′New Yorker′ music critic wins Belmont prize | Music | DW | 01.02.2012
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'New Yorker' music critic wins Belmont prize

Music critic Alex Ross has received the Munich-based Forberg-Schneider Foundation's Belmont Prize for his contribution to contemporary music.

Alex Ross speaks during the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony in New York, Thursday, March 6, 2008. Ross won in the category of criticism for his book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. (ddp images/AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Alex Ross

Alex Ross, an American music critic and writer for the prestigious New Yorker magazine and for the New York Times, garnered the 20,000-euro ($26,000) prize on Jan. 26 from the Forberg-Schneider Foundation.

Ross' first book, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," published in 2007, is a cultural history of 20th-century music. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and has since been translated into more than 15 languages. Many critics and readers have praised its ability to open up (classical) music to a wider audience and offer insight into how different types of music have influenced one another and helped shape history. "Listen to This," Ross' second book, was published in 2010.

The Munich-based Forberg-Schneider Foundation, established in 1997, gives the award - one of Europe's best endowed prizes in the cultural sector - approximately every two years to musicians, composers or musicologists.

DW spoke with Ross just before receiving the Belmont Prize.

DW: You are the music critic for The New Yorker and are set to receive the Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music - one of the best endowed prizes in Germany - from the Forberg-Schneider Foundation. It's the first time a music critic is to receive the award. Can you imagine the jury's reasons for selecting you?

Alex Ross: I was very surprised to find myself receiving this honor. It is difficult for me to guess the reasons. Of course I am enormously pleased. The prize is really conceived for those who advanced the colors of contemporary music in one way or another. Since the time I started as a critic almost twenty years ago in New York, I have - as much as possible - attempted to not only write about, but also observe the contemporary music scene of the twentieth century music. Also for a wider audience, [I've attempted] to give some context for this music and to argue for its importance. It's always puzzled me why modern music has had to struggle with the public. So as a critic, I feel it's important not only to discuss individual works and composers, but to observe the entire scene in a sense to guide a newcomer, someone venturing into this territory for the first time through the labyrinth of modern music and its works. This is very important to me.

I think it's not easy to tell the story of 20th-century music. You have to reduce and to concentrate upon only some important composers. What have been your categories?

The Rest is Noise: book cover in the German translation

"The Rest is Noise" has appeared in the German translation

Yes of course, one must be selective. There is a great deal of music that I do not talk about in the book which is of considerable importance. In a sense, it's a series of narratives roughly in chronological order not only about the music itself, but its social and political context, its relationships with other art forms, and the relationships between 20th-century classical and 20th-century popular music. So in a sense, it's an attempt to observe the music within a wider cultural and historical landscape. And so I isolate certain individual figures or groups of figures who could demonstrate these relationships better than others. In a sense the book is about the 20th century.

Could you explain the enormous success of your book?

I think it must have something to do with an untapped curiosity about 20th-century music. It has a reputation of being difficult and forbidding for general audiences. But I think also there is an eagerness among many people to attempt to understand this music and to find these threads that carry that great classical tradition into the present. And of course aspects of this music are quite familiar in other contexts, in popular culture and movie soundtracks, even in popular music. And of course nothing pleases me more than if someone says to me that he has have never heard, for example, of [French composer Olivier] Messiaen's music and read something about him in my book and listened to his “Quartet for the End of Time" and then became more and more fascinated with his music and told me he visits every performance he can.

Composer Arnold Schönberg

They're still not whistling his tunes: Arnold Schönberg

Arnold Schoenberg composed his "Three Piano Pieces" in 1909. It's modern music, but is now over 100 years old. Has there been some development when we look at the relationship between modern music and the audience and also to the understanding of this particular piece of music. What has changed?

On some level it is quite mystifying that a work by Schoenberg from 1909 would still have this effect on many people - of seeming to be strange and unfamiliar and alienating. The same people may go to the museum and see works by Kandinsky from the same year, abstract works that break from the previous tradition with similar violence. Music is a very powerful medium, the most powerful of the arts as Schopenhauer argued, and one that perhaps invades our consciousness with greater force. This is a problem for modern music, but it is also the power of this music that a hundred years later still has the ability to disturb. Everyone who loves this music feels that on some level this problem should have gone away by now. In the end, I think it has less to do with the particular properties of sound and music than with the fact that people simply have not been properly introduced to this music at an early age in school, also not in the concert hall. It does not appear very often and when it does, it appears in a rather unhelpful context.

And actually I think there has been a great deal of progress in going to concerts in New York now. New York has a quite conservative audience. But I do think there has been great progress when the Metropolitan Opera plays Wozzeck and "Lulu" by [Alban] Berg or "Moses and Aaron" by Schoenberg. It may not be a sold-out house, but those who do come feel very passionate about the music. The power of the music is being felt. Even in the past 20 years, when I go to concerts in New York, I see more openness in the audience toward these 20th-century classics. There is less of this prejudgement of the music, and gives these pieces a chance. It's important to listen to them a number of times until it becomes more natural.

Interview: Tim Koeritz
Editor: Louisa Schaefer

Excerpts and audio samples from Ross' works, as well as a glossary of musical terms, can be found at his Web site and blog: www.therestisnoise.com

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