We find out in the first few minutes of this session, knowingly chaired by Fergus Barrowman, that Flying Nun was the first foray for Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, into popular music. This writer, who so wonderfully filters twentieth-century history – wars, technology, social changes – through classical compositions in his widely accessible The Rest is Noise, has just risen in esteem – at least among those members of the audience who are familiar with Flying Nun. You get the feeling that this crowd is more in touch with Sibelius than Chris Knox.
Up until this point in college only dissonance had been admissible to Alex, but ‘the lyrical and melodic’ elements of bands like The Bats and The Clean, with their ‘sweetness and straightforward nature’, encouraged him to discover popular music. Working at a student radio station, he also began listening to punk and jazz – the beginnings, perhaps, of his book Listen to This, which reveals the boundaries between pop, jazz and classical to be porous. Does he wish to remove borders between musical genres altogether? Alex believes that borders exist for a reason; that every music has its centre, but sometimes elements that lay on the outskirts may easily cross over into another.
We might think of classical music as static and unchanging, but it too alters as it moves through time. But then how do you bring, for example, improvisational openness to academic music? Some of the more interesting musicians, the ones to watch in Alex’s opinion, are the ones who easily move between genres – jazz and classical for example – as if they had grown up in both worlds or occupy the middle ground. But improvisation is something classical musicians need to get a handle on, as the newer compositions require more input and invention on the part of the performer.
And what of the condition of classical music in the public sphere? Audiences are often blamed for not attending classical concerts with new programming, but, as Fergus points out, this is essentially inviting them along to listen to new music. Alex concedes it is hard to find the balance between old and new. It was also a balance he was seeking in writing The Rest is Noise, where he tried to appeal both to the obsessive specialist and the lay reader, and where he consciously attempted not to take sides with either the avant-garde, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and atonality on the one hand, and then Sibelius and co on the other. He ‘wanted all these composers to be taken seriously as heroes of the modern’.
Alex uses episodes in The Rest is Noise with great skill to draw attention to wider movements or tendencies. One such event opens the book – the world premiere of Strauss’s Salome. Everyone gathers, expectant, wishing to be part of the sensation. Could this happen again, Fergus asks? No, for as Alex explains, these composers where huge cultural figures of their times – he tells us that The New York Times ran ‘Puccini’s boat stuck in fog’ as a front-page headline.
The issue of classical music’s reach flows through to questions from the audience. How do you attract younger and more diverse audiences to it, when it is perceived as elite? Alex takes issue with the elite angle – as classical is often compared to pop, which is elite in the systems surrounding it: it makes use of massive apparatus (from multinationals to stadiums). Classical audiences are more diverse, but not in terms of income levels. He believes a lot more work needs to be done concerning who gets to play and be played. But, like everything else in the arts, it is not for everyone.
Alex has a reworking of Schoenberg’s quote ‘If it is art, it is not for all and if it is for all, it is not art’. His approach is more pragmatic: ‘If it is art, it’s not for all and if it is for all, it does not exist’.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Alex Ross will appear with STROMA
Sun, 20 May 2018, 4:00pm – 6:15pm
Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall