"It's a Very Strange Job": Talking With Alex Ross About Music Criticism

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 (David Michalek)

A few years ago, Stephen Rubin came to a realization: most classical music criticism was, as he puts it, “rotten.”

“I felt that there were only a handful of critics that were any good,” he says.

Rather than let music criticism dwindle further, Rubin—the president of Henry Holt & Co. who contributed regular features to the New York Times for over a decade—decided to do something about it. Thus, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism met for the first time in 2012 at Oberlin College, bringing together well-known critics (“some of the best minds in America,” Rubin says) and student fellows for a series of concerts, public lectures, discussion panels and awards designed to foster a new generation of classical-music journalists.

This week, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosts a return of the program. With four concerts, a keynote address by the New York Times' Anthony Tommasini and a $10,000 fellowship prize, the five-day series also features a pre-concert lecture at the San Francisco Symphony on Nov. 6 by Alex Ross.

On a recent afternoon, I talked to Ross—who has covered classical music for the New Yorker since 1996, and whose 2007 bestseller The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century is indispensable—about the role of the critic in the arts, the uncertain future of his trade, and the continual self-examination he undergoes each time he writes.



You participated in the Rubin Institute at Oberlin in 2012. What was your impetus for joining? What particular needs do you see in the world of music criticism that might be fulfilled by this?

I always have a funny feeling about criticism, and the business of talking about criticism. I generally don't spend a lot of time discussing what I do and how I do it, because I start to feel self-conscious about it. When I begin to think, philosophically, about what is a critic, and how did this business come about, and where does it stand now, and how do I do it, and what is my process of executing it—it's a very strange job, and it all starts to seems a little absurd, to be honest. And it can be quite difficult to spell out. Why do we have critics, and what are they for? And what is their future?

But nonetheless, I think it is important to try to articulate clearly what it is we do, and to try to develop a rationale for it. And then try to pass on to the next generation whatever we have learned, because each of us learned a great deal from older colleagues when we were starting out.

Now obviously, fellow music critics will be drawn to this week of events, but others might see it as mere inside baseball. What can the general public get out of attending these lectures and public panel discussions?

Well, I think there is something to be learned by listening to critics talk about what they do. I think there are certainly some widespread misapprehensions about what criticism is for. Something that I find very common is the assumption that critics are principally there to deliver a judgment on a performance; ranking the performance, rating the performance. And then, of course, the next question is, why is this needed any longer when anyone can go online, and rate an event, and put stars on it and deliver their opinion? And my answer is that this judgment, this ranking, this rating is part of what critics do. It's an essential segment of any review. I don't necessarily feel that it's the most essential part of the process, and for me, actually, it's the least interesting. What did I, in the end, think about the performance, how did I rank it? Yes, that needs to be in there somewhere every time I write, but ultimately, I don't think anyone cares what I, myself, this single person, thought of the event.

AlexRoss.TheRestWhat matters, in the review, is it is a work of reporting, it is a work of journalism. Something happened, in the form of a musical event, and the critic is a reporter observing this event, and trying to capture it in prose. It's a very eccentric and subjective type of reporting, but it is reporting nonetheless. Yes, opinion plays a role, but there is much else to be done that is more neutral and objective in tone. I think critics give a context; it's probably the most important thing that we do. There is this single event that occurred, and a bunch of people came away with varying opinions about it. The critic steps in and places it in context, in history, in relationship to other performances of this same repertory happening at the present time. If it's a new piece, then explaining where this piece came from and how it fits into the landscape of contemporary music, what it may have added, or not.

And probably the trickiest thing is, in a sense, you are reporting on how you, yourself, felt. And this is where I start to think, “I'm sounding absurd,” but nonetheless there is a curious kind of labor in sifting through your own impressions, letting them settle—hopefully you have a little bit of time to process these impressions, get past the initial snap judgments, and something a little wiser, a little more mature might emerge. If you can just wait, even a few hours, and go back, revise, and work over your work again. This business of trying to capture the essence of what you felt, how you reacted—it's a very tricky thing. We tend to go to extremes—you know, "that was great," "that was terrible"—but very often the truth lies somewhere in between. I know that readers love the cut-throat, devastating review, and they love the over-the-top enthusiastic review. The ones in the middle are a harder sell, but that can be where some of the most important thinking takes place.

And the landscape, now, is complicated, too. Your 2012 address was titled “The Prospects of Music Writing in a Post-Critical Age.” Can you briefly describe this idea of a “post-critical age”?

At the beginning of that talk, especially, I was sounding a fairly pessimistic line about the place of critics in the present world. Just observing how many critics had lost their jobs in the last few years. Not just classical music critics, but book critics, pop music critics, film critics. All across the board, newspapers and magazines are cutting back this business of criticism. I'm absolutely the only extant full-time classical music critic at a national American magazine. Absolutely the only one. Time, Newsweek, all these magazines cut their classical critics long ago. Justin Davidson, my excellent colleague at New York magazine, divides his time between music and architecture. So it's a rather lonely position, and it makes me feel a bit pessimistic, and frankly I haven't seen any reason to grow more optimistic. The trend continues downward.

