Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and the author of The Rest is Noise, Listen to This, and most recently, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. This conversation took place over Zoom in December 2020 and transcribed by Scott Douglass.
Ethan Iverson: What instruments did you play growing up in Washington D.C.?
Alex Ross: I played the piano and the oboe. There was no oboe in the Potomac School orchestra, so I was persuaded to take it up. I never progressed to the level of making my own reeds. You’re not even a low-level functioning oboist unless you make your own reeds. I played the piano vigorously, if not accurately. My lessons were more about sight-reading large amounts of literature rather than actually mastering anything.
EI: Who was your teacher?
AR: Denning Barnes. who was also a composer. He taught me piano and composition at the same time—more the latter than the former, in that he would have me learn pieces that would feed the work I was attempting to do as a composer. I was besotted with Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, but he led me toward the early twentieth century—Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, the later Debussy. He was this somewhat unkempt guy who had huge enthusiasm and was very generous. He gave me lots of scores, too, and fed my appetite for anything new.
EI: Is Barnes in the canon at all? Did he make recordings or were his pieces performed?
AR: No, I don’t think he made any recordings. His profile, even around D.C., was sort of minimal. Occasionally I’ve run into people who worked with him or had contact with him. They recognize my portrait of him as this bundle of enthusiasm. He died of a brain tumor while I was in college. I still have dozens of scores with his fingerings and analysis in the margins.
EI: So, you’re talking about what, Bartók Mikrokosmos? Or heavier than that?
AR: Let’s see. Well, I never tried to play Out of Doors, but he did give me the score. Some pieces from Mikrokosmos and the Bagatelles.
EI: Schoenberg, Opus 19 probably…
AR: The Schoenberg was the Drei Klavierstücke.
EI: Opus 11.
AR: I played the middle piece fairly acceptably. The outer ones were beyond my reach. And we spent a lot of time on the Berg Sonata. I just loved the Berg Sonata, and we did a harmonic analysis of it together. I don’t know if we got all the way to the end, but I have the Xerox of the Sonata with annotations scrawled all over it. That piece felt like a threshold for me. and it is such a threshold piece in and of itself. You can look at it as a tonal piece, and yet when you get down into trying to pin down what is going on in tonal terms in any given bar it becomes extremely difficult to parse. Initially, I resisted any music that was moving toward atonality; I was upset by or bewildered by it. The Berg led me over the border, as did the middle piece of Opus 11, which has a sense of a tonal center on D even if it’s in no way tonal in the conventional sense. I was already into Sibelius and some other more conservative early twentieth-century stuff, but this is where I really crossed over into mainstream modernism.
EI: In The Rest Is Noise, you write of Schoenberg Opus 11 having “jazz chords,” which is certainly true. Opus 11 no. 2 has at least one Henry Mancini chord dropped ruthlessly into a dissonant texture.
AR: Which is probably why Mr. Barnes pointed stuff like that out to me, because he was a jazz guy, too. I can’t evaluate him as a jazz pianist, but I think he was oriented toward stride piano. As I related in a 2004 New Yorker piece, when we were looking at Beethoven Opus 111, he was talking about the boogie-woogie variation. I had absolutely no idea what he meant, but he sort of communicated it physically. I was completely unaware at that stage of even the basics of jazz, so I didn’t pick up very much from him. I was so focused on my own stuff.
EI: Your own stuff?
AR: Yeah, I wrote a fair amount of music. Most of the pieces were never finished. I would have a few preliminary ideas but could never really follow through, imagine what comes next. I did finish a setting of “O Magnum Mysterium” for chorus and organ when I was fourteen, which, looking back on it, was not bad. There was a lovely dissonant chord under “Christum” at the end.
At a certain stage I was also studying with a man named Russell Woollen, who had been a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. He was very much in the Neoclassical/Stravinsky/Boulanger tradition. And we didn’t really get along—not personally but stylistically. My pieces and improvisations were these late-Romantic thrashings interspersed with dissonance. That was completely not his sensibility. He tried to steer me in a different direction and had me write a Phrygian étude, which also turned out pretty well, but it was not my path. Mr. Barnes had a splashier sensibility and was more sympathetic to my excesses.
In my later teenage years, when I was going off to college, I wanted to write a string quartet. I made a whole series of sketches and wrote out the first couple of pages but couldn’t see it through. My freshman year at Harvard, I sat in on Leon Kirchner’s composition seminar, which was a frightening spectacle, because he was a hardcore guy.
EI: Oh really?
AR: He did not mince words in talking to the kids. There was one student whom he just completely destroyed. I don’t think I went back to the class after this episode. The guy had written a very Beethovenian piece, a pastiche of Beethoven, but very well put together. It was the kind of thing where you might say, “Okay, impressive, but can you bring in a little more of your own sensibility?” Kirchner turned to the rest of the class and said, “I wonder when he’s going to realize that you just can’t write like that anymore”—not even addressing him to his face. It was cold. But, you know, if you’re serious about becoming a composer, you need to be able to stand up to that kind of feedback and not be cowed by it. That’s how the real world is. John Adams took Kirchner’s class, many years before, and constantly argued with him. I didn’t have that intensity and self-belief. I did show him the sketches of the string quartet. He looked them and shrugged and said, “Well, can you play them?”, and pointed to the piano. It opened with this shimmering tremolo stuff. I couldn’t really play it, and that was that. You need to have that burning conviction. It was very different for me with writing prose. There I did have conviction.
EI: Let me just finish up Harvard and composition with a quick question, too, about Peter Lieberson…
AR: A wonderful, warm guy, with a special aura around him. I took his second-year theory class freshman year. It was all over the place, he’d constantly be going on detours and digressions, but it was all fascinating. We started analyzing Schubert’s Erlkönig, and after a number of weeks we were only about twenty bars in, because he kept stopping to savor the chords. He’d suddenly think of Mahler’s Adagietto and someone would run to the library to get a recording of it. I remember boldly getting into an argument with him about which recording we should use. He picked the DG Bernstein, but I liked Sinopoli. Alan Gilbert was in that class too, incidentally. It was this mixture of serious analysis and a sensual savoring of music. Those weren’t values that were widespread in the Harvard music department at the time. Even though this was the end of my quote-unquote composition career—the exercises I wrote for Lieberson were the last things that I completed in the way of composing—it left me with a great sense of how composers think.
