The Chat Room

Notes on Music

Ben Ratliff and Alex Ross discuss the state of the art form and the experience of listening.

Music critics Ben Ratliff and Alex Ross were online at on Thursday, Nov. 8, to chat with readers about the state of jazz, pop, and classical. An unedited transcript follows.

Alex’s Fan Club: Alex Ross, I adore you and want to buy many copies of your book in hardcover and have you inscribe them all to me—but did you know you’re doing your Politics & Prose appearance the same night Dmitri Hvorostovsky is at Strathmore? And while you are clearly the superior human being in every other way, that Dmitri really can sing. This creates a serious dilemma.

Alex Ross: Thank you so much! Although I will be singing a selection of twentieth-century opera arias at my Politics & Prose reading, including Lulu’s death shriek from “Lulu” (transposed down), Hvorostovsky is indeed serious competition. But I should be at the store a little on the early side, if that’s any help…


Falls Church, Va.: There’s a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of your dialogue this week. You purport to be discussing “how can we attract more people to the cutting edge of music?” but you don’t really want that. If too many people discover a particular avant-garde form, it by definition becomes mainstream. The whole point of being on the cutting edge is to exclude others and hold oneself apart. If more people were to take to the classical and jazz music of today, many classical and jazz musicians would react with horror; they’re trying to shock the bourgeoisie, not please them (this of course applies to rock music as well—think Kurt Cobain). In reaction, the frontiers of classical and jazz music would move away again, and you’d be right back to wondering why people don’t listen to the newest of the new.

Ben Ratliff: Falls Church, I don’t believe in the term “edge” when it comes to music. It’s meaningless. I do think it’s great and helpful for people to listen to what’s new, in jazz or classical or anything else. But cliquishness will always exist and will always reinvent itself in some new way. In particular when you mention shock and frisson, that’s more an indie-rock argument—there’s not too much of it in jazz. Used to be in jazz, but now jazz has different fish to fry. Thanks.


Paris: Could you explain why jazz in America has been considered simply entertainment, background music while eating and clinking glasses, while in Europe it is a highly respected art form? European audiences certainly would not think of having loud conversations during concerts. I often have wondered about this difference and hope you can share your opinion. Thank you.

Ben Ratliff: Paris,  I just don’t believe that the audience issue—Americans are boors, Europeans are respectful consumers of culture—reduces this easily. Are you speaking for all of Europe? That’s a lot of territory … the notion that “no man is a prophet in his own land” does hold true for American jazz to some extent, but then again audiences, even here, are quite curious about foreigners. I remember going to see the Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen with his trio here in New York City a couple of years ago and it was like a church in there. Thanks.


Denver: When Mr. Ross says “great composers…are those who make violently unexpected combinations of sounds…” What about subtlety, nuance, understatement, gradation and restraint? And when he says “all music created before notation is basically unknowable,” what about the music of the non-literate Polynesians? It seems to me that because critics are exposed to music constantly, their orientation changes from the pleasure of rediscovery to the thrill of discovery: “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.”—Hilaire Belloc

Alex Ross: Thanks for your comment—but you’ve misunderstood! “Violently unexpected combinations of sounds” can include “subtlety, nuance, understatement, gradation and restraint.” Who could have thought that Stravinsky, composer of the violent and hyper-rhythmic “Rite of Spring,” would turn around a few years later to write the serene, otherworldly “Apollo”? That’s what I mean by the unexpected. As a critic, I divide my time between the new and the old. The wonderful thing about classical music is how the deep past flows right into the present.


Denver: Mr. Ross: Compared to jazz musicians, don’t classical musicians think of their music as less of a springboard for their own creativity, imagination and originality? Also, I always thought that innovation only could occur within the context of tradition. Isn’t an artform in decline when the role of innovation begins to be thought of as more important than the role of tradition?

Alex Ross: With classical performing musicians, I believe that creativity and imagination enter the picture in subtler form. It may seem that a particular pianist is dutifully playing the “Pathetique” Sonata just as thousands of pianists before her have done. But small differences can be invested with great originality. Simply to execute one of these complex scores with the proper technique and the proper emotional intensity requires enormous re-creative imagination. And, yes, innovation for its own sake can be damaging. In the twentieth century, too many composers were maybe caught up in the spirit of rushing on to the next technical innovation, losing sight of musical values in the process. But extremes of experimentation are almost always balanced out by a return to basics. That’s why minimalism in American music was so important—it was a much-needed corrective to a decade or two in which music did go a little bananas. Which is not to say that some truly amazing scores didn’t come out of that period!

