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Serenade Team: Schönberg and Berg in their atonal music used forms from centuries ago. They incorporated fugues, canons, the sonata form, etc. They always had this organic link with this tradition of centuries in Western art music. Today, with people like Iannis Xenakis or Edgard Varèse (going into more electronic music) – they seem to have broken with the tradition of Western music. They have, in a sense, almost rejected that heritage and tried to create something entirely new. Do you agree? And if they have, has it been successful?

Alex Ross: Yes I agree that some composers are really going back to the middle 20th century, even early 20th century. Varèse and John Cage have broken almost completely, with this Western tradition. This is the birth of the real avant-garde in music, because, as you say Schönberg, Berg and Webern were very daring on the one hand, but also deeply conscious of tradition. This succession of avant-garde continues to the present time, and a large number of composers all over the world are working in that mode. Some of it has been extraordinary music. Not all of it has been successful but this is what happens when one experiments. I find this to be a very active and lively sector of music today. Composers in this experimental or avant-garde tradition have continued to find new ways of expressing themselves through technologies, unusual uses of instruments, or simply by arranging known sounds in unfamiliar ways.

However, we wouldn’t want all music to be like this. I appreciate the fact that there are also a large number of composers, who do work within the tradition, and some of them are perhaps too close to the tradition, and are writing too much as an echo of the past.

The most important thing for the contemporary musical scene is, to have this constant variety and multiplicity. There should not be one definitive path that everyone must follow. I think it’s a very healthy, diverse and sometimes, a conflicted musical culture.

The most important thing for the contemporary musical scene is, to have this constant variety and multiplicity. There should not be one definitive path that everyone must follow. I think it’s a very healthy, diverse and sometimes, a conflicted musical culture.

ST: Your book title is very compelling – “The Rest Is Noise”. The fact is that a lot of people are still mired in the 19th century traditions of major/minor tonality and large scale works or things that the ear is familiar with. Though, a full century has elapsed since the tonal system, people still go back to Beethoven or Mozart, and only a few of them go back to what we may call contemporary classical music. They feel that it is too unfamiliar to the ear. The human ear is somewhere not receptive to it. Do you think that this is going to change? Do you think that there is a future for classical music, or has the major trunk that was classical music, now branched off so much into jazz, rock, pop and fusion, that there is no possibility of returning to that particular trunk, and is it only the branches that will keep flourishing? In other words, has jazz, rock and pop overtaken what is classical music? Has classical music dealt its own death blow by doing away with tonality?

AR: No, I wouldn’t agree with that. It is certainly undeniable that the other musical forms have seized audiences very strongly. Classical music has diminished in popularity, especially over the past 40 – 50 years in America, and in many other countries as well. I think that this was an inevitable development. I don’t think that composers, by writing tonally or atonally or in whatever style, could have changed this very powerful social dynamic, the growth of these other physical forms. It would have happened in any case. And these have become very complex, rich and sophisticated traditions in their own right.

So for classical music to say “Oh no, we are the serious tradition, we are the art music traditions” is terrible, because, it is enormously condescending to these other musical worlds, where some really extraordinary music has been made.

I think there is very much a place for classical music in contemporary culture, and it does offer something that these other kinds of music do not. I will not say that it’s better or anything like that. Simply that it’s different in terms of the scale of the works, and how they interact with the tradition. I think that the daring inventiveness of so many composers, has something unique to offer. But it is difficult, because, as you say the ear reacts very strongly to dissonances. And there is something quite primal there, in terms of a kind of an instinctive reaction against these sounds. That can be quite shocking, and yet, I think that you can become attuned to them. You can in fact fall in love with these sounds, and find them very beautiful. Its capacity to shock, can be the source of a very powerful expression.

I think there is very much a place for classical music in contemporary culture, and it does offer something that these other kinds of music do not.

However, this is something of an obstacle to be overcome. But many people, including myself, have learned to love this tradition of music, and many others can learn to love it as well. It’s a matter of spending time with it, and education, and, coming to know where it comes from. And I wrote this book very much, to give people a sense of why this music emerged in the way that it did, and why composers made certain choices.

The other factor which is very debilitating is classical music’s excessive devotion to its past. Now I love this great body of music from before 1900. Bach is absolutely…

 

ST: Gold?

AR: Yes! This music must be played, and it will remain the core of the repertory, but it has been loved to an excess, and to the exclusion of more contemporary music. I think it’s very interesting to observe that already in the 19th century, performances of the music of the past were becoming more and more common, and beginning to crowd out contemporary music. You can see a graph, where, the percentage of music by no longer living composers goes up and up and up over the 19th century. In the beginning it’s just 25 percent. And by 1880 or so it’s 75 percent. This increasing domination of the past is already happening before Schönberg and modernism, and this question of language that people found too difficult. So this was a kind of syndrome in classical music. This worship of the past to the exclusion of the present. And I think we need to resist that, and better bring in a balance, between the past and the present in our programs.

 

ST: You’ve written a very interesting article on the Marlboro College and the kind of music initiative there is for young people. Famous artists like Mitsuko Uchida are coming in and interacting with young musicians. Where do you think music education is headed to, in the West? Do you think that the governments are doing enough to sponsor the arts? Do you think that music education in schools is what it should be? Do you think that there is a real appreciation of an open mindedness about music?

AR: No. The situation for music education is very poor especially in America. In many schools in America you find very little, or even no music education, whether it’s classical music, pop music, jazz or anything. It’s just not there. And I think this is a terrible development, which is very difficult to correct, and fight against, because of these increasing cuts for everything – for education, for social services. It’s a very difficult time. We have to continue to make the case for music education – why this music is valuable not only in its own right, because it’s got its great tradition, and, is beautiful music, but also because it is valuable for young minds to grow, and become exposed to new ideas, and, new sounds.