EI: You told me once that because you had so much experience trying to compose when younger, you knew how hard it was to do.
AR: Yeah, definitely. Just the stubbornness that’s needed. It was difficult for me for a specific reason—I lacked the component in my brain that relished the process. Not simply improvising and writing a few ideas down, but working through them and forging the narrative. You need to have that mental space where you envision the totality of a piece. As a writer, this is exactly the kind of thing that does come to me very naturally—mapping out the article in my head. And once I have some stuff down on paper, I obsessively-compulsively enjoy the process of churning through it. It’s funny to me that this mental faculty I have for writing prose was completely lacking when it came to writing music.
EI: Well, I guess it’s worked out for posterity in the sense that there’s a lot of composers that came out of Harvard and there’s only one Alex Ross, music critic.
AR: Yes, I suppose.
EI: At Harvard you were also very much involved in literature. Talk about some of your early teachers and influences in that world.
AR: Well, I loved writing from a very early stage. My mom saved everything, so I have these papers and projects from when I was a kid that were always twice as long as the requested assignment, with footnotes. The syndrome set in of using writing to burrow into a particular subject—I found that very early. I was a very, very shy kid, and being able to bury myself in the words on the page and perfect my voice appealed to me very strongly as a kind of alternative to actually talking to people. Perhaps composing wasn’t as easy because it has not only the solitary component but also the performative and social component.
I had two wonderful English teachers in high school, Paul Piazza and Paul Barrett, who were very patient with my tendencies toward extremely purple prose. In college, I had a magnificent English professor who ended up being my thesis advisor, Robert Kiely. I studied Irish literature with him, especially Yeats and Joyce. I was very lucky that Fredric Jameson was guest professor one year: his class on post-Marxist theory led me into the world of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Damon Krukowski was in that class, too; he did an excellent paper on the Beatles and Duchamp. I distinctly remember Damon handing out flyers for a Galaxie 500 show one day. In terms of the writing, I didn’t necessarily progress a great deal in college. The papers I wrote were disastrously overrun with poststructuralist jargon. As stylistic documents they were really lacking. It was in a couple of extracurricular activities that I developed as a writer more: at WHRB, the radio station, and also as an editor at the Let’s Go travel guides, now defunct. That was the only real training that I had for journalism.
EI: Would you describe your thesis on James Joyce as poststructuralist?
AR: I guess so, more or less. It was about Joyce, and also about the Sherlock Holmes stories, and also about Victorian ideas of degeneration, social and sexual degeneration. There was some Oscar Wilde in there. It was all over the place.
EI: Around that time you were also doing radio program at Harvard.
AR: First, I had a program called “The Twentieth-Century Symphony” and then I had one called “Music Since 1900,” a title blatantly stolen from Nicolas Slonimsky.
EI: What was the theme music?
AR: The second movement of Eduard Tubin’s Symphony No. 6! An awesome piece. Tubin was an Estonian symphonist whom I had somehow fastened onto before I got to college. I was a reader of Fanfare magazine and one of the Fanfare critics had extolled the BIS disc of Tubin’s Second and Sixth symphonies. I bought it at Tower Records in D.C. So I arrived as a freshman ready to convince my classmates of the greatness of Eduard Tubin. Very bizarre. But when I got to WHRB, the radio station, this oddball interest in Estonian symphonism was very much in keeping with the spirit there, which was not to play the same old pieces over and over again. In fact, there was a list of warhorses that were effectively banned: Beethoven’s Fifth, the 1812 Overture, and so on.
I’ve been thinking about WHRB because David Elliott, the longtime guru of the station, just died of ALS. He’d been an undergraduate in the early 1960s and never really went away. He looked after the station and kept it going and was the guiding light of the place. Especially for classical music, but for all the other departments as well. Everyone had to have a sense of mission, an ideology. The same happened at the jazz department and especially at the rock department, the Record Hospital, which was an amazing institution with this furious anti-commercial attitude. I owe a huge, huge amount to David. He started me out as a music critic. While I was there, he decided to start running CD reviews for our program guide, which I doubt very many people actually read. There was certainly no demand for them. He created them specifically for me and for a few others to have an outlet to talk about music, think about music, write about music. I don’t think there’s any other way I would have become a music critic.
EI: And what about those travel guides? That’s new to me.
AR: I did Let’s Go for two summers, first as an assistant editor and then as a managing editor. It was such good training, having to sit in the basement office and think of how to summarize, say, Scottish history in 150 words. It was all about compression. I had been writing endless papers filled with gobbledygook. Here was an exercise in using a tiny space to try to get maybe one or two ideas across, maybe throw in a poetic turn of phrase. I discovered the pleasure of writing an elegant paragraph that is conveying basic information in a satisfying way. That experience was so crucial when I started journalistically writing about music.
EI: At some point you must have had a click when you recognized text you’d read as a teenager when you’re first learning about Brahms, or whatever, as being better than others. Like, there were certain texts that probably, once you started writing prose, you realized, oh my gosh, that was actually, these are the people I like to read writing about the music.
AR: I guess so. When I think back to the writing on music that I was reading at that time, a lot of it was functional for me. I simply wanted to get the basic facts of Brahms’s life, and whether this was done beautifully or not was of less importance. I did read Bernstein’s books and I appreciated his mellifluousness and eloquence, which, of course, very often veered into his own variety of purple prose.
EI: Bernstein tries to light a fire that anyone, if they’re interested, can warm their hands.
