Interrogation: Alex Ross
New Yorker Music Critic, Author of The Rest Is Noise, Classical Music Apologist, Björk Groupie
Kyle T. Webster
Q: Do you and New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones have a rivalry going?
A: Oh, no, no. I wouldn't say it's a rivalry. We just have our different beats, and occasionally cross over into each other's territory.
So you're saying you could take him.
What did you make of his essay last year claiming that indie rock is too white?
I'm working on my own essay on how classical music is too black.
Is it just hopeless, the idea that any concentration of people under age 50 will get interested in classical music?
It has been an old audience for several generational turnovers now. Classical music has this self-generated image problem because it has advertised itself as the music of the past, emphasizing Beethoven and Mozart over living composers. At the same time, people have to put in a little effort.
Two weeks ago there was a crossover concert in Seattle put together by a cellist playing Messiaen and Radiohead. Hasn't it become a cliché to use Radiohead for classical recruitment? You've written great profiles of Björk and Radiohead, exploring their classical influences. But it's starting to feel like these artists are the beginning and end of the connection between classical and pop.
It's a little bit of a cliché, definitely. There's a lot more there, but the artists are just not as well known.
Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens. They have strong interests in classical and 20th-century music. Joanna Newsom trained as a composer; you wouldn't guess that, but once you factor that in, it actually makes sense—the long structures and the ornate harmonies. With Sufjan Stevens, you have these long-form minimalist things protruding on the ends of his records, and his instrumentations, well, he has these little orchestras.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, too—the meter keeps changing, the rhythm is intricate, the harmonies are out there, and I assume the people in that band must have come up against some 20th-century music. There's this resemblance to [the classical modernist] Elliott Carter sometimes. Why not have a festival where you listen to noise bands against Elliott Carter or Carl Ruggles—the very dissonant end of the 20th-century spectrum?
But something great has happened in the last 10 years where people are pushing back against that standoff between classical music and the mainstream. It's something that got rolling on the West Coast, especially with Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco and Esa-Pekka Salonen in L.A.
Maybe Seattle will join the West Coast at some point.
Yes. I think there could be an amazing effect if Seattle had a music director who was following that same kind of recipe. Gerard Schwarz doesn't seem to be on the cutting edge of anything. I can just imagine a whole lot more energy and conviction in that direction, and I think Seattle instantly could become one of the leading orchestras in terms of setting the agenda for classical music, because I think there's this great potential audience there.
The program that you're in town for this weekend is called Icebreaker Festival, with two evening concerts featuring nine world premieres by composers including Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Alexandra Gardner, Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly, Janice Giteck, William Duckworth, and Kyle Gann, another writer, formerly of the Village Voice. Kyle's description of the music in the festival includes influences from minimalism to go-go, hiphop, Javanese gamelan, Jewish cantillation, Indian raga, medieval music, bluegrass guitar, Jerry Lee Lewis, American Indian chant, East European dance, and the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Anything you want to add?
DJ culture, incomprehensible subway announcements, 16th-century English Renaissance church music, Missy Elliott, and "Milkshake."
To me, it resembles what's been going on in New York at institutions like BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] and now in more uptown places like Zankel Hall [on the lower level of Carnegie Hall], where the style is not to separate classical music but just to throw it into the mix. I think it's happening in every city, actually.
But there's a huge music audience in Seattle, with this tradition of taking pop music seriously. Whenever you have people who are thinking deeply about pop music and its history—where it comes from and where it's going, and the pop music conference [at EMP] is a great symbol of that—then you will sooner or later find people curious about 20th-century classical. And this is a great goal for classical music: just to get back on the menu of what intelligent people consider what's worth paying attention to.
Last question. Have you ever been accosted by Björk?
That really pisses me off. Björk got mad 15 years ago at the paparazzi and then there's this recent event, and she's gotten defined as crazy. Everyone flips out every once in a while, especially with cameras following them around, and people forget that she was actually stalked by an insane person—a guy ended up committing suicide after trying to send a mail bomb to her. From my acquaintance with her, she's not like that at all. She's not confrontational or crazy; she's the opposite, the kind of person who's remarkably easy to spend time with and to talk to.
Short answer: Björk has never accosted you.
Only with weird Icelandic music.
Icebreaker IV: The American Future is Fri Jan 25 and Sat Jan 26 at On the Boards, 100 W Roy St, 217-9888, 8 pm, $20/$36 for both shows, all ages.