Alex Ross at the University of Chicago

Or was it Dante in Hell?

Alex Ross was the guest speaker at a colloquium yesterday at the University of Chicago Music Department, part of a series sponsored yearly by the Visiting Committee. Ross's new book, *The Rest is Noise* (based on the name of his long-running blog) has just come out and from the sounds of it (I haven't read it) is probably a breezy & idiosyncratic tour through the 20th century's highlights-according-to-Ross. In other words, it's the 200-page version of what makes an Alex Ross article a good read.

Now, I will say that I do not always like Alex Ross's articles in the New Yorker, but my reactions to his prose are inevitably colored by jealousy--Ross isn't a musicologist, but he can play ball with musicologists. He just chooses not to. This was the elephant in the room yesterday. I was about to ask Ross if he actually reads any musicology when the bell rang (pink-shirted Andrew Patner signaled that it was time to adjourn). New Yorker articles--somewhat shockingly to someone used to painstakingly sorting through CMS style citation procedures--never, or rarely, contain footnotes, and Ross can pretty much write what he wants (with a bevy of fact-checkers to support his lack of citations). Of course, this never hurt a New Yorker article. In fact, it makes them a marvelous good read, which is where Ross's New Yorker style departs in due course from the general musicological essay.

In my time as an academic, I have run across two people who write interestingly enough that they could probably tackle the "general audience" problem with as much grace as Ross (I'm thinking here of Larry Kramer at Fordham, who's an English professor anyway, and Daniel Albright at Harvard). And, well, there's Charles Rosen who frequents the pages of the New York Times (where Ross began his illustrious career as superjournalist) and Dicky Taruskin, who above all else will be damned if he doesn't write interestingly. Anyway, the point here is not that musicologists are incapable of writing well. Some of them are excellent craftsmen & -women. It's just that the subjects we choose are in general so arcane that they would elude even the most intellectual but still general audience. But here's the sticking point: I think most of us adhere to the textual and referential arcaneness EVEN THOUGH we would probably give it up if we thought what we were saying had the possibility of reaching a broader audience. I mean, my gosh, if somebody said to anyone in musicology, "Why don't you come write for the New Yorker, starting tomorrow?" my guess is they'd hit the pavement.

If poor Alex Ross found himself a sheep among wolves yesterday (he noted he was "properly intimidated") my guess is he was probably just wondering why he'd stepped into the trap of coming at all if only to be hounded by intellectual questions, the usefulness of which to his project he'd given up on long ago. Strangely, the room refrained from pointed questions and Ross avoided saying much of anything. Part of his speech was just a giant disclaimer: no, I didn't really write this book for you guys. He wasn't sarcastic, he wasn't even very polished. He simply got up and announced, "look I've written this book and I think it's possible you may enjoy a read, but it's not going to tell you anything you don't know," and the room stared back at him with half-hate and half-longing. I wonder if any of the musicologists tried to slip into Ross's suitcase at the end of the night. I hear it's nice working in the Condé Nast.



Andrew Patner said...

This is fascinating to read! Interestingly, Alex gave a much more engaged -- and intellectual/academic -- presentation in conversation with me at The Art Institute of Chicago the next day.

Best wishes,

Andrew Patner
98.7WFMT/Chicago Sun-Times

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