AR: He’d write about, say, the “Eroica” Symphony in a way that conveyed the urgency of the music itself. He invested dry, musical details with psychological or political intensity. I was accustomed to a much drier approach to writing about music—the kind you’d find on the backs of LPs, this rather pompous, wooden music-appreciation stuff. But I also remember reading James Huneker—his fabulously over-the-top essay about the Chopin Preludes, which was printed with the old Schirmer score. Eagles swooping down violently from the heights, that sort of thing.
EI: I feel compelled to note that both of these critics that you’ve mentioned, Huneker and Bernstein, were actually American writers writing about European music. You’re sort of in that lineage!
AR: Well, I absorbed a lot of British writing, too. I would read the Gramophone and the Penguin Record Guide. Early on I adopted the British manner of writing about classical music, which is something I had to unlearn, to some extent, because it sounds ridiculous for an American person to be saying things like “this disc turns out to be something of a curate’s egg.”
EI: The British publications were very prevalent, right? They were easy to get and they were everywhere.
AR: Yes, right. I would see them at Tower Records. I couldn’t afford Gramophone necessarily, so I would read it standing there in the store, until someone said something, which they usually didn’t.
EI: All English-speaking classical music fans had to read Gramophone. Did you write for them at some point in the early years?
AR: Not Gramophone. Much later I wrote an essay for them. Fanfare was where I wrote early on. I would devour each issue of Fanfare, especially because I had an endless appetite for these lesser-known composers, the Eduard Tubin-type composers, all the other obscure Nordic symphonists, which were a big emphasis at Fanfare. I still love them.
EI: You told me that one of your earliest reviews was of Robert Simpson symphonies.
AR: Yes! That was my first review for the WHRB program guide. Simpson’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies, on Hyperion. In the twentieth century, I tended to focus more on a conservative symphonic repertory before I got into the avant-garde. But I discovered all that at WHRB, too. Ligeti and Feldman, in particular. My college years were about devouring every kind of music, and I saw no contradiction between putting on Simpson one day and Braxton the next. I wasn’t aware of the ideological tensions—how in some way you were supposed to like the one and not the other. And the avant-garde led me outside of classical music. There was a guy at WHRB who really influenced my taste, Mike Pahre. He introduced me to Cecil Taylor, and I fell head-over-heels in love with Taylor’s music. Seeing him play in Cambridge with his trio was a completely life-changing experience. Honestly, that was the first supposedly non-classical music I ever listened to seriously in my life: 3 Phasis, Silent Tongues, Winged Serpent. After that came my early explorations of post-punk rock—Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. I received a marvelously warped education in pop music at WHRB.
EI: How did you first start writing professionally, then?
AR: Well, by the end of my time at WHRB I had become a sort of classical-music media person. I prepared my programs, wrote essays, wrote reviews, conducted interviews. I’d talked to Neeme Järvi and Nicolas Slonimsky and Milton Babbitt—Milton came by the station one day—and various other interesting people. Even so, the idea of pursuing it as a career did not cross my mind. After college, I tried to write a screenplay with my college roommate, and then I made plans to go to graduate school—Duke, actually, where Jameson was. The first thing that happened was that Fanfare ran a competition for a satire of a Fanfare review, and I sent in two entries. One was a review of a wartime Wilhelm Furtwängler performance of the Academic Festival Overture that went on for forty-five minutes and was interrupted by bombs—a send-up of Furtwängler worship. For the other I invented a nineteenth-century Manx composer named Lionel Wainscotte Spew and concocted an elaborate plot summary for his opera The Gazebo of Ecstasy. This was very much a satire of the British style of over-the-top appreciation of native talents. So I sent those in, and Joel Flegler, the editor, wrote me back, saying, “Do you want to write for Fanfare seriously?” I wrote dozens of Fanfare reviews early on. It was all about getting the free CDs. Joel paid two dollars a review, so it was not about the money. The CD itself was by far the more valuable commodity, because there was no other way to hear all this music. It certainly didn’t feel like the beginning of a career: it was a way to augment my CD collection.
Then, in 1991, when I was staying at my parents’ house in DC and working in a video store in Dupont Circle and applying to grad school, I got a piece in The New Republic. Richard Taruskin was writing these tremendous pieces for The New Republic at the time, and that was the first writing on music that I really wanted to emulate. I’m still trying. I wrote two pieces for The New Republic, which led The New York Times to notice me and offer me a position as their lowliest freelance critic. I moved to New York in the fall of 1992, very reluctantly and fearfully. I was not the kind of kid who had always dreamed of moving to New York.
EI: What were the two pieces?
AR: The first was a review of John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. My debut as a journalist, setting aside the Fanfare reviews, was a world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, which is one place to start, I guess. It’s a piece that I’m now embarrassed by. I was extremely dismissive of Corigliano’s music and went to town on the whole thing and dismissed it as over-hyped, neo-romantic, postmodern nonsense. Very sweeping, very censorious. Both the tone and the content are alien to me now. I actually like a lot of Corigliano’s music and don’t understand why I was so worked up about it at the time. But that’s the way I felt. The second piece was about Alfred Schnittke. I worshipped Schnittke and wrote a long appreciation of him for The New Republic.
EI: I believe you met Schnittke.
AR: I did! I interviewed him at the Watergate Hotel in 1994. He was, of course, an enigmatic man, and for the most part he wasn’t very interested in my questions. There were also communication issues. My translator was my friend Andrew Weiss, who was the staff of the National Security Council at the time. His brand of Russian was a bit different from Schnittke’s. But there was one moment when he really perked up, and that’s when I asked him about Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which was and remains a huge book for me. I read it when I was eighteen, and it drove my interest in the collision of modern music and history. Also, stylistically, I was thrilled by Mann’s evocations of the nonexistent music of his fictional composer, Adrian Leverkühn. It showed me the real power of music writing. When Mann, with some help from Theodor Adorno, makes you think you are listening to pieces that don’t exist and makes you perceive an entire imaginary stylistic personality—it’s really something. I think that somehow spurred my interest in writing about music. But yeah, since Schnittke had a very strong relationship with Doctor Faustus, that was the one moment when he became interested. He also perked up when I mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky. He said he had talked to Tarkovsky about working with him, but it never happened.