Ben Ratliff: It’s fascinating for me to hear someone suggest that an “artform is in decline when the role of innovation begins to be thought of as more important than the role of tradition.” usually, in the rhetoric of jazz, this is stated the other way around—and when I hear that I don’t believe it. I don’t particularly believe it this way either, tho. I think an artform is in decline when the artists stop doing the art. audiences are another important part of the equation, of course, but the doing goes first. the new music will build on or respond to older material to varying degrees, but as long as lots of people are doing it, then I think it seems premature to talk about the decline, death, ruin of an art form. with jazz things seem to be ok in terms of people learning it on an amateur or semi-professional level—they’re spilling out of jazz programs by the hundreds, and I’m constantly meeting people who like to play at home with no particular goal in mind. Thank you for this.


Denver: If you have had a chance to read the article “The Constitution and Original Intent: Sorting Out the Issues with Mozart’s Help,” what was your reaction to it?

Alex Ross: I haven’t read the piece, but it seems to be referring to the issue of staying true to the composer’s intention vs. reshaping scores in light of contemporary taste. We’re now well familiar with opera productions that update famous works to space stations, boutique hotels, and brothel houses, as the director sees fit. I don’t like a lot of them. I’m a bit of a conservative in that regard: I tend to prefer a more realistic approach, because the music does the job of “updating” all by itself: the emotions are of the present. That said, it’s often not so clear what the composer intended. Mozart would make many changes to his operas depending on where they were being performed and what singers were available. What’s the right version? Scholars debate such questions endlessly, and there’s seldom a clear answer.


Denver: When Mr. Ross spoke of “the nagging problem of modernist experiment vs. audience taste,” is this what he meant?

“There’s a battle between what the cook thinks is high art and what the customer just wants to eat.”—Mario Batali

Alex Ross: That’s fascinating—I suppose every form of artistic expression, from food to music and beyond, feels this struggle between individual exploration and mass taste. Arnold Schoenberg once said: “If it is art, it is not for the many, and if is for the many, it is not art.” But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I believe that certain artists are capable of pleasing large audiences while also remaining true to core principles, even radical ones. It’s thrilling when that happens.

Ben Ratliff: I think that artists often like to give audiences a higher bar to reach—that’s what they’re good at, and that’s what audiences sometimes want and deserve. Also, apparently there are studies showing that most people go to jazz clubs for ambience, for the “jazz experience,” and not necessarily to hear a particular musician.
But cooking and music aren’t exactly one-to-one. Eating is a lot more primal, I think—and more dependent on absolute pleasure as the result Whereas a lot of music really a very acute intellectual experience, involving patience, historical/contextual understanding, all sorts of things. I don’t think I would want to have a meal that was the taste equivalent of, let’s say, a Keith Rowe solo guitar improvisation. But I enjoy hearing Keith Rowe. Thanks.


Rockville, Md.: When I started my college years many years ago, I liked Brubeck. But Nat Hentoff roasted him “like a piano player in a bar where you ask for selections,” so I always felt his music was disrespected. What are the thoughts today? I saw him downtown the year before last. He still gets a kick out of playing.

Ben Ratliff: Hi, Rockville. The ‘60s were a heavy-duty time, I hear. So much incredible music coming at the Hentoffs of the world. Nat also compared Ahmad Jamal to a cocktail pianist, and has never been allowed to forget it. The disrespectful adjective often lobbed at Brubeck is “stolid,” and I can often agree. But he’s more complicated than that. Listen to “Pennies from Heaven,” on the record “Brubeck Time,” from 1954. It, and he, has nothing to do with piano-bar music there. That was also a great band he had then, and bands make a very big difference in jazz. … Thanks for this question.


Fort Washington, Md.: Years ago in the summer, I was catching a ride with a neighbor. As a teenager, I only had listened to R&B and pop music. Well, this lady only listened to country music. After three months at the end of summer, I got used to it and learned to appreciate it. This forced music appreciation turned me to Patsy Cline, k.d. lang and Reba McEntire. Although I am not an Elvis fan (she loved Elvis!), if you listen to Elvis sing gospel and you fall in love with his voice. People are rediscovering Tony Bennett and others whose musical ability transcend time and age.

