Music critic Alex Ross delivers convocation

Tom Pilcher

(Photo by Nicholas Glennon)

Music critic and author Alex Ross visited campus Thursday, Nov. 3 to deliver a convocation titled “The Lamento Connection: Bass Lines of Music History.”

Ross has worked for The New Yorker as a music critic since 1996, and has written two books, “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and “Listen to This.”

Additionally, Ross was recognized with a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellowship in 2008.

Though Ross’s background is largely classical, his approach to studying music is much more holistic. His convocation address spanned hundreds of years of music history, drawing links from the bass lines of the 16th century Spanish Chacona to the Beatles’ “Michelle” from the 1960s.

His convocation address was full of examples, most of which were audio recordings. However, to serve as an example to one of Ross’ points, five Lawrence viola students—Maija Anstine, Emma Cifrino, Leslie Fox, Chris Mlynarczyk and Sarah Vosper—played an arrangement of “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas,” which they performed from the left balcony of the Memorial Chapel.

The convocation was well-attended, and Ross’ message of wide listening fit well with Lawrence’s musically curious atmosphere. Following the convocation, Ross attended a lunch with a group of students and also answered questions at a public question-and-answer session.

Blurring musical boundaries and finding common patterns across different genres are major parts of Ross’ goals in writing about music. In an interview shortly before his convocation address, Ross remarked, “Classical music is just not as far apart from folk and popular music as people may think. It really all does just flow together.”

Ross added, “I really am a big believer in pushing back against some of these stereotypes that surround classical music.”

In addition to delving further into some ideas from his second book, “Listen to This,” Ross also discussed how he arrived at his current position at The New Yorker. From an early age, he played oboe and piano, hoping that he could become a famous composer someday. Ross also harbored an early interest in writing and literature, eventually attending Harvard as an English literature major.

Harvard’s student radio station was the first place where Ross to begin mixing his two interests of music and writing. “I had a couple different classical music shows at the radio station in college, and I wrote little essays to go along with those shows, along with some CD reviews which we published in our program guide,” he said.

Ross’ college radio station was also where he first set foot outside his self-imposed classical bubble. “I tuned it all out, I just did not have any time or patience for [anything but classical music],” laughed Ross. “The whole 20th century really wasn’t in my field of vision.”

After getting into 20th century avant-garde classical music, friends from the radio station eventually convinced him to explore avant-garde non-classical music, such as free jazz and noisy post-punk. Ross described these experiences as the foundation for his current interests in modern artists like Björk and Radiohead, who defy genre classifications. “Listen to This” features essays about both artists, in addition to others covering Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth and Frank Sinatra.

Following graduation from college, Ross considered pursuing an academic career while fielding occasional freelance assignments. But after writing his first piece for The New Yorker, things started to fall into place.

“When I got my first assignment at The New Yorker, it was such a great experience in every way,” recalled Ross. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll stick with this and see where it leads.’ The New Yorker offered me a job in 1996, and I’ve pretty much been happy ever since,” he added.

Ross’ most recent book, “Listen to This,” was the focus of Lawrence’s Community Read this term. Students and professors of all disciplines read essays from Ross’ book and discussed his points in weekly class meetings, and the convocation address served as a culmination of sorts. The university also held a student essay contest which challenged students to write essays about music in the style of Alex Ross, but no winners were announced in the end.

Senior Ruth Jacobs felt that the Community Read format fit Ross’ book particularly well, and she enjoyed the chance to hear Ross speak and answer questions.

“Part of what is so powerful about Ross’ writing is the connections he draws between classical music and contemporary culture,” said Jacobs. “For that reason, it was great to be able to discuss his book with a group of people who came from a variety of academic and musical backgrounds.”

Frans de Waal, primatologist and professor of primate behavior at Emory University, will give the convocation address next on Feb. 2, 2012.

For clips of my interview with Ross, search for “Alex Ross Speaks at Lawrence University” on YouTube.