EI: What do you think of Schnittke’s Faust opera?
AR: It was ultimately unsuccessful, I think. I was so excited for it, and I was actually present for the world premiere, in Hamburg in 1995, but his various illnesses prevented him from really realizing the project. The ending remains tremendous, because it was built on the great Faust Cantata from the 1980s.
EI: The cantata is successful, right?
AR: Yes, especially the climactic tango movement, where Faust is being dragged down to hell, being flung around the room with his brains splattering against the wall. Quite spectacular.
EI: I’m surprised that Schnittke is not a little more in the conversation today, because his best work is so strong.
AR: Yeah, certain pieces are played, but he’s been somewhat pushed aside. You hear more Pärt, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, others of that generation. Partly, it may have to do with the fact that he died fairly young and his legacy was in some disarray at the end. Some pieces—the First Symphony, the Piano Concerto, the String Trio, the string quartets—are very powerful. A lot of other pieces feel somewhat cobbled together.
EI: I probably don’t have the right to say this but, for me, the late music isn’t successful. With many important composers, their late music is especially great…but in Schnittke’s case I can’t follow his late music from A to B.
AR: Yes, the strongest music is from the 70s and the early, mid-80s. When you think about how composers hand off a legacy to posterity, having a strong narrative arc to the career is somehow important. It shouldn’t be so, but it’s part of how we organize the composers of the canon. Those who had a strong start and then lost momentum, I think, have a more difficult time finding their place in posterity—especially those who were very prolific, like Hindemith and Milhaud. If they can’t be whittled down to a three-act story of early promise and maturity and then the late style, they are easily cast aside. And Schnittke certainly deserves to be performed on the basis of the strongest pieces.
EI: We’ve gotten you to being hired by The New York Times, reviewing Tosca and so on.
AR: Yes, pretty early on I found myself reviewing Tosca cast changes. I would never review a first night of an opera at the Met or City Opera, but I was sent to the cast changes. As a critic, I was quite well versed in new music, twentieth-century music. And I was well versed in the nuts-and-bolts instrumental repertory. Opera was something I had almost no experience of, and I was thoroughly inadequate as an opera reviewer. It’s painful for me to go back and look at some of those early reviews. Fortunately, there aren’t that many of them. I became slightly notorious, actually, in the opera world—“Who on earth is this bratty kid?” Tim Page, my colleague, always says this is how you learn to be a critic—you learn in public. Even if you’ve had an impeccable education in all facets of music, you will make mistakes, and there should be consequences if you say something stupid. Humiliation is a crucial part of the process.
EI: How many reviews did you do for The New York Times?
AR: Several hundred, maybe five hundred. Most were very short—quick, overnight things. Bassoon recitals in Queens. What I really enjoyed were the Sunday pieces. Jim Oestreich, the Arts and Leisure classical-music editor at that time, was at first skeptical of this random kid who’d shown up in the office. I was quite a sight, really, with my self-administered haircuts and thrift-store sports jacket and sneakers. I was known for wearing ratty sneakers everywhere. I won Jim over with a piece about Schubert and Brahms. I made a comment about Schubert’s “sad ecstasies,” and I distinctly remember Jim liking that phrase. After that, it was smooth sailing. Jim was an amazing editor: he gave me a total green light to pursue my enthusiasms. No matter what I fastened onto and felt an urge to explore, he was up for it. I wrote about Schreker, Zemlinsky, Schulhoff. I became very interested in the Czech Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. I discovered Galina Ustvolskaya and called up Jim, who said, “Never heard of her. Twelve hundred words.” The sense of freedom was wonderful, but Jim was a wise editor who made pinpoint comments where needed. He also came up with excellent headlines. I spent the summer of 1995 in Europe and came back with this big piece about music, the Second World War, the Holocaust. Jim’s headline was: “In Music, Though, There Were No Victories.” That piece more than anything was the jumping-off point for The Rest Is Noise.
Jon Pareles occasionally let me write about indie rock and even a bit of jazz. I never got to review Cecil Taylor at that stage. Cecil was probably slightly too big a name to risk unleashing me on him. But I did cover Charles Gayle, Arthur Doyle, the AMM collective—that’s not jazz or classical, but it’s sui generis—and other figures from the downtown scene of the early 90s. A bit of Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell—I wrote up a beautiful Roscoe Mitchell show at one point. I could describe what was going on from moment to moment in musical terms, but when it came to the context of where this music was coming from, I was on much thinner ice.
EI: How did you get over to The New Yorker?
AR: I hadn’t been at the Times long when The New Yorker noticed my work and invited me to write something. My first piece was on Wayne Koestenbaum’s book The Queen’s Throat, about opera-queen culture. It was kind of a big deal for me because I’d come out as gay after college, rather late, but I was immediately seized with some of the activist sensibility in the early 90s. I went to Queer Nation meetings, read Larry Kramer and David Wojnarowicz and so on. When I started writing professionally, I had this urge to express my sexuality in some way. I always had the ACT UP postcard above my desk: Silence Equals Death. It was a very dark time, and I had gone through some very dark periods myself. And so I identified myself as gay in the Queen’s Throat piece. Not that it was any extraordinary moment in the history of The New Yorker or music criticism or anything else, but it caused a tiny stir, and my mother was upset. The piece now seems nuts to me, but I remember how powerful it felt to write those words.
My next piece was to have been about New Zealand indie rock, which I loved at the time and still love, but it never really got off the ground, mainly because The New Yorker wasn’t about to pay me to go to New Zealand. Then Kurt Cobain died, and I was somehow assigned to write his New Yorker obituary, which led to a momentary scandal among younger people at The New Yorker, because on the weekly schedule of upcoming pieces they saw “Ross: Kurt Cobain,” and they thought that it was Lillian Ross. Everyone was upset about the idea of Lillian Ross writing about Kurt Cobain. It turned out that it was this other Ross, no relation. I’m sure Lillian Ross would have been more interesting. It went on from there: every year, maybe twice a year, I’d write for The New Yorker. I wrote a piece about true crime literature, one about Thomas Mann, one about Mahler. That led to my being appointed music critic in 1996.