Alex Ross: Thanks for this story! I am fascinated by how we can fall in love with music we think we hate. It happened to me years ago when I was staying in a foreign city in a friend’s apartment. He had five or six CDs, including Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” Up to that point I had dismissed Dylan as a croaky-voiced old hippie dude. I started listening out of sheer boredom, and then I listened over and over, until I had memorized all the lyrics. An intense period of Dylan infatuation began, which led me to write a big piece on the Maestro for the New Yorker. What happened in my brain at that moment? Or in my heart? It’s wonderfully mysterious. Musical tastes are not set in stone. I called my book The Rest Is Noise as a way of referring to John Cage’s comment that what seems like noise can turn into music if we listen in the right spirit.

Ben Ratliff: I really love the experience of listening to music through the ears of someone else—which sounds like what you did with your friend and country music. It’s very, very good to find out that your ability to appreciate music is stronger than you thought. It’s like learning a new language.


Pennsylvania: Your discussion triggered some of my longstanding observations about music, music performance and popular taste: Concerts, and I’m not talking about clubs here, are events, and not strictly musical ones. This is especially true of arena rock concerts, but it has become true of classical concerts as well. It’s how they’re now marketed, because the perceived competition at the rising price point in other entertainment events.

The demise of arts education in schools plays a role, in that younger people no longer have the long-ago (in their lives) exposure to “high art” (I include jazz here) that prior generations enjoyed. It might not awaken in you until you’re in your 30s, but it provides a baseline appreciation. The proliferation and fragmentation of media formats make it too easy to hear only “what you like.” Tight formats on radio prevent the sort of cross-pollination that you could hear 30-40 years ago. Lifestyle plays a role in that much of listening today is passive, background. Challenging those listeners will cause them to switch to another nonchallenging station. I do have some hope for the guerilla mindset I see in the current download generation; whether it translates to jazz clubs and classical concert programming is another matter.

Alex Ross: Thanks so much for all these obversations. I worry about all the same things. Price, for example. It’s rather difficult these for people to go casually to a classical concert, just out of curiosity. Cheap seats are available, but they’re not the best ones. Fifty years ago, even the best seats cost a fraction of what they are today (in adjusted dollars). Whenever big institutions offer cheaper tickets, there’s a flood of interested newcomers. The Baltimore Symphony is performing a great experiment right now with $25 subscription seats, and they’re having a huge success. Of course, lowering the ticket prices also lowers income, but classical institutions lose money anyway, even if they sell out night after night. So why not get an extra grant and lower the prices? That’s the most obvious way to build a new audience.

Alex Ross: Ben, are people in jazz excited about internet possibilities as they are in classical?

Ben Ratliff: Using the internet to get one’s music out there is pretty much the only hope for jazz, and I think we’re going to see this more and more clearly. Record companies and radio are not the paradigms that musicians are looking at anymore to help them. But live music is very, very, very important.

I think the issue, for jazz, is how to get all the internet-related musical taste-broadening to translate to actually going out to the clubs. Right now there’s an age issue, because the prime jazz audience—people over 45—don’t spend as much time online as younger people. But give it 15 years or so, and you’ll see big changes…


Claverack, N.Y.: Respectfully, can I ask about what you believe the aim of your Slate discussion is? It’s entitled “Leave Your Musical Island” … but with all due respect, you haven’t. You’re just talking about jazz and classical … and how the audience is deserting them … and how it’s not the music’s fault, it’s the audience’s fault. Which, to be honest, seems kinda huffy and elitist. Are you intending to actually consider some of the other “islands” at some point? Or was that more a comment to the audience, a call for us to get off our islands and come visit yours?

Alex Ross: We’ve talked about a lot of different kinds of music here, from Timbalada to Led Zeppelin. I don’t remember saying it was the audience’s fault. I definitely don’t believe that to be the case. In fact, the classical audience is doing pretty well at the moment. Halls are not empty. The Metropolitan Opera is selling out night after night. But I believe that there is room for the classical (or jazz) audience to expand, and to become more diverse. And one way to do that is to encourage people to explore many different genres and think about the connections between them: Coltrane listening to Stravinsky, Steve Reich listening to Coltrane, Sufjan Stevens listening to Reich. We need to get rid of the idea that each genre is a fortress on an island with an unchanging audience. That’s my idea at least.

