The Best Listener in America

In March 1978, when the country was still in the throes of discomania, New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross

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.”

The Best Listener in America