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πŸ”  πŸ’€  πŸ“Έ  😭  πŸ•³οΈ  🀠  🎬  πŸ₯” posts about Alex Ross

How American Racism Influenced Adolf Hitler

In his 2018 review of several books about Nazism and Adolf Hitler, Alex Ross notes that Hitler took inspiration for the Third Reich’s anti-Semitism and the Holocaust from the United States’ genocide against indigenous peoples, treatment of African Americans (both during and after slavery), and restrictive immigration policies.

The Nazis were not wrong to cite American precedents. Enslavement of African-Americans was written into the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to “eliminate” or “extirpate” Native Americans. In 1856, an Oregonian settler wrote, “Extermination, however unchristianlike it may appear, seems to be the only resort left for the protection of life and property.” General Philip Sheridan spoke of “annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction.” To be sure, others promoted more peaceful-albeit still repressive-policies. The historian Edward B. Westermann, in “Hitler’s Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars” (Oklahoma), concludes that, because federal policy never officially mandated the “physical annihilation of the Native populations on racial grounds or characteristics,” this was not a genocide on the order of the Shoah. The fact remains that between 1500 and 1900 the Native population of U.S. territories dropped from many millions to around two hundred thousand.

America’s knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death struck Hitler as an example to be emulated. He made frequent mention of the American West in the early months of the Soviet invasion. The Volga would be “our Mississippi,” he said. “Europe β€” and not America β€” will be the land of unlimited possibilities.” Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine would be populated by pioneer farmer-soldier families. Autobahns would cut through fields of grain. The present occupants of those lands β€” tens of millions of them β€” would be starved to death. At the same time, and with no sense of contradiction, the Nazis partook of a long-standing German romanticization of Native Americans. One of Goebbels’s less propitious schemes was to confer honorary Aryan status on Native American tribes, in the hope that they would rise up against their oppressors.

Jim Crow laws in the American South served as a precedent in a stricter legal sense. Scholars have long been aware that Hitler’s regime expressed admiration for American race law, but they have tended to see this as a public-relations strategy β€” an “everybody does it” justification for Nazi policies. Whitman, however, points out that if these comparisons had been intended solely for a foreign audience they would not have been buried in hefty tomes in Fraktur type. “Race Law in the United States,” a 1936 study by the German lawyer Heinrich Krieger, attempts to sort out inconsistencies in the legal status of nonwhite Americans. Krieger concludes that the entire apparatus is hopelessly opaque, concealing racist aims behind contorted justifications. Why not simply say what one means? This was a major difference between American and German racism.

A guide to the musical leitmotifs in Star Wars

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross points to Frank Lehman’s Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII, which has been updated to include The Last Jedi. Ross goes on to note that composer John Williams did some of his strongest work for the film, deftly employing musical themes called leitmotifs to supplement (and sometimes subvert) the on-screen action. (Spoilers, ho!)

In early scenes set at a remote, ruined Jedi temple, we keep hearing an attenuated, beclouded version of the Force motto: this evokes Luke’s embittered renunciation of the Jedi project. As the young heroine Rey begins to coax him out of his funk, the Force stretches out and is unfurled at length. Sometimes, the music does all of the work of explaining what is going on. In one scene, Leia, Luke’s Force-capable sister, communicates telepathically with her son Kylo Ren, who has gone over to the dark side and is training his guns on her vessel. Leia’s theme is briefly heard against a dissonant cluster chord. Earlier in the saga, we might have been subjected to dialogue along the lines of “Don’t do this! I’m your mother!” Williams’s musical paraphrase is more elegant.

If you’re looking for a primer/refresher for the use of leitmotif in film, Evan Puschak’s video on Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings films is a good place to start. (via anil dash)

The year in movie soundtracks, 2014

For the New Yorker, Alex Ross writes about movie soundtracks, with an emphasis on the scores for the 2014 crop of films.

This year’s Oscar nominations for Best Original Score did the field few favors, overlooking some significant work. Jonny Greenwood, increasingly known as much for his film music as for his contributions to Radiohead, has yet to be acknowledged by the Academy, despite his idiosyncratic, imaginative collaborations with the director Paul Thomas Anderson, most recently in “Inherent Vice.” Jason Moran deserved a nod for his “Selma” score, which oscillates between subdued moods of hope and dread, avoiding the telltale gestures of the great-man bio-pic. (The Aaron Copland trumpet of lonely American power is in abeyance.) Most baffling was the omission of Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin,” which, like Greenwood’s work for Anderson, moves from seething dissonance to eerie simplicity and back again.

I listen to movie soundtracks quite a bit; they’re good to play while working. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed from 2014:

Philip Glass speaks at Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street went up to protest at Lincoln Center last night during a performance of Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross was there and captured the protest on video, which included Glass himself reading the closing lines from the opera, amplified to the crowd by the people’s mic. It is an amazing scene.

When the Satyagraha listeners emerged from the Met, police directed them to leave via side exits, but protesters began encouraging them to disregard the police, walk down the steps, and listen to Glass speak. Hesitantly at first, then in a wave, they did so. The composer proceeded to recite the closing lines of Satyagraha, which come from the Bhagavad-Gita (after 3:00 in the video above): “When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.” True to form, he said it several times, with the “human microphone” repeating after him. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson were in attendance, and at one point Reed helped someone crawl over the barricade that had been set up along the sidewalk.

(via stellar)

Listen to This

Speaking of Steven Johnson and new books, Alex Ross has a post about how Johnson’s long zoom concept has influenced his music writing *and* has a new book of his own out soon called Listen to This (at Amazon). See how deftly I knitted that together in a Johnsonian way? Ahem. Anyway, here’s what Listen to This is about:

It offers a panoramic view of the musical scene, from Bach to BjΓΆrk and beyond. In the Preface, I say that the aim is to “approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world.” I treat pop music as serious art and classical music as part of the wider culture; my hope is that the book will serve as an introduction to crucial figures and ideas in classical music, and also give an alternative perspective on modern pop.

The best part is that Ross’ web site contains an extensive collection of audio, video, and images of the works mentioned in the book.

Alex Ross on the move

Alex Ross has moved his blog from The Rest is Noise to the New Yorker site. It’s now called Unquiet Thoughts.

2008 MacArthur genius grants

The MacArthur Foundation announced the list of their 2008 fellows today, the recipients of the $500,000 “genius grant”. Among the fellows is Alex Ross, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of The Rest is Noise ( interview).

Hey, New Yorker classical music critic (and

Hey, New Yorker classical music critic (and blogger, and my summer neighbor, and Kottke interviewee) Alex Ross was quite rightly nominated for a National Book Critics Award over the weekend. (How could any book blurbed by Bjork not be?)

On the heels of their 100 notable books

On the heels of their 100 notable books list, the NY Times whittles it down to the ten best of the year. I interviewed Alex Ross back in October about his top tenner, The Rest is Noise.

As a supplement to Alex Ross’ musical

As a supplement to Alex Ross’ musical recommendations, a reader recommends NPR’s list of 50 essential classical music CDs and Jazz 100, a list of the best jazz on CD. (thx, john)

The Rest is Noise

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.

Interview with New Yorker music critic Alex

Interview with New Yorker music critic Alex Ross about, among other things, his upcoming book on 20th century music. “Why, when paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock go for a hundred million dollars or more on the art market and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, is twentieth-century classical music still considered obscure and difficult? In fact, it’s better known than most people realize. Post-1900 music is all over Hollywood soundtracks, modern jazz, alternative rock.”

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has compiled a chronolocial 100-song playlist/tour of mostly classical/instrumental music for the 20th century. Starts with Stravinsky & Gershwin and ends with Bjork.