the grass, looking up at the stars. It was a perfect musical moment. It's the ultimate that classical music can offer: something new, but also with this deep sense of tradition—back to Gregorian chants and thousand-year-old melodies. That's the best argument for classical music. I'm not saying it's the best music there is, but there's a kind of experience you can't get anywhere else. The length of the pieces and how they use natural sound to build something up—it's a kind of experience that is shocking in today's culture, where we listen to something for two minutes and then switch. The other thing about classical music is, you don't have to understand and analyze everything on a formal level. It's interesting to understand it that way, but you can also zone out and float away and have this mental space and not analyze what you're hearing at all. I think that's how people have spiritual experiences listening to this music.