Category Archives: classical music

Alex Ross's New Book

I really loved The Rest Is Noise by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross, so I’m thrilled to hear FSG will be publishing his next book in September, called Listen to This.

A little surprising, though to see that the book is going from manuscript to print in a little under 9 months:

I have a habit of finishing books in hotels. I sent off The Rest Is Noise from the Omni in downtown Los Angeles; Listen To This, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish at the end of September, was dispatched last week from a Marriott in Park City, Utah. The new book offers a panoramic view of the musical scene, taking in Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Frank Sinatra, Cecil Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Luther Adams, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Bob Dylan, and the Malcolm X Shabazz High School Marching Band. In the Preface, I say that the aim is to “approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world.”

I’m sure Ross is a solid writer, and I know parts of this book have already been published elsewhere, but isn’t this a really short span for editing, proofing, printing, marketing, etc by general publishing standards?

Vast Majority of Composers Don’t Earn a Living off Work

Alex Ross points to the results of a recent survey of American composers. One bit in particular caught my attention:

They have a median total income of $45,000, and, on average, they derive 19% of that amount from composition. Yet they spend twenty-seven hours a week on composing-related activities. Eighty-five respondents — 6.4% of the total — make a living entirely from writing music.

Obviously classical music composers and authors isn’t an apples to apples comparison, but I do think it’s instructive that only 6.4% of them earn a living off their work. As with classical music, so with writing: you don’t need to live off your art to be a "professional."

Or to put it another way:

It is true that there are writers of the kind Gessen described, people like Maxine Hong Kingston, an emeritus professor of English at UC Berkeley, or the late David Foster Wallace, who after working a succession of odd jobs taught at Pomona College until his death. “Literary author” did eventually become their vocation, although they held other jobs along the way. It’s true, many great American authors do eventually end up here. But few start out here.

Can You Read with Music?

At The Guardian, Sam Jordison says no to reading with music, of any kind:

As for novels, forget it. Even music that doesn’t ask too much – or can at least be enjoyed in the background – can cause problems. Brian Eno’s haunting Music For Airports has ruined PG Wodehouse for me in the past. Almost as much as the noise it was supposed to neuter: a woman (old, I might add) yelling down her mobile about the weather. The happy tinkling of Chopin has rendered absurd grisly scenes in Cain’s Book and tragedy in A Farewell To Arms. At the other extreme, I defy anyone to listen to Blonde On Blonde and read Pynchon at the same time without feeling weird.

On the subject of Pynchon, I did once try him with some allegro Mozart flute music, influenced by the once fashionable belief that it can make you temporarily brainier and would thus better equip me to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say it really helped, but the smart pace of the music did at least complement book’s hectic nature, and made an hour on the Oxford Tube far more agreeable than listening to the tinny rattling of my neighbour’s own iPod.

I have almost the exact opposite opinion.

For one thing, I’ve found that Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts makes almost perfect "white noise" for shutting out the sound of virtually anything: ambient sound, crying children, loud-talking neighbors, jackhammering, aircraft landing directly overhead (just make sure to have a good pair of headphones).

But for those times that I’ve actually listened to the music as accompaniment, I’ve also found classical pieces rewarding. Usually this is serendipitous, as in the right stretch of Mahler will just happen to coincide with a perfect moment from Dostoevsky, but certain periods of composition definitely do go with certain periods of literature. I especially like listening to the serialists while enjoying a good modernist novel.

And of course, there are those novels that are actually built around a piece of classical music, some of which I discuss in this post.

All of Stravinsky at Your Fingertips

Alex Ross notes that you can purchase a boxed set of almost everything Strvinsky ever wrote (that’s 22 CDs of music) for £17.99. Though this deal isn’t available in the States, Ross says his boxed set took only 8 days to transit the Atlantic.

That is one incredible price (and it becomes more and more incredible as the pound continues to take a beating), but I will say that Strvinsky is the set’s conductor, and I have heard that he isn’t the best interpretor of his works.

Gubaidulina at the SFS

Alex Ross has links to some reports on how symphonies around the U.S. are weathering this recession so far. Some are remaining prosperous, but others are seeing declines in attendance and donations.

If you’re not planning to already, you should really resolve to see at least one symphonic performance in 2009. Not just as a way to help the arts in your community, but simply because the symphony is an amazing experience.

The first symphony performance I’ll be attending in this new year will come in late February when Anne-Sophie Mutter comes to town for the U.S. premiere of Sofia Gulbaidulina’s Second Violin Concerto (subtitled "In tempus praesens"). Those who make it through the bracing 33-minute performance will be refreshed by a performance of Ravel that concludes with his disintegrating waltz, La Valse.

Up above is the first 10 minutes of Gubaidulina’s Viola Concerto, a piece that will give you a pretty good feel for the violin concertos. Gubaidulina is probably most famous as the composer whom Shostakovich encouraged to "continue on your mistaken path," and as you perhaps might glean from advice such as that, her music can be difficult to endure at first, although those who persist generally find that their time has been well spent.

I’ve meant to write about this before, but now’s a good time to mention it: in this age of CDs and MP3s, when you can pretty much have any music you want from the history of civilization on demand, it’s still a pleasure to make it out to the symphony. First of all, the music sounds much better live, and there’s no arguing with that. But even if it didn’t, going out to listen to music is a treat because it helps get your mind in mood to give a performance your full attention, whereas when listening via a stereo distractions will, naturally, proliferate.

Classical Year in Review

Alex Ross offers his favorite classical recordings from 2008. Lots of good stuff here, including:

“Hommage à Messiaen”; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano (Deutsche Grammophon).

John Adams, “Doctor Atomic”; Gerald Finley, baritone, with Lawrence Renes conducting the Netherlands Opera (Opus Arte DVD).

The Rest Is Noise “Glossary”

One of the things I most liked about Alex Ross’s survey of 20th century classical were his readings of the music. In many cases, he was able to give a sense of how the music worked and deliver a reading of a piece (in a note-by-note, quasi-literary sense) that could even be understood by those on whom terms such as "triad" and "first inversion" are lost. (I’m a good test case, since I’m exactly that person.)

To coincide with the paperback release of The Rest Is Noise, Ross has made it possible for any of us to quickly grasp exactly what is meant by the musical terms he uses. He’s put together an online glossary with definitions and sound clips to explain virtually all the terminology found in the book. Excellent.

Doctor Atomic DVD

Just to follow up from earlier this week, there actually is a DVD version of Doctor Atomic available, of a performance that I’m told largely duplicates the cast of the world premiere.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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