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Ultimately it’s all music: Alex Ross with 45th Parallel Universe

The popular music critic joined up with the classical chamber collective for an evening of readings and live musical examples.

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Alex Ross at The Reser with 45th Parallel Universe. Photo by Bora Yoon.
Alex Ross at The Reser with 45th Parallel Universe. Photo by Bora Yoon.

January 26 brought New Yorker music critic Alex Ross to The Reser near downtown Beaverton. Hosted by 45th Parallel Universe, the show featured readings from his extensive collection of writings as the leading music critic in The New Yorker and author of three books. These passages introduced a great collection of pieces by Ligeti, Luther Adams, Price, Radiohead, Wagner and Copland.

Alex Ross is maybe the closest thing we have to music critic royalty for classical music–though he admittedly dislikes the term. His longtime blog, The Rest is Noise, is a great read. He has published three books: The Rest is Noise, a very good (if occasionally flawed) history of music in the 20th century; Listen to This, a collection of essays on classical and pop music; and his most recent, Wagnerism

One admirable quality of Ross’ criticism is that he takes both classical and pop music into account. They are both music, albeit in different socially-constructed spheres of influence, but music nonetheless, deserving of fair criticism. I do have some disagreements with some of his opinions, however. For example, I think he is a bit unfair towards Arnold Schoenberg, depicting him as far more dogmatic in his 12-tone technique than he really was. In my view it was mostly the Darmstadt composers influenced by Schoenberg’s pupil, Anton Webern, who took atonality to aesthetic extremes.

And I consider this statement from The Rest is Noise off-base: “As technology grew more sophisticated, tracks became monstrously dense: Public Enemy’s ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ is the Rite of Spring of black America.” Maybe this is a fair point of comparison for a classically-literate audience of readers, but I think it’s the wrong way to look at the Bomb Squad’s production techniques. Both pieces are sonically dense and aggressive, but reach that point from entirely different directions–the Rite from evocations of primordial nature, “Terrordome” from post-television sound collages and political rage. A more apt comparison for a classical audience would be Cage’s Williams Mix, Ives’ Central Park in the Dark, or Berio’s Sinfonia.

But it’s not really fair to judge a music critic based on whether you agree with their opinions–everyone’s tastes are unique, and what’s the point of reading someone you agree with one hundred percent? What is more important is whether they elucidate some ineffable quality of the music, or whether they give us a new appreciation for the art form. It also helps that Ross is a great prose stylist and strikes a balance between sophistication and directness.

We live in a moment where music criticism is at its most volatile. Longtime publication Pitchfork recently laid off much of its staff in a very stupid move by parent company Condé Nast to restructure the publication under GQ, though it seems like the backlash has kept the servers running (incidentally, Ross’ employer, The New Yorker, is also owned by Condé Nast). There were also major layoffs at the LA Times newsroom. When jobs at even the most prestigious publications are precarious, you know it’s rough going out there. Amidst that backdrop, Ross’ readings and near-perfectly curated setlist showed how important criticism can be. Ross also proves that one doesn’t need to be pretentious, snarky or condescending to mass culture to be a great critic. 

It’s all music

As the lights fell, Ross walked on stage, woodwind quintet in tow. He wore an unassuming outfit of khakis, blue dress shirt, black blazer and running shoes. The first words out of his mouth were “I hate classical music,” with pause for laughter. He then clarified that he meant the words “classical music,” not the music, then explained his position that ultimately it’s all music. His short manifesto acted as the prologue for the ensuing two hours.

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A passage from chapter thirteen of The Rest is Noise introduced three of Ligeti’s Bagatelles for wind quintet, performed by 45th’s Arcturus Quintet. Compared to his avant-garde contemporaries, Ligeti’s music is far less obsessed with systems and atonality and more with texture and timbre. What these pieces also show is that “non-tonal” doesn’t have to mean “deadly serious.” The first bagatelle is full of cheeky humor, while the second is loaded with bristling half-step dissonances, deep drones and klezmer-like phrygian dominant melodies. The third bagatelle was a highlight, casting folksy melodies over a quick seven-note ostinato ping-ponging between instruments. Each Arcturus member took plentiful opportunities to shine as soloists.

As the 45th Parallel Ensembles took turns onstage, Ross sat in his chair looking onwards, sometimes with arms folded, sometimes with one hand on his thigh, the other pressed to his temple, but in both cases in deep contemplation. Despite his lofty reputation he appeared personable, and when I spoke to him briefly after the show he was smiling and courteous. He also shared my enthusiasm for young composer Kali Malone (if I had to list my five favorite records, Malone’s The Sacrificial Code would easily crack that list.)

