If Alex Ross could get his hands on a time machine, he knows exactly where he’d go: 1920s Berlin. “Such an incredible period,” he says. “There was just so much going on.” He’d check out the Berlin Festival of 1929, featuring Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss conducting, a gala performance with Toscanini at the baton, and Stravinsky at the piano playing his own work. He’d see Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on tour, Otto Klemperer presenting new music by Hindemith, and Bruno Walter conducting Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. There’s just one precaution he’d take, he says, in light of the events that would envelop Germany in the following decade: “I’d make sure that my time machine had the return function working correctly so I could get out of there.”
Fantasies aside, it’s nice to have Ross safely ensconced in the twenty-first century. For starters, the contemporary vantage point is key to his first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, forthcoming in October from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The Rest Is Noise is one of those captivating cultural histories that manages both extensive sweep and engaging specificity, and it should come with a warning to readers that it might persuade them to quit their jobs in favor of sitting around listening to classical music for a year or two. (If you decide to do so, see Ross’s recommended recordings at the back of the book.) It’s also the product of nearly two decades of writing about music, starting with Ross’s days as a college DJ in the late ’80s. At Harvard’s radio station, WHRB, he hosted a twentiethcentury- classical show on Sunday afternoons. “I would write these little treatises for my radio show that I would read aloud to the three people who were listening,” he says, laughing. “Actually, some of what I write in the opening chapter of my book dates back to that period—I did a show about Salome at one point and used a little kernel of what I wrote back then.”
Ross owns thirteen recordings of Salome— he’s fascinated by Strauss, and Salome is his “most collected opera,” though he points out that “real opera fanatics would have more than that.” In his Chelsea home-office, a pleasant south-facing room with a patterned red rug and two walls packed with reading and listening material, the classical library is arranged alphabetically, from John Adams to Alexander Zemlinsky in print and Richard Abrams to Ellen Taaffe Zwillich on compact disc. (A few hundred more books reside in his office at the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1996.) In the books section, Wagner lays claim to the most real estate: three and a half shelves, including a complete edition of his musical writings set in Gothic type, “which makes it even more difficult than usual to read—of course, his writing style is rather turgid,” Ross notes.
Ross is an avid collector who frequents used-book stores. He seeks out, as he puts it, “books that somehow carry a trace of a lost period of history.” He has several signed editions, including Aaron Copland’s collection of writings, Copland on Music. His best historical find happened in the ’90s in a bookstore in Vermont. “I was looking at their music section and their foreign-literature section,” he recalls, “and immediately all these books started jumping out at me that were just very atypical, like these Adorno editions in German. And it turned out they belonged to Claudio Arrau, the pianist—they had at least a hundred books from his library. He had died a few years before. He lived in Berlin in the ’20s and studied there and lived in America during the war, so he had an amazing collection going back to the 1920s, some quite rare stuff. I got a good bargain— I think I gave them $100 or $150 for a box of his books.” Among them were the Adorno set, plus a collection of the writings of Busoni, with whom Arrau had studied, with the original Berlin bookstore’s stamp and a writtenin “1923.” “It’s thrilling to have this little memento of 1920s Berlin,” Ross says. Who needs a time machine anyway?
Ross’s nonmusic books—among them literature, history, mythology, and philosophy— are housed in the hallway. They are grouped by region, and the dominant presence in fiction (at three shelves’ worth) is Thomas Mann. Highlights include an early edition of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (Berlin, 1931) and Salka Viertel’s memoir The Kindness of Strangers, about her life in Hollywood émigré circles with the likes of Mann, Garbo, and Schoenberg. There’s also a copy of George Crabbe’s long poem The Borough, which contains the source text for Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. This book, too, carries a miniature history, which Ross relates: Britten and his companion, Peter Pears, “found a volume of Crabbe in a bookstore in California while they were living there”—not this exact edition, but similar—“and after starting to read it they decided not only that they had to move back to England but they started to get the idea for Peter Grimes. So it’s a turning point in Britten’s career.”
For the New Yorker, Ross has profiled not only classical giants such as English composer Thomas Adès and Russian maestro Valery Gergiev but also artists like Radiohead and Björk. He keeps the popular music on a separate shelf, tucked away in the office closet—for reasons of space, not editorial judgment, as anyone who has read him on Bob Dylan knows. A big fan, Ross has all of Dylan’s official recordings plus a number of bootlegs; a recent photo posted on his blog, therestisnoise.com, reveals that he also has a Time Out of Mind sticker on his bicycle. The fluidity with which Ross can parse any performance, from a Dylan tune to a Carnegie debut, is in part due to his own musical background. He studied piano and oboe, as well as composition, and in addition to his music books he collects scores. “Scores are very expensive,” he says, “so I’m always excited when I find something on the cheap”—like his Mahler Tenth Symphony, which usually goes for around $80 but which he got for $5.98 at a discount bookstore in Houston. “That really made my day,” he says. He recommends the Strand as a source, and Patelson’s, opposite Carnegie Hall, as well as Travis & Emery, “a great store in London that’s dedicated to music books on that little street of secondhand-book stores. Every time I stop by, I find a few scores. They’re often signed by minor mid-twentiethcentury English composers or other figures. My edition of the complete Beethoven piano concertos belonged to Alan Civil, a very well-known French horn player who actually plays on the Beatles song ‘For No One.’”
Ross’s classical collection is prodigious, a happy by-product of his trade, given that most are recordings sent to him for review. Like most New Yorkers, however, he suffers from space limitations. This has resulted in downsizing, not of content but of packaging. “The big revolution that happened was when I discovered these little plastic sleeves,” he says, pointing out a cluster of CDs that have been liberated from their boxes. “There was no way I could have coped with this collection before discovering them.”
On a small table in front of the CDs sits a little lamp with a few surrounding odds and ends, including what Ross says might be his “most collectible item.” It’s an envelope containing several photographs and a postcard. “I got in touch with a man who has now passed away, who served in the war,” Ross says. “He was an American solider, and in 1945 he passed through Garmisch, where Richard Strauss was living. He took these photos of Strauss, and Strauss signed this postcard for him: June 23, 1945. A few years ago, I’d mentioned Strauss meeting American soldiers after the war, so he wrote to me telling his own story.”
There is one volume on music in the apartment that doesn’t live in Ross’s office. It belongs to his partner, actor and director Jonathan Lisecki. A floppy paperback, it’s encased in brown paper like a grade schooler’s textbook, its title hidden from view. “When we were first dating, someone got it for me as a joke,” Lisecki explains, while Ross looks on, laughing, “and covered it so I wouldn’t be ashamed.” It is Classical Music for Dummies.
Radhika Jones is managing editor of the Paris Review.
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