Since 1993, Alex Ross has occupied a unique position in American journalism. That is, at the very young age of twenty-five, he was both reviewing classical music for the New York Times and writing music reviews for the equally prestigious The New Yorker magazine. By 1996, Ross made a complete switch and began working only for The New Yorker. By the age of twenty-eight, he was what many considered to be the foremost authority on the classical music scene in the United States.
Ross’ reputation was only enhanced with the publication of his books on twentieth-century music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, in 2007, and Listen To This in 2010.
Both books, containing essays and critical perspectives on music both classical and modern, have earned high levels of praise from Ross’ fellow critics, but it was the first that firmly entrenched Ross as a fixed and powerful presence on the music scene. The Rest Is Noise received the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, among other honors, and high marks in the press: “’The Rest Is Noise’” is a work of immense scope and ambition…(and) is a great achievement” (Dyer) was the pronouncement of The New York Times, and it is a viewpoint that has been shared universally by other reviewers and readers.
In weaving historical events with musical movements in his books, Ross creates a canvas in which classical music is an understandable and influential component in the greater picture. Moreover, Alex Ross, prompted by his employers, does not restrict his criticism to traditional, classical music, and the avante-gard Icelandic musician Bjork, whose work Ross has reviewed in depth, is one of his most vocal champions.
Background and Reputation
It may well be that Alex Ross’ relatively young age was a key element in his taking on his role as the music critic for two of New York’s most respected journals. That is, Ross had a highly unusual youth, at least in terms of listening to music: he never heard even heard “modern” music until he was twenty years old: “I grew up listening purely to classical music, and paid no attention to any other kind” (Burger).
Consequently, while other young men his age were immersing themselves into rock, hip hop, grunge, and all the other genres within popular music, Ross was fully exploring a different musical landscape. Coming from a family with a strong appreciation for classical music, Ross had developed strong favorites among the greats of centuries past before entering college. “I feel as though I grew up not during the seventies and eighties but during the thirties and forties, the decades of my parents’ youth” (Ross 5). Moreover, this blending of pleasure and investigation actually evolved into a kind of self-schooling, and Ross learned to isolate musical elements by their foundational aspects, and taught himself the chord changes and tonal variations of the masters. It was, and early on, his overriding passion: “I held my family hostage in the living room as I led the record player in a searing performance of the Eroica” (Ross 7).
What made and makes Ross even more unique, however, and what will be shortly examined, is that he has never clung to any elitist viewpoint regarding classical music. In reading Ross’ reviews and commentaries, there is never the sense that he feels classical music is inherently “better” than any other form; it is simply more that it is music he loves, and he enjoys sharing his keen appreciation for it, as well as his extensive body of knowledge. The formula works, and hundreds of online blogs and journals, many not especially devoted to classical music, applaud his style and outlook.
One of the factors behind Ross’ popularity is the expansiveness of his criticism; he rarely reviews anything without a sense of its place in history, either older or modern, or the artistic conditions in which it was created. More specifically, and in a way unusual for any arts critic, Ross attempts to fuse the music with the composer or performer, and consequently present a more whole identity of the art itself. As was said about The Rest Is Noise: “As a critic and historian contemplating a noisy century, he looks intensely at individuals, at particular composers riding, reflecting, sometimes bucking the currents of culture and history around them…” (Swafford).