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Get To Know A Critic: Alex Ross

"I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty. In retrospect, this seems bizarre; perhaps 'freakish' is not too strong a word."

That's Alex Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker magazine, in an essay taken from his new book Listen to This, a collection of essays first published in the magazine.

Ross began writing for The New Yorker in 1996, and in 2007 published his first book, the excellent The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which looks at how modern musical styles developed in the context of world events (you can hear him read from the book here). Noise was named one of the best books of the year by dozens of publications and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Listen to This further maps the boundaries of Ross's personal taste, which today is more catholic, and also contains a number of essays on the way a particular musical theme or idea — what he calls "musical DNA" — can translate across genres. (Click here for a video Ross made that riffs on the book's second essay, in which jazz pianist Ethan Iverson, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle and guitarist Tyondai Braxton demonstrate how the "Lamento" theme can be heard in folk, blues, classical and pop music.)

As a critic, Ross has already written at length about how he came into his own taste. But we wanted to know, in his own words, what his job entails in terms of a personal philosophy as well as day-to-day routine. So we sent him a list of questions.

Alex Ross has been the music critic of <em>The New Yorker</em> since 1996.
Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996.

1. What's your preferred way of listening to a record? (Headphones, speakers, CD, vinyl, alone, with other people?) How do you actually listen most of the time?

I do most of my listening alone in my study, on a trusty pair of Spica speakers, which I bought back in 1990. They don't have much bass, which is a plus — in classical music beefed-up bass sounds fake, as if the double basses were on steroids. I tend to listen on CDs, although I have a fair amount of music stored up on my computer and assemble playlists keyed to current projects.

When I was writing about John Cage, I lined up all of his music chronologically — all that I had on record, at least — and listened through several times. I did the same with Mozart a few years back. That took a while, since the man wrote seven days of music. I use Bose noise-canceling headphones when I travel. My doctor advised me to stop using in-ear headphones while jogging, to preserve my hearing.

2. Do you have a routine for listening to music that you write about? How many times do you need to listen to an album?

I browse through new releases constantly, waiting for some kind of "catch" that makes me keep listening instead of moving on to the next one. I play new discs in the background while I'm writing; a good sign of a great record is that it breaks my concentration. I may listen dozens of times to a piece that I'm struggling to grasp or want to understand more deeply. With a brand-new work, I don't feel I've really heard it until I've heard it live: it's a more acute form of listening, and being part of an audience changes my perspective. I actually don't review recordings very often — live performance is my main beat.

3. Do you feel a responsibility to listen to music you don't like? How quickly do you dismiss things you don't like?

Absolutely. I have a list of well-regarded composers and performers that I've never really "got"; I regularly return to them, to check whether something has changed and I can see the light. I respect Anton Bruckner and The Rolling Stones — to make a weird duo — but I can't say that I love either of them. I try not to dismiss things too quickly, but the "blech" reaction is hard to ignore once it kicks in.

4. What are the perks of your job? Can you accept free concert tickets/gifts/box sets/swag/lunch? What do you do with CDs you get sent in the mail that you don't want?

I rely on press tickets to cover the classical scene; otherwise I'd have to shell out thousands of dollars a year. Although I buy a fair number of CDs and downloads, I depend on promotional copies to keep up with new recordings. I give away unwanted CDs at the office. I'm not aware that classical music has any swag! The corporate machine doesn't care about our world — it's small potatoes.

5. How many pieces do you write each week? How many words per piece?

Each year I write 14 or 15 columns (around 1500 words each) and two or three longer pieces, which may be up to 8000 or even 10,000 words long and require months of work. I also write quite a bit on my blog, www.therestisnoise.com.

6. Are you allowed to write for other publications?

No, with extremely rare exceptions. And I'm not complaining — The New Yorker gives me a good salary and is a very pleasant place of confinement.

7. Do you remember the first piece of music you wrote about?

Robert Simpson's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, for my college radio station program guide.

8. Was there a person who pushed you, directly or indirectly, to become a music critic?

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, published my first major piece of music journalism and strongly encouraged me to become a critic. I was dubious of the whole enterprise, because I thought I was destined for an academic career. I don't think I would have become a critic without his intervention; even when I had a job offer from The New York Times, I had to be talked into it.

9. Have you ever changed your mind about a piece of music you wrote about?

Many times. My first piece of published criticism, in 1992, was a takedown of John Corigliano's opera The Ghosts of Versailles; I now think it's a vibrant and inventive work. When I was in my twenties, I thought Alfred Schnittke was the greatest living composer; I still think highly of him, but at the time I overrated him. It's healthy for musical tastes to evolve rather than to stay fixed.

10. Are there days when you just don't want to listen to music? What do you do when that happens?

There are stretches during the classical season — October and November, February and March, sometimes July and early August — when I'm attending a concert almost every night. It gets to be a bit much, and I enjoy the fallow months when I go out much less often. Yes, there are times when I don't feel like listening to music, but I never know when I'll make an unexpected discovery, so I often push myself to venture out even when I'd rather stay home and watch True Blood.

11. Which parts of your job feel like work? Which parts are fun?

Researching a book or a long article is pure joy for me — my favorite part of the entire process. When I'm writing, I oscillate in stereotypical fashion between pleasure and agony, pride and self-disgust. I can't say that any part of the job is all that difficult; it ain't exactly working in a coal mine. I feel supremely lucky to be making a living in this steadily shrinking field.

12. All different types of music can be good, but is there a quality that good music shares? I guess this is a way of asking if you have an operating philosophy for determining what you like?

That's an incredibly difficult question. When I think of the music that I love the most — to make a quick and off-the-cuff list, Bach's Mass in B Minor, Schubert's String Quintet, Brahms's Intermezzos Opus 117, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, Bob Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Nina Simone singing "Strange Fruit," Radiohead's Kid A, Bjork's Vespertine, John Adams's Nixon in China — I don't have the slightest idea what they may have in common. Some mixture of earthy impulses and intellectual complexity seems important, but I can't quantify it. My definition of great music is music that makes me stop thinking about any other kind.

13. Your new book is called Listen to This. Are you a critic because you feel a desire to evangelize about music? How much influence do you feel like you have?

I don't have as much influence as the critics of The New York Times, but when I train my little spotlight on younger, lesser-known artists I can certainly help to win them attention. Yes, there's an element of evangelism in my work, although I try not to thump the Bible too loudly. Isn't every critic an evangelist at heart?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacob Ganz