EI: If you had a choice, do you prefer a dictionary or a thesaurus?
AR: Well, I have my mom’s old Third Unabridged Webster’s Dictionary, which is both. On a day-to-day basis, I use the thesaurus more, because I have this horror of repeating words, especially the ones that I always seem to fall back on. Eerie, uncanny, spooky, unearthly, etc.
EI: Have you ever tried to write a novel?
AR: Once, in the very early 90s, I tried to write something—some very embarrassing coming-out story. It never got very far. It was the same issue with the composing: I couldn’t really think of what happened next. IAs a writer, I need to feed off of some body of material that’s already there.
EI: Do you have a schedule that you write a certain amount a day, or at a certain time of day?
AR: No, it’s extremely irregular. What often happens is that most of the day has gone by and I haven’t accomplished anything and I begin to feel a panic that an entire day will have been wasted, and so I pressure myself into accomplishing something in the late afternoon. Sometimes if I am deep into a project I can wake up and start working on it immediately, but usually there’s this long period of procrastination or of doing apparent work that’s actually an evasion of the main work. So it’s very scattered and undisciplined.
EI: You told me once that the fun part of the project was doing the research.
AR: Yeah, that’s always been the biggest pleasure. I mean, I certainly enjoy writing as an activity, but it doesn’t necessarily feel as though I’m enjoying myself. Presumably, I must enjoy it on some level, or I wouldn’t spend so much time on it. But it tends to be limited to these brief, fleeting bursts of satisfaction when something is beginning to come together on the page and I become momentarily elated. But I really do love every aspect of the research. With my two big books, and with the longer articles that I’ve done for The New Yorker over the years, I allow myself these long stretches of devouring every book I can find and chasing down elusive publications and roaming the library. This goes back to college, when I would spend endless hours in the bowels of Widener Library, pulling books off the shelves and going down digressive paths, which sometimes lead to actual discoveries. It’s a very particular kind of excited feeling, maybe some sort of primal hunter-gatherer instinct, except in fluorescent lighting.
EI: A notable stylistic choice of yours in the two big books is how you cite your sources constantly during the page: “As so-and-so points out…” I’m sure your colleagues love it, because usually they are just buried in the endnotes, right?
AR: Yeah, I think popular nonfiction writers are notorious among scholars for being rather skimpy in their acknowledgments. Often the reason for this is the urge to maintain a more elegant writerly surface. If you are constantly stopping and saying, “As the historian Kira Thurman has observed…”, an editor will often say, “Can we get rid of this?” But, for me, it feels, nonetheless, absolutely necessary, because I owe so much to these scholars. Large sections of Wagnerism, especially, wouldn’t even exist without them. I would have no entrée, really, to the world of Russian Wagnerism without Rosamund Bartlett’s Wagner and Russia, because I don’t read Russian. I like to make those acknowledgments, and some scholars have told me they do appreciate it because they otherwise do feel neglected or altogether ignored.
EI: Well, no one really understands how lonely this profession is until you do it.
AR: Yes, and of course I like being cited myself. It’s great to feel seen in that sense, if you’ve burrowed into a topic for a good part of your life and the end result is a book that has much more limited circulation than the kind of work that a New Yorker writer does. I hope I don’t somehow sound seigneurial when I say this, as if I’m acknowledging the “little people.” I mean, these are the big people. These are the giants of whatever field I’m working in.
EI: In my own little experiences of working with an editor, it’s always the citations that get cut first.
AR: It’s an ongoing issue. But I’m lucky not to face that kind of pressure at The New Yorker, where I’ve been working with the brilliant Daniel Zalewski for seventeen years now. A survey of recent scholarship on Beethoven or Debussy or whomever has become the template of the kind of piece that I do. Other New Yorker writers do the same—Rebecca Mead talking about the state of George Eliot scholarship, for example.
EI: There are a few places in Wagnerism where you don’t cite others because you actually seem to be contributing original research. At one point you discuss how the name of Willa Cather’s music teacher was cited in the Wagner literature. Are you the first person to write that?
AR: Yes! There are a handful of not quite earth-shaking discoveries that are in this book, which I’m quite proud of—actual additions to the sum of human knowledge. My usual work doesn’t add to the sum of human knowledge. I’m summarizing what’s already there and putting my own spin on things. Professor Schindelmeisser, Cather’s piano teacher, was mentioned in the Cather biographies, but no one had identified who he was or where he came from. I recognized the name Schindelmeisser from the Wagner literature: Louis Schindelmeisser was a composer, conductor, and clarinetist based in Darmstadt, a close ally of Wagner’s. After a fair amount of digging, it became clear that Professor Schindelmeisser was the son of Louis Schindelmeisser, and I was able to reconstruct his story, mostly thanks to the gigantic availability of newspapers, classified ads, shipping manifests, the census, and all these other sources on the internet. I did get final confirmation by reaching out to archivists in Darmstadt. I want to write it all up as a scholarly paper. It’s actually a rather touching, slightly tragic story of this man who comes to America and is quite talented and wins a relatively distinguished appointment at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and then gradually spirals downward and disappears. Alcoholism is obviously an issue with him. He couldn’t hold a job for very long in any one place and kept showing up all over—Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri. But he did come to Nebraska, and for a little while, maybe just a few months, he was Cather’s piano teacher. And that is how he became immortalized as Professor Wunsch in Cather’s The Song of the Lark.
EI: That’s amazing research. Congratulations!
AR: Thanks! It was a moment, yeah. I unveiled my discovery at a Cather lecture in Lincoln, Nebraska, and there was actually a little gasp in the room and I think a bit of applause. So that felt really good.