Ben Ratliff: Well, yeah. It’s well underway, this process. I think that jazz and classical music are now thought of as two parts of a much wider spectrum of music for adult audiences.

However, jazz and classical do have their own individual traditions, and since we are each tuned into one of those traditions, we were comparing notes between islands.


Alexandria, Va.: It’s not just jazz—music and radio are controlled to by too few corporations. There’s a lot of great music in all genres being made, most of it is not being heard by more than a small percentage of the population.

Alex Ross: The most damaging thing that has happened since 1980 or so is the mass-media enforcement of the idea that only genres appealing to, say, 18-30 males are of real significance. Everything else has been left by the wayside, no matter how many people love it. Will the Internet lead to a breakup of that monolithic demographic concept? I hope so. What Ben just said about waiting 10-15 years holds just as true for the clasical world and for all the other “niche” genres. I believe that in 20 years the image of classical music will be transformed in the public mind; it will once gain be a “mainstream” activity (to the extent that a mainstream still exists). I’ve seen many signs pointing in that direction. For example, almost a thousand people, about a third of them under the age of thirty, showed up for a new-music concert in Chicago sponsored by the Chicago Symphony. No stars on the program, all new pieces. It looked like an indie-rock show from the audience standpoint. And that kind of audience has become routine in Chicago (and also at similar concerts in Los Angeles).


Alex Ross: Dear readers and Ben: I have to go catch a plane, but thanks so much for this dialogue. I will think more about all the comments here, especially those I didn’t get to answer (hello, Rockville MD!). Bye for now!


Denver: Concerning the comments that “everything’s permitted, and nobody’s listening” and “there’s a certain kind of music lover who, when asked why the art form has lost appeal, will say, ‘X went too far!”: Don’t limits in art also help to maintain a consensus and doesn’t the absence of limits brings about art’s niche-ification? “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”—Orson Welles.

Concerning Mr. Ross’ comment that “perhaps my main mission as a critic is to urge readers to bend an ear to the new…” what about the underrated, overlooked and neglected—of the past? Concerning Mr. Ratliff’s question, “do you think that at some point there’s going to be a deep confusion about what’s really important?”—I thought that critics were supposed to act not only as guides, but also as gatekeepers, explaining us why certain pieces of music are worth listening to more than other pieces of music? “Culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why.”—Henry Van Dyke

Alex Ross: I prefer to think of myself as a guide rather than a gatekeeper. Music is too personal a medium for anyone to be issuing graven-in-stone proclamations about what matters and what doesn’t. In fact, I can’t stand that style of criticism; it tends to backfire and to create resentment against that which it is trying to support. However, I hope that my enthusiasms (together my negative reviews) offer up a picture of what I consider to be truly important. I love writing about forgotten composers. The Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker, for example, who is finally re-emerging from the shadows after disappearing from view in the 1930s.

Ben Ratliff: In “Making Sense of Wine,” Matt Kramer says that a connoisseur can say “This is a great wine, but I can’t stand it.” Okay: that’s pretty much what we try to be able to do. I think we’re both writing about music of the past—in my case, sometimes too much, according to some readers.

The best limits for artists are the self-imposed ones. The limits I don’t like are the limits of commercially applied categorization.


Rockville, Md.: I hope to get this in in time … I’m a black girl who loves Coldplay, Tori Amos and basically anything that people wouldn’t “expect” me to like. Why are we still so narrow-minded in how we think in regards to musical “racial lines”? Sure, it’s cool for other races to embrace R&B/hip hop … but see me at a Morrissey concert and you’d think I’d invaded a secret world!

Ben Ratliff: Yeah, it’s sad, isn’t it? Those walls are meaningless where music is concerned and it’s good to get over them. I’d even expand this issue to generations. Always being in an audience where everyone is pretty much the same age/race/cultural demographic as yourself doesn’t teach you much. I really dislike the idea that there are kinds of music you “should” and “shouldn’t” like because of who you are. Well, maybe we’re slowly getting beyond that…slowly, though.


Ben Ratliff: Good to hear from all of you. Thanks for taking part in this.