An Interview with Alex Ross

Ever since the 2018 Chamber Music New Zealand concert series was announced, I have been counting down the days until the 28th May. I remember very clearly, flicking through the booklet, highlighter in hand ready to plan my social life for the year (I had the NZSO and DSO concert series ready to go too, so was fully geared up for some buzzy evenings). I shrieked when I saw that Anderson and Roe were coming in March. The shrieking then became accompanied by bouncing up and down when I saw that Alex Ross and STROMA would also be in Dunedin. The page for the 28th May in my diary is highlighted in four different colours.

I can’t remember seeing a full contemporary classical music programme in Dunedin before. But this coming Monday night we will hear Schoenberg, Ravel, Bartok, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stravinsky, Jenny McLeod, Berio, Boulez, Xenakis, Gillian Whitehead, Kaija Saariaho, and David Lang. It’s a “veritable smorgasbord of small tasters that explores many of the most stimulating and significant developments in the history of chamber music throughout the 20th Century.” And yes, you read that right, we’re going to hear music from three actual female composers! It’s going to be epic, and The Wave was lucky enough to hear from Alex Ross himself about the programme, his job, and his thoughts on the role of contemporary classical music.


Ross always loved music, and always loved writing, but it wasn’t until after university that he began to write about music. A pianist and composer himself, he pursued composition when he was young, but found he had more patience for the process of writing. Ross is now considered to be one of the leading contemporary classical music writers. He has been on the staff of The New Yorker since 1996, has published two books, the first of which (The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century) has earned him a National Book Critics Circle Award, a spot on The New York Times list of the ten best books of 2007, a finalist citation for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, and a place on the shortlist for the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction.

Ross identifies in his first book the impression contemporary classical music leaves on some people. “Twentieth-century classical composition…sounds like noise to many. It is a largely untamed art, and unassimilated underground. While the splattered abstractions of Jackson Pollock sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more, and while experimental works by Matthew Barney or David Lynch are analyzed in college dorms across the land, the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little perceptible impact on the outside world.” I asked Ross why he thinks so many people claim that contemporary classical music is “inaccessible”. Ross, understandably, disagrees with this term. “[Contemporary classical music] can be unfamiliar and challenging, but this is what we expect art to be in other genres. No one goes to a modern-art gallery expecting to see images from the 19th century – people would be bewildered and disappointed if it were so. As much as possible we should encourage the same kind of adventurous spirit in classical music”. Ross says that the role of contemporary music is, essentially, to be itself. It exists to constitute an arena where individual voices can express themselves freely and honestly. The argument makes a lot of sense. We accept and expect visual art to challenge, confront, and present a form of self-expression, and we appreciate it for doing so. Surely this attitude can and should be applied in the contemporary classical music sphere as well.

The twentieth century brought an explosive wave of new composers. As Ross says, “In any given decade of the 20th century, you find a profusion of styles and approaches. Consider the 1920s — you had 12-tone music, Varèse, Kurt Weill, neoclassicism, jazz-inflected music, the late Sibelius works, and so much else besides. The current moment feels very much like the 1920s — an explosion of competing possibilities”. I asked Ross how he keeps up. How does he even begin to approach such a huge repertoire of twentieth-century listening? “I try to cast my net as wide as possible”, he says. Ross listens to CDs, downloads forthcoming albums, listens to radio broadcasts, and streams audio from composers’ websites. Since he’s touring New Zealand, he has been listening to local composers: Douglas Lilburn, Gillian Whitehead, Jenny McLeod, Jack Body. He most recently listened to Lilburn’s Soundscape with Lake and River, a piece he describes as a “fascinatingly gentle, evocative form of electronic composition”. Oddly, one of the NZ music facets Ross is particularly familiar with is 1980s and 90s rock. “There was a big fad for NZ rock at my college radio station in the late 80s. Friends introduced me to The Clean, The Verlaines, The Tall Dwarfs, The Bats, and so on, and they instantly became some of my favourite music”. Ross even wrote a long article on New Zealand rock for an online magazine in 1995, before he had ever visited New Zealand, as a way of trying to learn about a place entirely through its music.

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In Monday’s concert, Ross shares the stage with the exquisite mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew and Aotearoa’s pre-eminent modern music ensemble STROMA. Ross will speak three times in each half of the programme, introducing sets of pieces. “The idea is to signal a few things to listen for, especially with the more challenging avant-garde pieces on the programme”. The structure will be basically chronological, from Schoenberg in 1912 to David Lang in 2000, although the programme will turn to Schoenberg to finish. I heard from Ross the morning after the first concert of the tour in Auckland, in which he said that the ensemble handled the challenging repertoire “brilliantly”. It’s set to be a fantastic concert, featuring monumental works of the 20th and 21st centuries, and incredibly talented performers. So channel your adventurous spirit, and give it a go! Students can buy $10 rush tickets at the door. For more information on the concert, you can follow this link:



Ihlara McIndoe is a third year student studying towards a Bachelor of Music majoring in Performance Piano and Composition, as well as a Bachelor of Laws. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Wave, and Student Ambassador for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and Chamber Music New Zealand. Ihlara writes for Critic Magazine, and has featured as a Guest Writer for The Spinoff.