In his features for The New Yorker, the music critic Alex Ross covers the whole music scene, with articles ranging from Verdi and Mozart, to Björk and Radiohead.
After his bestseller, “The Rest Is Noise”, Ross’s second book “Listen to This” gives “an introduction to crucial figures and ideas in classical music, and also provides an alternative perspective on modern pop”.
Triggered by reading one of the book’s chapters,  “Listen to This: Crossing the border from Classical to Pop”, 200% spoke with Ross in London to understand what he considers to be the greatest examples of where Pop meets the Classics (Björk – “An Echo, A Stain”, Radiohead – “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and The Beatles – “A Day in the Life”) and where the Classics meets Pop (Steve Reich’s minimalistic music and Igor Stravinsky – “The Rite of Spring”).
200%: Do you have criteria against which you are able to say this pop band uses classical elements in their pop music very well and this band not, here it becomes kitsch?
Alex Ross: It is the same criteria I use judging any piece of music: the dimensions of technique, expression and emotion. I don’t have a scientific method that I follow. It is more an instinctive reaction.
First of all: Do I have the sense that the music is technically well put together; are things just being thrown together at random, or is there some thought to the process. Even in a three minute song there is so much you can do and so many ways you can employ musical technique. Take a simple idea, start developing it and looking at it from different angles instead of repeating the same idea over and over again. I’m interested when there are variations on a strong idea and someone is thinking it through in musical terms.
Secondly, the emotional dimension. Is there some point to all this, is there a core, a burning conviction and passion in the music? Is there something at stake? And when I feel all those things together, that’s what carries me.
200%: When it comes to pop musicians who incorporate Classical music into Pop music, you seem to be more interested in those who use classical elements planted at the core of their music?
Alex Ross: Yes, if you are going to make this move, I do tend to get more out of it when I feel a classical idea has been integrated from the very beginning, rather then added at a very late stage of production – as when a producer decides “let’s put some strings on top of this”.
200%: In your book you say that The Beatles were by far the best of throwing in bits of pieces of classical music into their mix. Could you explain why you consider that they were by far the best?
Alex Ross: They were the first to attempt to do it in a serious way in the rock world. They were very thoughtful about how they incorporated classical music into their work and it felt very organic. I love “A Day in the Life” because they used the orchestra as a medium of chaos and not just as a grandiose, richly varied musical picture. When the orchestra appears in the song it seems to erupt from the nature of the song. It is part of what the song is aiming to express.
I also like the ruggedness of how they used the orchestra in “I’m the Walrus” as it’s insistent, rougher in tone. Not using the orchestra as beautification but making it pungent, like a blow to the solar-plexus. Also the raw recording of the classical instruments is very striking.
200%: What do you consider to be other good examples of contemporary pop musicians who integrate classical elements in their music?
Alex Ross: Musicians like Björk, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom are making very intelligent and purposeful use of classical elements in their songs that are comparable to what The Beatles did in terms of incorporating it into their music. It was not because they felt “Oh, it is time for us to have a song that has an orchestra attached to it” but they had something that they musically needed to express, which could only be done with classical components.
200%: Could you mention a great example of a song where one of the contemporary musicians integrated classical elements in their music?
Alex Ross: All of Björk’s album “Vespertine” is full of these moments: sometimes it’s hard for me to decide if it’s pop music that is making reference to classical music or a case of a composer who happens to use pop music as a medium on this occasion. For instance, at the very beginning of the song “An Echo, A Stain”, if you start listening to it without knowing anything about Björk, you might say “this sounds like a contemporary classical composition”. You hear a chorus: it is not a simple harmony, it is a very spread out, dense chord, somewhat dissonant but also dreamlike, through which electronic sounds are filtered. After thirty seconds, Björk’s voice enters and you realize “Oh it’s recorded in a way that’s typical of how pop voices are recorded”; however, the way her voice moves musically, she is not singing a pop ditty – it’s fragments of vocal lines, with the chorus constantly moving in and out. For me, it’s wonderful as it’s so hard to classify: it could be a pop song, it could be a contemporary classical composition: in the end you realize it doesn’t matter what you call it. The important element is that this is Björk, this is her individual personality that is being expressed by means that are interesting to her.