EI: Another moment of original thought in Wagnerism seems to occur in the section on Joyce. You’re talking about The Flying Dutchman and you say, well you can even go further. Again I felt this frisson of, “Alex is getting to spread his wings and say his own spiel.” Is that true?
AR: Well, yes, Joyce is my old stomping ground from when I was in college. I don’t know if there’s any great discovery there. A couple of Joyce scholars I spoke to were a bit doubtful about some of my inferences about vampires and Flying Dutchmen. But this is the fun of writing about Joyce. So much is speculation, and he is the kind of figure where a seemingly implausible idea can turn out to have solid grounding, because Joyce had such an incredible magpie mind and an urge to find connections in the mass of material that he was assembling. A paranoid style of interpretation can work out very well, because that’s the sort of writer that he was. But I do believe the Flying Dutchman has a real presence in the third chapter of Ulysses, especially. Another scholar, Timothy Martin, had made the important observation that Joyce had been reading Wagner’s essays and must have come across a passage in which Wagner brings together the figures of the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, and Ulysses. There are check marks in the margins of Joyce’s copy of that essay. And that’s the idea of the novel Ulysses in a nutshell.
EI: Another particularly Alex Ross-related event occurs in the discussion around Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, where the article that the fictional protagonist is writing about would end up the actual author’s latest comment on Wagner. Was that already known?
AR: Yeah, that was completely known. Gustav von Aschenbach, the sexually stifled protagonist of Death in Venice, is in many ways a fictionalized version of Mann himself. Halfway through the novella, he is sitting on the beach writing a short essay on an unnamed cultural topic. He is looking at the boy Tadzio and trying to fashion the form of the essay after the beauty of the boy, and it turns into this ironic exercise in which Mann or the narrator explains that it’s better not to disclose the creative source of such an elegant essay because the public might be disgusted—while, of course, the novella is itself disclosing the source, not only of the activity of the fictional character, but also of Mann himself, because Mann wrote exactly such a piece and published it. He wrote an essay on the beach in Venice in 1911, looking at this Polish boy, and it was about Wagner. It’s this labyrinth of irony and self-concealment slash self-disclosure and all of these other threads that go into any Thomas Mann creation. Wagner was so important for Mann that he can be found lurking and looming in his work even when the man himself is never named.
EI: I know you’re a Benjamin Britten fan. I was privileged to see a couple of performances of Death in Venice with Mark Padmore in the main role. Do you like that opera?
AR: I didn’t initially love it nearly as much as Peter Grimes, which was my entrée to Britten. It’s grown on me. Because I have this fanatical relationship with Mann’s work, my initial reaction was that the opera grated against my idea of the story. The story is deeply ironic; Mann is mocking himself in the form of Aschenbach. There is almost no irony or humor in Britten’s version. So you need to set that aside. But, on its own terms, it is extremely powerful; there’s this brittle quality to the music, a hollowed out quality, which is typical of Britten’s late style. Long stretches of it can be hard going, because it’s quite austere and gray. But then there are these moments of lyrical effusion, which are painfully brief, but all the more potent for that. So, yes, it’s a powerful, haunting piece. I’ve only seen it once live.
EI: I know what you mean about there not being much irony overall, but I was struck by Britten’s sarcastic piano music. There’s unaccompanied piano music in Death in Venice that seems to be a dig at twelve-tone theory and Schoenberg.
AR: Yes, right. When Aschenbach’s creativity seems to have dried up and become stale, twelve-tone music is the symbol of his crisis. But then tonality doesn’t do much better. When Aschenbach squawks out, “I love you” to Tadzio, it lands on an E-major triad, but it’s a rather strangulated sound—hardly an escape from twelve-tone academicism into a lush, free world of tonality. There’s never a safe ground in Britten.
EI: One thing that surprised me a bit about Wagnerism was how it is really about everything but later composers influenced by Wagner.
AR: That was an executive decision that I made at the very beginning. I already felt that this was a project likely to spiral out of control and consume far more time than I anticipated. If I were to have added Wagner’s musical influence, there would have been no end to it. And the musical influence simply wasn’t as interesting as the extraordinary effect on writers, artists, non-musical figures. Nothing like it had happened before.
EI: I couldn’t believe how so much — indeed, almost everything in the twentieth century — relates to Wagner.
AR: Well, he simply saturated the cultural field at the end of the nineteenth century. He was totally unavoidable, to an extent that’s hard now to grasp, given how Wagner’s profile has shrunk over time. As famous as he remains, it’s almost impossible to envision him as this god, this angel of progress, this pathfinder and pioneer that he was for so many people. There’s an argument that can be made that he was the central figure in turn-of-the-century culture. There’s nothing nearly as striking about his musical influence.
EI: To be clear, I wasn’t criticizing…
AR: Yes, but a number of people have brought it up—what about music? I just don’t see how I could have done it. There’s a specific narrative structure to how this influence played out in the arts and literature. It moved like a wave and crested. With music, it was much more diffuse.
EI: Well, those that want to learn more of what the composers took from Wagner can read The Rest Is Noise.
AR: Exactly. I didn’t want to repeat the whole story of Debussy and Wagner, Strauss and Wagner, Schoenberg and Wagner. I honestly don’t quite understand the criticism. It’s a bit like reading a book about the British novel and then asking, “Why didn’t you talk more about the French novel?”
EI: Do you have a start date on the book? Do you remember when you wrote the first paragraph of Wagnerism?
AR: Yes, I started the prelude, the scene of Wagner’s death, in August 2010. I didn’t really get going with the writing until 2011 or 2012, after a long period of reading, listening, studying. I went through all the works with the scores. I went through Wagner’s writings, the main secondary literature on Wagner. I wanted to have this good, fresh grounding, so that as I proceeded through the maze of Wagnerian influence the works would be fresh in my mind and I would be able to recognize references as they came up. Obviously I had a pretty good knowledge of Wagner already, but it was important to bring it all back to the front of my mind.
