Alex Ross is the music critic for the New Yorker and the author of a new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, "a history of the twentieth century through its music". My interest in music skews toward the contemporary popular, so I recently took the opportunity to ask Ross a few questions about classical music from the novice-but-interested music listener's perspective.
Jason Kottke: I've enjoyed classical music whenever I've heard it, but I don't know too much about it. Where might I begin to explore further?
Alex Ross: My big thing is that classical music doesn't really exist. When you have a repertory that goes from Hildegard von Bingen's medieval chant to Vivaldi's bustling Baroque concertos to Wagner's five-hour music dramas to John Cage's chance-produced electronic noise to Steve Reich's West African-influenced "Drumming," you're not talking about a single sound. Whatever variety of noise you desire, we've got it at the classical emporium. I'd suggest plunging it at various ends of the spectrum - some Vivaldi or Bach, the Beethoven "Eroica" or some other big-shouldered nineteenth-century classic, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (which foreshadows so much pop music to come), and Reich or Philip Glass. The idea is to get a feeling for what composers were trying to express at any given time, and, of course, deciding whether you want to follow them. There's no correct path through the labyrinth.
Kottke: I just received a copy of your book in the mail, and it's got a "Suggested Listening" section following the endnotes with 10 recommended recordings and 20 more if you make it through those. How did you go about choosing those? Narrowing the 20th century musical landscape down to 30 recordings...that's pretty cheeky.
Ross: It's very hard, not to mention cheeky, picking recommended recordings, because so often it's a matter of personal taste, both in terms of what works really "matter" and also in terms of which recordings are best. The almighty "Rite of Spring" has received any number of brilliant recordings over the years. Having picked one of Stravinsky's own versions - he had such a great feeling for rhythm as a conductor - I immediately wondered whether I should have chosen the recent Esa-Pekka Salonen/LA Philharmonic version on DG, which is in gleaming modern sound and is as rock-solid as any "Rite" of modern times. So it's subjective and leads to endless argument. But I was simply recommending a bunch of starting points, not the be-all end-all ultimate Top 10 of all time. I favored recordings that were cheap, that covered a lot of ground in 60 or 70 minutes. People can listen to excerpts on iTunes and Amazon and see if they really want to plunk down the cash. One thing's for sure: you do need to own the "Rite," no matter what kind of music you love. It's the original sexy.
Kottke: Related to the first question, when I go to Amazon and search for "Beethoven", there are over 10,000 results just in the classical music category. There are even more results for Bach. Are there significant differences between all the different versions of their music? How does the bewildered beginner pick the "right" version of Bach's works to listen to? Should you look for brand names (e.g. Yo-Yo Ma), only buy music recorded by major symphonies or put out by certain record labels, or just get whatever is cheapest?
Ross: It's definitely overwhelming - a serious glut. I've been reviewing for fifteen years and in the last year or two I seem to be getting twice as many CDs as ever - not to mention all the MP3s that composers and ensembles have put up on the Internet. There are definitely some significant differences among recordings. You have a lot of expert but boring renditions and then you have the ones that touch perfection or posses exceptional emotional power. Listen to Lorrane Hunt Lieberson singing the Bach cantatas and everyone else will sound a little wan. Certain people are always reliable - Yo-Yo Ma is ever eloquent, Mitsuko Uchida is a great pianist, Claudio Abbado makes one great or near-great orchestral recording after another. You can tell from Amazon reviews when a recording has really knocked people sideways. But live concerts are always better! I'm sometimes more moved by a not great but heartfelt live performance than by a world-class recording. In the hall you feel the weight of the cellos, the resonances of tones in space, the response of the crowd, all those intangibles. Tickets are less expensive than you may think. Particularly if you're a student, you can get amazing deals - $12 tickets for the New York Philharmonic, for example.
Kottke: One of the things I've noticed about classical music recordings is how reasonably priced they are, particularly the pre-20th century music. Have you read any of Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen? In it, he suggests that to get the most value out of your music buying dollar, you should pay more attention to music that hasn't been recently released, the idea being that there are more gems to be found in the last 200 years of music than in this week's Billboard lists. I have a feeling you might agree with that view.
Ross: That's an interesting theory. If you buy Maria Callas's recording of "Tosca," chances are it's probably still going to deliver the goods twenty years from now, if CDs or MP3s still exist then. Fergie is maybe a riskier long-term bet. Also interesting is Chris Anderson's Long Tail concept, which suggests that there's more hidden commercial power in these thousands upon thousands of classical recordings than anyone suspected, even if they sell only a few times a year. The Naxos label says it gets 30-40% of total digital sales from albums that are downloaded 4 times a month or less. In any case, there's now a huge catalogue of classical CDs that go for $10 or less. The Tashi recording of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," one of my top 10 picks, goes for $8 on Amazon. The Amazon download site was for a while offering Wagner's entire sixteen-hour "Ring" cycle for $13.98. This turned out to be a clerical error, but enough classical-heads converged on the bargain that for a day or two Richard Wagner was the #1 downloaded artist on Amazon, beating out Kanye West. That amused me. Watch out for these classical guys - they start slow but beat you in the end.
Kottke: Let's say you're still around 80 years from now, writing a sequel to The Rest is Noise about music from 1980 to 2080. What contemporary music (circa 1980-2007) will still be important and relevant in 2080?
Ross: That's a tough question! Critics often turn out to be very wrong about what's truly important in their own time. George Bernard Shaw, for example, considered Hermann Goetz a great composer, a worthy successor to Beethoven. Though is "wrong" the right word? If Shaw had deep feelings about that music, he was, within his personal frame of reference, absolutely right. In classical music we maybe focus too much on the idea that the opinion of posterity is the only one that matters. In any case, here are twelve works that I believe will still matter to me, at least, if by some medical miracle I'm still around in 2080:
Steve Reich, Different Trains
John Adams, Nixon in China
Kaija Saariaho, L'Amour de loin
Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium
Gérard Grisey, Les Espaces acoustiques
Arvo Pärt, Da pacem domine
Louis Andriessen, De Stijl
Thomas Ades, Asyla
Georg Friedrich Haas, in vain
Michael Gordon, Decasia
Magnus Lindberg, Kraft
Osvaldo Golijov, St. Mark Passion
Thanks, Alex. We'll be checking back with you in 2080 to see how you fared. Ross has a piece out in the New Yorker this week about classical music and the internet that's related to our conversation above. He's also constructed a fantastic enhanced bibliography for the book that includes audio samples of some of the music written discussed in the book, presumably to reduce the dancing about architecture effect.