But it's not just about criticism, of course. It's about journalism, it's about the very shaky conditions of so many publications, and somehow, cutting the critic of whatever art form seems to be an easy cost-cutting move as newspapers and magazines continue to pare back their staff. So it's a depressing situation, and I don't see any healthy compensating growth of professional arts writing on the internet. There are hundreds of really excellent blogs out there; very few people, however, are making money, or are being paid for what they do. And the important thing about being paid to do this kind of thing is it gives you the time, first of all, to do the work; to devote yourself to it full-time instead of squeezing it in after hours. And second, money gives you independence. It means the publication is covering your expenses, and that gives you the independence to be harsh, when necessary, and to be detached from this whole business of music around you—and it is a big business, and we need cool, neutral, sharp-eyed reporting on it.

There's an aspect at this institute of mentoring upcoming critics. Who were some of your mentors starting out, and what important lessons did you learn from them?

Certainly Tim Page, who's very much involved with this institute. When I was a baffled young freelance critic at the New York Times, I would call up Tim and he gave me so much wonderful advice. John Rockwell, who's also involved, was mostly based in Europe when I was at the Times, so I didn't see him very much, but I had one very crucial encounter with him in 1995 where he told me, “You need to go off to Europe and spend a whole summer wandering around and soaking up as much music as you can. You're young, you can sleep on friends' couches and in fleabag hotels, and you won't mind. When you're older, you will mind, so just take the opportunity and see as much as you can.” I took that advice, and I had this amazing summer, three months wandering around, reporting on festivals and concerts for the Times. And some of that work really got the New Yorker's attention, and I was hired by them the following year. So John Rockwell was very important, as well as my colleagues at the Times who were very kind to a quite inexperienced critic.

That sort of relationship is what this institute is supposed to foster. To give particularly talented young critics that push, and give them some money so that they can go off and undertake that same sort of expedition of soaking up knowledge and experience.

AlexRoss.ListenI mean, it's such a strange job, and so few people make a living at it. Not very many people were making a living at it back in 1992, when I started, and now, of course, there are even fewer of us. You do end up just teaching yourself and learning the hard way by making mistakes and blundering. There is no smooth professional training path available to the classical music critic. And yes, we have to be brutally honest about it: there are very few jobs, just a handful of jobs, and it's very hard to conceive of how that's going to change for the better in the near future. But we're not just passing along ideas about being a professional music critic. We're also speaking to people who are going to be involved in music in one form or another—either as performers, or perhaps as administrators behind the scenes—and they're going to be talking about music, writing about music, writing blog posts, giving pre-concert lectures, giving interviews, writing material for brochures, and so forth. And to hone the skill of talking about music, writing about music, and passing along some guidelines and suggesting some models—that's very important as well, and can be part of the legacy of this institute. Not just training a new generation of critics, but talking to that broader mass of people in the music world, as well as to listeners, the audience, as to how we carry on this conversation about music. When you're thinking about how to expand the audience for classical music, which is so often overlooked in mainstream culture, carrying on that passionate conversation in a way that more people will want to join can be a really fruitful exercise.

I have to say, most people might find it refreshing to hear that a critic of your stature still goes through that self-questioning process in the work you do, and that you admit it's a little absurd.

I don't want to go too far with this idea of it being absurd. I do think it's necessary and important. I just feel that if I examine my process too much then I'll forget how to do it, and if you become too self-conscious it can be paralyzing, in a sense. So when I sit down to write, I mean, I do feel a pang, first of all, that vague sense of doom hanging over the whole business of arts writing and journalism, generally. I have to push past that every day. And then just feeling inadequate to the experience.

I just had a horrible time recently trying to write about this extraordinary Peter Sellars production of the St. Matthew Passion, which was this singular, extraordinarily inventive and emotionally powerful rendition of a work which is almost beyond the power of words to express anything. So you just feel defeated. And yet when you feel that you've had, as a listener, an overwhelming experience, you want to try to do justice to that on the page—however inadequate the attempt may seem.

What can we expect from your pre-concert lecture at the San Francisco Symphony?

I'm focusing on a particular aspect of this whole complicated question of who critics are and how they do what they do, and their history, which is relationships between critics and composers, especially over the general span of time covered by the concert itself—the late 18th century to the early 20th century, which is really the period when the critic comes to the fore as a fully professional and culturally recognizable figure. The 19th century rise of middle-class culture, the middle-class press, and these leading critics in each city come to the fore at that same time. It's also a time of growing tension and complexity in the relationship between composer and critic, and perhaps also a critic and an audience, arising from a more fundamental tension between composer and audience.

To put that in a less complicated way, over the 19th century, there are two parallel developments: the emergence of an avant-garde in music, especially with Liszt and Wagner, and leading into the end of the 19th century and early 20th century with the birth of modernism—increasingly daring ideas of musical form which lead to considerable tension with the audience. And at the same time, over the course of the 19th century, the emergence of a very set repertory of classical works, works by no-longer-living composers that are being performed over and over again by symphony orchestras and opera houses. These two developments, I think, are very much related. And somewhere in the middle is the critic. You have some critics who really seem to be speaking for the audience, and the audience's distress and unease at this new music, which was increasingly dissimilar to the repertory pieces that were becoming the heart and soul of what ensembles were playing. And then there were also the critics who were advocates for composers, and challenging the public taste. There were also composers themselves writing as critics— Berlioz, Schumann and Wagner were three very important 19th century figures. In the 20th century you have the amazing figure of Virgil Thomson, whose reputation as a critic almost exceeded his already considerable reputation as a composer.


And so I just want to go with that whole territory, and tease out some of the roots of these tensions, and maybe look to the present day and see where things stand. But yes, it's critics and new music, and that very complicated relationship with the audience.