Alex Ross then described the aurora borealis and the installation “The Place where you Go to Listen” in Fairbanks, Alaska, created by John Luther Adams. The Pyxis Quartet came onstage to play Adams’ Maclaren Summit. The piece was mostly harmonics folding over each other, one texture slowly refracting into the next.

The mousai REMIX quartet then performed some folk song arrangements by Florence Price. Ross’ introduction (originally a 2018 piece in The New Yorker) described the re-discovery and re-evaluation of her music in recent years with a story detailing the fragile relationship we have with the past. Many of Price’s manuscripts long thought lost were re-discovered, allowing her music to become more widely performed than ever before.

Price’s arrangements reveal her inventiveness. The opening song, “Cavalry,” is cast with a Brahms-like texture, only momentarily breaking apart from 4-part harmony, each instrument cascading countermelodies over each other. The second, “Clementine,” is cast in a lighter tone, beginning in D major but gliding into seemingly every other key with some moments of intense chromaticism. The final, “Shortnin’ Bread,” is cast as a jaunty toe-tapper, ending the set with the shortest piece. 

Up next was the set I was looking forward to the most: three arrangements of Radiohead songs. Ross set himself apart from other ostensible classical critics for also discussing music by so-called pop artists like Radiohead, The Beatles and Björk. It’s all music, after all. But for the most part he sticks to classical music, only delving into the popular music world on special occasions and for certain artists. As far as I can tell he has had little to say about some of the groundbreaking pop artists of the 2010s and onwards. Still, in a world where classical critics and pop critics alike tend to stay in their lanes, his attempts to bridge the gap are worth commending. 

The opener was Radiohead’s hit song, “Creep.” The band was having fun: it looked like cellist Marilyn de Olivera enjoyed playing the pre-chorus stabs and harsh glissandi on her amplified instrument. It also seems like Yoon relished the opportunity to sing the “you’re so fucking special” in a concert between Florence Price and Richard Wagner, and hit the falsetto notes in the bridge like they were no trouble. Percussionist Sergio Carreno’s arrangements were very good, capturing the essence of the originals while creating new textures. 

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L to R: Sergio Carreno, Marilyn de Olivera, Bora Yoon, Michael Roberts, and Stephen Kehner performing Carreno's arrangements of Radiohead songs. Photo courtesy of Bora Yoon.
L to R: Sergio Carreno, Marilyn de Olivera, Bora Yoon, Michael Roberts, and Stephen Kehner performing Carreno’s arrangements of Radiohead songs. Photo courtesy of Bora Yoon.

The best arrangement was “Treefingers,” originally an ambient interlude from their album Kid A consisting of guitar plucks slowed down into an eerie soundscape. Here that tune was recast with bowed vibraphone, waterphone and taps inside the piano. There was also “Pyramid Song,” a lilting piano ballad with a complex rhythm that can be hard to follow at first (it’s a syncopated swing in 4/4, two-measure phrases you can try counting as 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3). I would love to hear Carreno’s take on some other Radiohead songs like “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” “Exit Music,” or one of their more raucous songs like “Paranoid Android” or “2+2=5.”

After an excerpt from Ross’ most recent book, Wagnerism, Hannah Penn came onstage to sing Fricka’s aria “wo in Bergen du dich birgist” from Die Walküre. It was a fiery performance from Penn, and fellow journalist James Bash who was sitting next to me commended her diction.

The final performance was Copland’s Appalachian Spring, after another reading from The Rest is Noise. Ross describes how Copland used music to craft a distinctly American style, incorporating tunes and sounds from folk idioms and using wide voicings and quartal chords to convey the country’s vastness. It was a real treat to hear the score in its original 13-instrument arrangement (string nonet, piano and three woodwinds). The smaller group lends an intimacy to the sound, and the group of 45th Parallel musicians decided to perform standing up (except for the cellos and piano). The most glorious moment of the performance was the famous set of variations on “Simple Gifts,” kicked off by clarinetist James Shields. 

How do all six pieces fit together? I’m not sure if they do. Instead, Ross brought us into his musical headspace, a world of joyous tunes, complexity without complication and expressive performances, guided by the brilliant musicians of 45th Parallel Universe. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

 

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2 Responses

  1. So good to see this here. Alex Ross did a stint at the Seattle Opera, including a full Ring, and his “All the Rest is Noise” is probably my all-time favorite blog. Unfortunately I was not able to attend his show, so thanks for the report!

  2. A truly erudite review of another well designed performance by Ron Blessinger and the 45th Parallel Universe ensemble. We hope to see more of this informed reviewing of important concerts in the future.

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