Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

Surfing the Internet Sends Me Into a Spiral of Despair
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 6 2007 11:14 AM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

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Ben,

Mixing the ancient and the new is at the core of what classical composers strive for, although admittedly they seldom generate as vivid a blend as the Bahia Carnival. (While working on a profile of Björk, I found myself running down the happily raging streets of Salvador as she followed the Carnival floats; there may be some Brazilian spirit on her latest album, Volta.) For me, great composers, classical or pop, are those who make violently unexpected combinations of sounds: consonance and dissonance, short motifs and large structures, emotional upheaval and intellectual distance. They step back from a prevalent style, mash it together with something more obscure or something more popular, contort the familiar until it becomes strange. Often in the 20th century, composition got too specialized: One group concentrated on cubistic arrangements of 18th-century tunes; another worked out the mathematics of 12-note rows. But in pieces like Ives' Three Places in New England orMessiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars, all the possibilities are simultaneous, everything's sounding together, music is whole again.

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Right now, Golijov may be the decisive agent of "ancient-to-the-future" in classical music. You've heard his Ayre, right? It's a classical composition that was planned as a pop album (Gustavo Santaolalla, producer) and comes close to inventing a new form. I gave an unmarked copy of that disc to a pop-critic friend who reported, to my satisfaction, that he had no clue what the hell it was. Here's a sample.

Of course, all the above is an auteurist's vision of musical creation. Since my days as a preteen classical snob, I've worked to overcome the prejudices built in to a classical education, but it's very hard for me to abandon the ideal of a Bachian composer-god interconnecting the notes behind the scenes. I know so much great music is produced in other ways—by communal rituals rooted in folk practice, by well-oiled factory-line production, by scattered individuals who get it right once or twice and then vanish from the scene (if we're lucky). Then there are the classical musics of India, Persia, China, and Japan, where a "name" master carries on the great tradition not so much by imprinting his or her personality on it, auteur-style, but by embodying it with spectacular virtuosity and authority. And while almost every genre of Western music has undergone dizzying 20th-century cycles of revolution and reinvention—to the point where folks are no longer sure what "classical" or "jazz" or "rock" still means—Eastern genres have maintained an uncannily steady balance between the deep past and the present moment.

Musical auteurism arose when people started writing notes on paper. All music created before notation is basically unknowable (interesting how this art form has the most limited historical record). Only those who mastered notation could get their work distributed; that's why classical music reigned for so long. In the 20th century, recording allowed pop musicians to share their work and make their names without necessarily mastering notation. In the 21st century, as you say, the game has been even more radically leveled, so that YouTube unknowns can achieve tabloid fame in a day, and anti-social metal-machine musicians can piece together an audience of 20 in as many time zones. As a result, the auteurist model may be in crisis. People always ask me, "Who are the great composers right now? Who is going to last 200 years?" I'm inclined to answer: What do you like? And where do you live? Someone's probably doing it within a five-mile radius. The scene is splintered in a way that's actually bringing music closer to its potential audience, even if we can't agree on who the great ones are.

Maybe we are beginning our initial descent into a terminal state of chaos. Or maybe it's the birth of a more sane kind of musical democracy. I can't help looking at the situation a little nervously, because among the first collateral casualties of a total democratization of music would be the generalist critic, such as I be. Print publications increasingly see no need for critics in the age of blogs. With self-produced recording and downloads, the job is in some ways becoming almost impossible; opening the mail or surfing the Internet often sends me into a spiral of despair, because there is far more music pouring in by the day than I can possibly hear and make sense of. But then I find something weirdly beautiful to fall in love with, and I get that excellent gut feeling that I won't be the only one. For the moment, we're still useful.

Alex

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has just been published.