EI: One of your pieces, I remember, you listened to every Mozart piece, right?
AR: When I write these composer essays, I often end up listening to the whole shebang in chronological order. This goes back to WHRB. One longstanding feature of WHRB programming is the Orgy periods, in winter and spring. There’s always a massive, multi-day, chronological presentation of a major composer. So I keep replicating that ritual. I did it most recently with Poulenc. Although it was only a shorter column, I listened to the complete Poulenc over the summer, which was a joy. Especially in the middle of pandemic apocalypse, escaping into the exquisite world of Poulenc was a great pleasure.
EI: This is probably a dumb question, but are you going to keep listening to Wagner now…or are you done?
AR: No, no, I’ll keep listening to Wagner. Definitely less than before, because while I was working on the book I had this compulsion to check out every new release, every archival recording, every video. But in no way am I sick of him. He remains so alive, so interesting, so unresolved. I especially look forward to seeing new productions when opera houses get up and running again, because that always leads to new insights, whether the production works or not. Actually, the one operatic staging I’ve been able to see since March was of Götterdämmerung in Detroit—Yuval Sharon’s brilliant parking-garage production of Götterdämmerung.
To go back to my little discoveries, I have to mention the contralto Luranah Aldridge. She was the daughter of the great Black actor Ira Aldridge, and the fact that she had a connection to Bayreuth Festival and may or may not have sung in the Ring in 1896 had been noticed in the literature here and there, but only in passing. Eileen Southern commented on it, a few others. I was able to reconstruct much more of her story. At Northwestern, in the papers of Amanda Aldridge, Luranah’s sister, I found a letter from Cosima Wagner to Luranah from 1897 which no one had ever seen, apparently. It was mislabeled in the archive. It confirmed a very surprising comment that was made by Ira Aldridge’s original biographers, to the effect that there had been some kind of close relationship between Luranah and the Wagner family. Which is just astonishing, that a singer of mixed race was welcomed into the Wagner circle, was even living at the Wagner villa of Wahnfried, while preparing to sing the role of one of the Valkyries. But she fell sick and was not able to perform, and her career dwindled after that because she had major medical difficulties.
It becomes an important piece of what I and a couple of other scholars have called “Black Wagnerism” or “Afro-Wagnerism.” This sounds like the most absurdly specialized cultural field in existence, but it was not insubstantial, because W.E.B. Du Bois was at the center of it, and Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Shirley Graham, a number of others had relationships with Wagner. Reconstructing this sense in which Wagner had some importance to Black artists and intellectuals—it was a very enriching piece to add to the puzzle of Wagnerism.
EI: I remember the first time I saw your phrase, “Black Wagner,” I thought to myself, “No fuckin’ way.” But then when I read the book, it was real.
AR: I know! But for Black people of that period, it wouldn’t necessarily have felt strange or problematic to have a relationship with Wagner, because Wagner didn’t yet have the monolithic reputation of being the racist artist. His anti-Semitism was very well known, but people tended not to generalize outward from that, and unfortunately anti-Semitism was much more widespread in the period, so it was less noticeable. Du Bois simply didn’t see an issue with Wagner in terms of anti-Black racism. There wasn’t evidence of Wagner being racist in that particular way and I don’t think he actually was. He had some bigoted ideas about Black people, which appear here and there in the diaries and other literature, but you can also find sympathetic remarks. Very different from his attitude towards Jews, which was monomaniacal and malignant.
EI: In one of the last pages in your beautiful epilogue you quote Nietzsche again about saying how one should always use the word perhaps with Wagner.
AR: Yes, very much so. I mean, to begin with, when we were talking about art—works of art that have endured and found audiences across time—there’s always going to be a perhaps-ness, because the work will have escaped whatever intentions the creator attached to it and whatever understandings were imposed on it by people of the period. It will have evolved and changed shape over time. That’s just a given. But especially with Wagner, I think, in two ways. First, because the man himself was so contradictory and inconsistent and strangely elusive and mutable, despite this general perception that we have of him as this overbearing, domineering, scowling figure—the Meister of Bayreuth. And then, in terms of the subsequent history of Wagnerism, in part because of Wagner’s own contradictoriness, but also because of the complexity of the cultural situation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with so many different cultural movements grasping toward Wagner in order to feed their own agendas and purposes, he is yanked in so many different directions and assumes so many different forms. And so the multiplicity is compounded. I really wanted to restore that full sense of multiplicity and complexity with Wagner because people do have such limited ideas of what he was about now. That’s not to suggest that the association which everyone immediately makes—Wagner with anti-Semitism and extreme nationalist German ideology leading toward Nazism—is false. It’s not false. It did not happen to Wagner by accident. Wagner fed it very strongly.
Somehow we need to be able to hold all this together in our minds, with all of its contradictions, in order to appreciate the totality of what went on with Wagner. It’s such a rich story of how art acts in the world and enters into people’s lives in unexpected ways, including my own. So I end with my own little story with Wagner, which I thought of as a kind of arcane joke. Usually with books of this kind you start with, “Here’s why Wagner is important to me.” This tone of: “Let me soften this intimidating subject matter by personalizing it, by showing how it’s relevant to a person of today.” Just to be contrarian, I put that relatability song-and-dance at the end instead of at the beginning. But I liked the effect of suddenly becoming personal. I wanted to let people experience Wagner through all these other lives before arriving at my own.
EI: I thought it was a brilliant touch. The opening chapter concerning Wagner’s death is powerful, then the epilogue is very strong as well.
AR: Oh, thanks. At the beginning, I self-consciously adopted a rather grand, magniloquent, perhaps outmoded tone of voice. I wanted to disappear a bit into this culture in which Wagner’s passing resonates across the globe and arouses these passionate lamentations. It’s very much the stance of the period, this worship of art. I wanted to reenact that cult of mourning as a slightly ironic exercise—a very Thomas Mann exercise.
