In March 1978, when the country was still in the throes of discomania, New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross bought his first LP: a recording of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner’s 9th Symphony. He was 10 years old. Given that Mr. Ross didn’t discover Bob Dylan until he was in his 20’s, this isn’t terribly shocking. When he pulled the album out of its sleeve to show The Observer on a recent evening, he was surprised, and slightly sheepish, to discover a sheet of paper typed up by his 10-year-old self, listing where and when he had bought the album.
Perhaps his long-standing efforts at classifying music stood him in good stead during the research for his first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which goes on sale Tuesday. The culmination of 10 years’ worth of work, Noise is a rereading of the conventional wisdom about 20th-century classical music: that avant-garde, atonal music was the important music of the century and that in some ways all modern classical music is derived from it. This argument is near-heretical for many scholars of classical music, but what Mr. Ross is really asking for is a complete reorientation of how classical music is appreciated: as part of culture as a whole, not a hermetically sealed world unto itself.
It stands to reason, then, that in the New Yorker Mr. Ross has written articles about Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Thomas Mann and the phenomenon of “concert rage”—when audience members get unnecessarily angry about rustling, sneezing, and throat-clearing during a concert—among other subjects. (On his blog, which shares his book’s name, Mr. Ross also keeps top 10 lists, divided into what he calls “preponderantly notational”—that is, classical—and “preponderantly non-notational”; albums in the latter group from 2006 included such artists as Justin Timberlake, Kelis and Joanna Newsom.)
He characterizes his writing as somewhere between “pure, objective, ‘did the soprano sing slightly flat?’ kind of criticism, and something more like music appreciation or writing with a slightly educational aspect to it.”
“The whole point,” he explained over a late dinner at the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, is “to not be too in-your-face or condescending.”
That would also be an apt way to describe the 39-year-old Mr. Ross. Slightly built, Mr. Ross was wearing a light blue shirt and black jeans, comfortable black shoes and a wedding ring on his right hand, in the European style. (He met his husband, actor and director Jonathan Lisecki, in a bar seven years ago; they got married last year in Canada.) He speaks softly and deliberately, but smiles easily and gets animated when discussing his interests—which, beyond classical music, include Orson Welles, running along the West Side Highway and his two cats, Penelope and Maulina (so named because she’s an Egyptian Mau). Penelope, he said, sometimes acts like a dog, and sometimes like a bird.
MR. ROSS BENEFITED FROM SOME important mentoring and guidance early in his career. After graduating from Harvard, where he studied with the composer Peter Lieberson and was the D.J. of a classical music show on student radio station WHRB, Ross started writing freelance reviews for Fanfare, a classical music magazine, which paid him $2 for each review. “I never pictured writing about music as a career,” he said, and so he also applied to graduate programs in English around that time. “I wanted to combine literature and music,” he said. “I would have ended up writing my dissertation on [Richard Strauss’s opera] Salome, I think. So some of that research ended up in my book.” Today, he owns 13 recordings of Salome.
Eventually, Mr. Ross says, he got a piece in The New Republic, where literary editor Leon Wieseltier “kind of decided I should become a music critic.” Wieselter helped Mr. Ross get hired by The New York Times in 1992 as a 24-year-old stringer, writing about classical music for the culture desk. He was paid $80 for each piece (and people complain about The Times’ stinginess today!). “Of course, I was only paying $675 a month in rent,” he said.
While at The Times, Mr. Ross got his first piece in The New Yorker. “Louis Menand and Adam Gopnik were culture editors at the time, and they had been reading my pieces in The Times,” he explained. “I wrote one piece a year for four years”—including the obituary for Kurt Cobain, because the magazine didn’t have a popular music critic on staff. He was hired as the magazine’s classical music critic in 1996.
In 2004, Mr. Ross wrote a controversial piece for The New Yorker called “Listen to This” that it’s probably not a stretch to call his manifesto: “For at least a century, [classical] music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority.” Those may seem like harsh words from someone who writes about classical music, but the essay is really a billet-doux that traces Mr. Ross’s own evolution as a classical music lover, including how his perspective on the genre changed as a college student discovering Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu: “I abandoned the notion of classical superiority, which led to a crisis of faith: if the music wasn’t great and serious and high and mighty, what was it?” Mr. Ross isn’t necessarily arguing that classical music need to be universally appreciated, but he is interested in reorienting it away from the notion that it can only be appreciated by an elite audience, and that it should not exist as an entity completely separate from other genres of music—including punk and hip-hop and pop, all of which Mr. Ross has written about. It’s really a way of thinking about classical music that is forward-thinking, rather than a perspective that privileges the past.
“The main thing that distinguishes him is he communicates a real, abiding enthusiasm for the vibrancy of today’s musical culture,” says New York magazine classical music and architecture critic Justin Davidson. “There’s nothing nostalgic or jaded about him. He writes as an engaged reporter—he goes out, finds out what’s cool and tells us about it.”
Indeed, in his New Yorker columns and on his blog, Mr. Ross has been an early and enthusiastic champion of young composers. He was one of the first major critics, for example, to write about the 36-year-old British composer Thomas Adès, who was recently the subject of a retrospective of his work at the Barbican in London; and a piece he did in 2004 presaged the success of such student composers as Nico Muhly, whose commissioned score for the American Ballet Theatre premieres later this month.
“There’s kind of a great new sense of energy among younger composers,” Ross said. “I don’t really know how to define it. In some ways it’s total chaos, because there are so many things going on at once. But there’s also a sense of optimism, sort of. I think they also see possibilities for classical music.”
In some ways, Mr. Ross continued, “classical music is the new underground. That may sound ridiculous, but there’s a grain of truth to it. People are talking about the power that comes with being apart from mainstream pop culture. You can make a living and get stuff performed.”
The classical performance industry—the opera houses and symphonies and chamber music societies, the conservatories and the festivals—“is this very weird combination of ultra-establishment things, and the underground, especially contemporary music,” says Mr. Ross. “It’s a very interesting, fluid situation.”
WHILE SHOWING THE OBSERVER AROUND THE CHELSEA apartment he shares with Mr. Lisecki, Mr. Ross pulled a program booklet for the 1980 world premiere of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht, which Stockhausen had autographed for a fan—and signed off with a cartoon heart. He also played a recording of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, in which he is heard yelling, in his thick German accent, into a wire recorder given to him by his student: “You mean I should speak now?” His wife is heard in the background, and he barks at her: “The noises that you make are recording!” Mr. Ross seemed delighted at this; famous classical music composers yell at their wives! And don’t know how to work the damn machine!
Both of these artifacts are kept in Mr. Ross’s office, which is home to thousands of classical CD’s and books, all housed in floor-to-ceiling shelving Mr. Ross had custom-built when he moved into the apartment in 2001. More books—mostly British literature and poetry, German literature and (thanks to an article he wrote) true crime—line the hallway; the living room holds his impressive collection of talk-show host biographies (Cavett, by Dick Cavett; I Kid You Not, by former Tonight Show host Jack Paar), which he needed for a New Republic article, and the DVD collection, which is heavy on the Criterion Collection and HBO series, particularly The Sopranos and The Wire. “We’re also very into Heroes and Ugly Betty,” he said.
On top of the television are four curiously shaped gold statuettes. “Every year, Jonathan and I host an Oscar party,” he explained. “The winner of the bracket gets a spray-painted Aunt Jemima as a prize. We’ve won four. We spray-paint them in the stairwell. So far, no one’s caught us.”