200%: What do you think of Radiohead’s rock version of “Arpeggi”, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which was based on their atmospheric string based composition “Arpeggi”?
Alex Ross: It is a great example where I think the classical element is a little bit more under the surface. You have a guitar, you have voice – your first immediate sense is “here is a rock song”. There is a mellow, dark kind of mood and, as the song continues, it becomes more and more uneasy in a sense that into which category does this “rock song” falls because of these minute changes that are constantly taking place. It never quite goes in the direction you think.
Rhythmically, it is very complicated; there are cycles of patterns happening that are constantly spilling outside of the frame over a very regular one, two, three, four beat and the multiple cycles fall on top of each other. It’s very tricky as it keeps slipping out of your grasp, but it also never breaks the mood completely either. In their music there is always this constant flux and unease and I think this is also a very significant achievement as Radiohead – whilst they are a rock band with a huge commercial career, sell-out arenas wherever it goes – they seem never contented to do the same thing over and over again. Within each song they are thinking; “ok, this has gone on long enough in a particular pattern, but let’s throw in a new element, whether it’s a rhythm or harmony, so it is constantly changing.
200%: What do you think of the arrangements in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”?
Alex Ross: That’s an incredible song. It makes me think of the great tradition of Motown and the beauty of many of those arrangements. It has something in common with the great Frank Sinatra arrangements where you begin with a voice of great colour, a voice with so many nuances and layers to them, and, the arrangements seem to complement it.
200%: Could you mention some good examples of where the Classics meets Pop?
Alex Ross: In the twentieth century you had classical composers who were engaging with popular music, like Maurice Ravel, who loved jazz and he referred to jazz, and George Gershwin, who is primarily known as a composer with a dual career in popular and classical music.
After the Second World War, many composers were affected by Bebop and modern jazz. In the 60s and 70s, the strongest example you had were the American minimalist composers who grew up with Bebop and Rock and Roll and wanted to find a new kind of American contemporary classical music that reflected their world. Steve Reich created pieces that didn’t sound like anything else, but when you go below the surface, you realize he is picking up an idea from John Coltrane [American Jazz saxophonist and composer] taking a very short motive, repeating it insistently and then starting to vary it. Reich also makes reference to West African music, such as rhythmic ideas. The fascinating thing is that Reich immediately had this enormous influence on pop music, on Brian Eno, David Bowie and Sonic Youth, who were definitely affected by the New York minimalist music scene and so you had this great back and forth. I think minimalist music remains incredibly influential to this day as there is a lot of electronic dance music where you hear this sort of pattern starting and you think, “Oh that’s Steve Reich”. It’s important to have a contemporary composer who grew up with pop music, listened to it, incorporated ideas from it, and then affected it, influenced it, progressing from there. For me, that’s one of the most exciting moments in all of twentieth century music – the series of influences that took place in, and around, American minimalism.
200%: Do you consider Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to be a piece where Pop meet the Classics?
Alex Ross: That’s a very special case. The rhythms are so potent: we can’t be completely sure where Stravinsky got them, as it feels as if he could have been listening to African music or even Indian music. This idea of a pattern starting and than an extra pulse being added and subtracted – these are not things found in a lot of non-Western musical traditions; this very vibrant, unexpected and sort of propulsive syncopation in “The Rite of Spring”. It appears that Stravinsky made it up – he wasn’t listening to, or had no knowledge of, African music. Jazz didn’t yet exist and he didn’t know anything about Ragtime.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Stravinsky felt the need for this rhythmic dynamism, to reject a romantic grandiosity, and find an energy that came much more from the ground, from the earth in a sense, and he put that into the world. That piece has gone on to have a strong effect on Jazz and Rock musicians. They may not be directly influenced but there is something uncannily familiar about it, where it feels like a progenitor of Rock and Roll or Bebop. It’s a classical piece, but it seems like a prophecy of things to come in the popular music world as well.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers with a contribution from Louis Warner. (12/2010)
‘Listen To This’ by Alex Ross, Fourth Estate