EI: I have to say, Alex, if you showed me that first chapter without your name attached, like as a blindfold test, I don’t know if I would automatically know it was you. Not that it’s not great; it is great. But then the epilogue is only you; unmistakably Alex Ross. The journey of the book is correct, from the universal to the personal.
AR: Yes, that was the idea. With a project of this scope, you’re always adjusting your style, to some extent, in relation to whatever aspect of the material you’re working through. Your style almost becomes periodized as you move through time.
EI: I’m noticing in the earliest chapters of the book you just talk about the 60s, 70s, and the 80s—and it’s the 1860s, the 1870s, and the 1880s.
AR: And the 90s—the fin de siècle! I fell in love with this period when I was in high school and I read Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. I also remember reading an article by George Steiner in The New Yorker about Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I was fascinated by this idea of a city that was shrouded and clothed in art, where everyone in the streets is talking about Mahler, where Mahler himself is in his coach going to the opera and—I quote this in The Rest Is Noise—people are whispering, “Der Mahler.” For an arty kid, it was this fantasy of a city all about art and music. And then, of course, you discover the dark side to it, the negative consequences of the worship of art and out-of-control aestheticism. Hitler was a teenage aesthete before he was a genocidal dictator, and it was not an entirely jarring transition from one to another.
EI: Towards the end of the book, there is trenchant commentary about American popular culture, another familiar Alex Ross motif. You suggest that Nazis were also imitating American consumer culture, a point I hadn’t considered before. I thought that was interesting. We currently live in the era of the gigantic corporate Marvel franchise and so forth. Do we not have any responsibility?
AR: Definitely. So many of the problems attendant upon Wagner and German culture are replicated in American culture in ways that we often resist taking a hard look at. Because since 1945 or before, America has had this hegemonic status on the world stage and American culture has been used to advance American interests in ways that have yet to be fully examined. Culture as a political weapon, an economic weapon. But there’s a strong impulse to cling to the idea of innocence in American popular culture.
America—people have said this in so many ways—is in need of the kind of self-examination that has become widespread in Germany. For all of its problems, the culture of working through the past is very strong in Germany. Susan Neiman recently wrote a brilliant book, Learning from the Germans, drawing a line between the German examination of the Nazi past and the Holocaust and America’s, to put it mildly, very incomplete reckoning with racism, slavery, the Native American genocide, and everything else. As I say in the book, Germany becomes a sort of alibi for us—no matter how bad things are here, we’re not that bad. We’re not as bad as the Germans. That undertow exists whenever German history and German culture are discussed in America. Consider the incredible profusion of books on the Nazi period that you see in bookstores—there’s always an element of wanting to go back this period when America seemed to be purely on the side of good and the Germans were absolute evil. It makes us feel better about ourselves. And so we have these Nazi characters in movies over and over—good down-to-earth Americans out there battling evil Germans who are playing Wagner on their Victrolas, which is literally something that happens in one of the Captain America movies. It’s a comforting myth, one that needs to be shaken up a bit.
EI: I’m sure it was in an Alex Ross piece that I first read the idea that the villains in movies always listen to classical music.
AR: I wasn’t the first to notice it, but it is definitely a thing. Hannibal Lecter listening to the Goldberg Variations, waving his blood-dripping fingers in time to the music. You start to see this happening at a specific moment in time, in the middle of the twentieth century. The idea of Hitler as a Wagner devotee palpably changed the profile of classical music in popular culture, because you find very different, much less problematic images of musicians and composers in earlier Hollywood films. Although the idea of the snooty, elite, heartless person listening to opera was already an established trope because of opera’s association with high society in the Gilded Age. But this element of evil, active evil, being connected with classical music, it does really come to the fore. And Wagner is definitely one of these instances. I talk about this Jules Dassin movie Brute Force,in which Hume Cronyn plays this sadistic prison warden who listens to the Tannhäuser overture as he beats convicts in his office. That’s 1947, and it’s happening for a very specific cultural reason. There’s an amusing aspect to it, to be sure. It’s quite fun to revisit all these scenes in movies, but at the same time it is a problem in terms of the reception and the image of classical music in our culture.
EI: Well, I don’t need to tell you, Alex, that once you’re out here, you realize how little cultural capital the great classical music and the great jazz music holds. All of us trying to celebrate those more esoteric values — especially in America — must feel like we’re almost helplessly trying not to be overrun by the other stuff that has so much more sway.
AR: Absolutely. If there’s one thing I’ve been trying to do my whole career, it is to push back, as much as I can in my own way, against what feels like this, you know, trash compactor closing in on the people in Star Wars, gradually closing in, the walls getting closer and closer…
EI: A reference to Star Wars is not an accident, I’m sure.
AR: Yeah! [Laughter.] Just this steamrolling indifference. We talk about this hostility based on the perception of classical music as elitist or villainous, but above all it’s indifference. So that’s what I’ve been fighting against as much as I can. And maybe it’s a hopeless fight.
EI: I think both these books are masterpieces. I reread The Rest Is Noise and loved it even more this time, perhaps because I have so much more experience writing about music myself. I know how how hard it is to communicate these esoteric aesthetics to a general reader.
AR: Oh, that’s very sweet to hear. That’s really what I hope to do. I may have my ideas and my little discoveries, but above all I want these books to be thresholds of discovery. I’m not a titanic thinker who’s going change the whole mode of interpretation on a particular subject. My gift is to be able to traverse this wide terrain and to translate some perhaps complex ideas into more accessible language. I mean, I don’t want to sell myself short. I do hope that Wagnerism, in particular, turns out to be more than that. I had high ambitions for it, and it’s probably going to turn out to be my main work of my career. But the most positive, constructive role I can play is simply to inflame people’s curiosity. Someone tells me, “I’ve never heard of Olivier Messiaen and I read your book and started listening to him and fell in love with the music.” That’s the ultimate good that I’m going to do in the world in the end.
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise.
DTM bonus track: Wagnerian Piano.