The situation for music education is very poor especially in America. In many schools in America you find very little, or even no music education, whether it’s classical music, pop music, jazz or anything. It’s just not there.

I think that it’s a wonderful resource for the further development of young people. It would be easier to promote classical music, and bring in new audiences, only if, people have had that education when they were young. So, I strongly support all of these initiatives. Now often it’s a private attempt, to provide something like an after school kind of program, to supplement regular school, and, I hope that over time, this will have some effect, because just for so many reasons, it’s very important.

 

ST: Music today has become ubiquitous – thanks to the Internet, YouTube, iPhones, iPads, various gadgets, etc. Everybody listens to music, yet there is a feeling that people listened to music more, with a greater appreciation and greater knowledge, when these gadgets were not available. Has music become so ubiquitous that in a way, it is not being listened to? Is it so much everywhere that the value of it has gone down?

AR: Yes, to some extent. Historically, this has always been a problem, or at least the whole of 20th century, this was a problem, because you had radio, photographs. All along there’s been a problem of too much music in the air, and not enough of this very close listening.

Now, it’s especially a problem, because, it’s so instantaneous and you can go on the computer and download or just stream any kind of music, and it’s too easy. The internet especially promotes that kind of mentality where you can never stay focused on something, for very long. You are always distracted by something else, that you flip from one thing to another, and you don’t sit down and listen deeply to one thing for an extended period of time. And I think that this, is especially a problem for classical music, because, so much of the literature is in the longer forms and pop songs, that you can listen to something for three minutes and then go on to something else.

Classical music just needs more time, and in contemporary society, there is a shortage of this deeper and longer span of attention, which is why I think it’s so important to experience classical music in live concert. For me personally, so often I’ve had the experience where I thought I’ve known a particular work, because, I’ve heard a recording, and then, I hear it live and suddenly it’s a much deeper experience, and then it really becomes clear to me. To watch and have your entire attention focused on the musical act, there’s a kind of physicality in terms of the sound, the sound which is so much richer in a live space, the resonances…

I think we should get away from our devices and in terms of listening I think the best kind of listening happens in concert.

This is really where understanding takes place. So yes, as much as possible, I think we should get away from our devices and in terms of listening I think the best kind of listening happens in concert. But at the same time, I know from many people depending on where they live, it’s not so easy to go to concerts and so the availability of so much music is also a wonderful thing. And I think, especially, we, can become aware of unusual, lesser known composers and works, by exploring them on the internet. And I have certainly made many discoveries that way. Before, we had to find some obscure recording which was hard to get a hold of, and now it is right there. So it’s all very ambiguous in terms of the effect of it.

 

ST: As an organisation who has been running a classical music portal, do you think that rock and pop music, for the generations to come is where it’s at? Is there no classical music really, except in the hands of a few music students and some great artists? Is that all that is left? What do you think is going to happen in the future?

AR: I have no idea! I have great faith that the classical tradition and its contemporary extension will have a long life, and we’ll continue to find audiences. I’m not so certain about bigger institutions in the West. Their financial situation is very shaky for reasons that have not only to do with the audience, but also with the structure of donations and contributions, which keep them going there. They’re so expensive. If some of those were to fall away, still we would have had smaller organisations that would come to the fore, and continue to extend the tradition. I think that this musical tradition, and especially contemporary composers, can offer something, say, to younger audiences, which they may not find, in a lot of rock and pop music, because, what has happened, especially in the past few decades, is that the commercial machinery / the industry of popular music, has become really powerful and enmeshed in big corporations, in media companies and now, the Internet and Google and Facebook and Apple. These are incredibly powerful corporations, which have far too strong a hold on our lives, and the music can become a kind of a facade for those corporations.

There are a lot of very independent strong voices in popular music, but this is increasingly a problem. It’s now the mainstream, the establishment and the elite. Pop music never likes to think of itself as the elite. It’s always the opposite. But this has happened. These big pop music stars are millionaires and billionaires, and they have great power and classical music is more to the margin, and therefore I think that it can actually put forward more rebellious voices, anti-establishment voices.

There are a lot of very independent strong voices in popular music, but this is increasingly a problem. It’s now the mainstream, the establishment and the elite.

Many people find this paradoxical because they think of classical music as the elite establishment. But in many sectors, it’s not. And so I think that it can offer a voice that challenges the mainstream that offers a kind of complexity and ambiguity, in the place of certain kinds of music, to easily become a tool of advertising and corporate culture. This is a great future for our contemporary composers to challenge people’s ideas, and to give them new perspectives. I feel quite optimistic in that sense.

 

ST: One of the great classical traditions in the World is Indian classical music – specifically Hindustani in the North and Carnatic in the South. Have you heard any of it? And if so, what are your views about it. Is it as difficult an art form as Western classical music is?

AR: I think it is. I do not know it well. I would very much like to learn much more about it. For me as a total outsider, it’s very challenging. I know that this is very rich and sophisticated music, but as a listener I find it difficult to focus on the details, and to recognise a certain motif, and understand how the raga is used to structure a certain piece. It’s all very new to me, and I feel very much as other people feel, with the Western classical tradition, that I know so well.

It’s disorienting and difficult to sort of follow a narrative, and this is just a question of you, needing to spend time with it. I grew up with Western classical music from a very young age, so it’s very second nature to me. With a tradition as richly sophisticated as Indian classical tradition, I think it takes a long time to come to know them.

I have heard some famous musicians on recordings, and also a few from time to time, live. I would like to learn much more.

 

Alex Ross was invited to speak at this year’s ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival – http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/speaker-post/alex-ross/

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