My Conversation with Alex Ross

Here is the video, audio, and transcript.  Of course Alex has a new book out Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which explores the complicated legacy of Wagner and music more generally.  We learn Alex’s nomination for the greatest pop album ever made, but many of my questions focused on progress in music and musical performance, the nature of talent, the power of culture, and also cancel culture, Wagner of course having been a frequent target for a long time.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: One theme of your book, as I understand it, is that Wagnerism historically is more diverse than many people realize. There was a branch of Zionism that loved Wagner. There’s an African American tradition that’s quite interested in Wagner. Maybe you can talk me out of some of the worries I have when I listen to Wagner. When I listen, I feel better if I’m listening to Von Klemperer, who is Jewish, and he was a refugee, and he left Europe to come to America. I feel I’m offsetting something in Wagner that disturbs me.

And if you think about what Wagner has become, it seems the problematic element in Wagner — it does somehow match up to the music in a way which is hard to escape. No one listens to Wagner and comes away saying, “Well dull, bourgeois life, as you find under democratic capitalism, is underrated.” No one comes away from Wagner saying, “I now have a greater appreciation for methodological individualism.” Right?

ROSS: [laughs] No.

COWEN: There’s something ominous about the music. How should we, as listeners, come to terms with that? Should we feel guilty when listening to Wagner, given the association with anti-Semitism, Nazis, and much more?

ROSS: I think you should always be wary, let’s say, to Wagner. My whole history with Wagner was, actually, I started out really averse to the entire sound world. When I was a kid growing up with classical music, I tried listening to Lohengrin. I checked records of Lohengrin out of the public library, and I put them on, and I only could stand it for 10 minutes or so.

Of course, I knew nothing about anti-Semitism and Nazism and the connection with Hitler. It was just purely a question of the sound. I found the sound disturbing and this seasick feeling of bobbing from one chord to another without clear demarcations. I just had this instinctual revulsion to it…

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

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