Alex Ross

Alex Ross

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 4 1997 3:30 AM

Alex Ross

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       Back to the highbrow. I pulled myself away from the new Dylan album--which swamped yesterday's diary entry and could easily have overflowed into today's--to see Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera. Please note that I'm using the word "highbrow" only with the hollowest kind of irony. Highbrow and lowbrow are useless, evil words when it comes to music. Music is a trance, a sensual disorder of the senses, and any experience of it touches the same nerves. Each genre plays by its own rules and has its internal ranking of high and low--but all peaks rise to the same level, to the elemental, time-and-space-dissolving shiver. I like the juxtaposition on which my musical week happens to be ending: Richard Strauss and Bob Dylan are two of the voices I cherish most. If my record collection were about to be engulfed in some great fire that was also wasting all the record stores on Earth, I might reach first for Salome and Blonde on Blonde. This looks quite absurd as I type it, but I mean it.
       I write mostly about classical music but sometimes go over into rock. This is not a typical combination for a critic. There is a good-sized canyon between the genres. People in the classical world tend to be intensely suspicious of rock, and vice versa. Rock, for classical types, is the monster that seduced away young audiences, not only with its primitive beat but also with its pretensions toward art. Classical music, for rock types, is the establishment that must be shoved aside, the phalanx of snobs that blocks rock's evolution into art. I began firmly on the classical side of the divide. Until I entered college, I had pure contempt for rock. My resistance broke down once I began announcing at my college radio station. Installed on the other side of the station's dank basement quarters was a sometimes scary-looking, always scary-sounding gang of punk-rock aficionados; I got to be friends with them and discovered them to be all absurdly brilliant, and far more passionate about music than most of those people I had to deal with in the classical department. My faith in classical music's intellectual superiority crumbled overnight.
       I will say this for the classical: It is older than the rest and receives the respect owed to the old. What has allowed it to stay through the centuries is its singular use of the principle of composition. Granted, popular song, certain jazz standards, and certain rock classics (Dylan's, notably) are also "composed," handed off from a creator to an executant. But no pop stylist follows the principle of absolute fidelity to the score. The classical composer is an unimpeachable arbiter not only of notes but also of expressive inflections. Even the flashiest, most self-indulgent performers expend 95 percent of their energy in pursuit of the composer's instructions. Look at a score of Mahler and you see dictatorial control over every gesture, every passing inward mood of the performer. This is the frightening, towering magic of the classical: the sense of a dead or distant composer's voice being sung out in another's body, in performers' bodies, in a ceremony that borders on the necromantic.
       It's easier to bring this discussion back to Ariadne auf Naxos than you might guess. The opera, which joins Richard Strauss' music to Hugo Hofmannsthal's words, sets about dismantling the false divide between high and low. In the Prologue, an offstage aristocrat has commissioned a Composer (no name given or needed) to write a serious opera on the subject of the Ariadne myth. A commedia dell'arte troupe is scheduled to perform immediately afterward, to the Composer's high-minded annoyance. Then, at the last minute, the Composer's employer issues a demand that the serious and light parts of the evening be performed simultaneously. The Composer has to improvise a mix; the main part of the opera presents the result. It falls a little short of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's enticing master plan, but it brings out the essential breadth of the composer's thinking. Like most great composers, Strauss was a magpie genius. All great music is fusion.
       As for the performance ... I'm out of space. But read me in TheNew Yorker sometime.

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and also a regular contributor to SLATE.