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June 28, 2022 38 mins

Alex Ross has been a music critic at The New Yorker since 1996. His beat is classical music, but his work spans literature, history, the visual arts, film, and ecology. The MacArthur Genius Grant recipient was cited by the foundation for his ability to offer “new ways of thinking about the music of the past and its place in our future.”  He is also the author of three books, “Listen to This,” “The Rest is Noise” and his most recent, “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” which dives into the influential composer’s complicated legacy. Alex Ross and Alec discuss the changing field of criticism, Wagner’s place in history and how to separate art from artist. 

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
This is Alec Baldwin, and you're listening to Here's the
thing from my Heart radio. That is, of course, the

(00:49):
Prelude to Lohengrin by Richard Wagner, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic,
conducted by Sergio Zawa. My guest today. Alex Ross is
the author of Wagnerism, Art and Politics in the Shadow
of Music, about the life and work of German composer
Richard Wagner. Alex Ross has been the music critic at

(01:13):
The New Yorker since nine and at The New York
Times before that. While his beat is classical music, he
writes on a wide ranging number of subjects, from opera
to avant garde, Kurt Cobain to Bob Dylan, all alongside
essays on history, art, film and literature. He's a MacArthur

(01:34):
Genius Grant recipient, cited by the Foundation for his ability
to offer quote new ways of thinking about the music
of the past and its place in our future unquote,
with his deep knowledge of music history. I wanted to
know how Alex Ross saw popular music fitting into the
pantheon of culture against past illustrious genres. Well, I think

(02:00):
there is kind of a natural life cycle with genres
as they unfold over time that eventually their their past
can begin to overshadow their present. You know, if you
if you look at the history of jazz, you know,
and the emergence of this jazz classicism in recent decades,
where you know, kids go to music schools and and

(02:23):
and study jazz and sort of learn how to play
Ellington the same way generations of conservatory students have have
learned Beethoven and Brahms, and so there's that kind of
classical mentality, which yeah, I think can sort of overcome
any art form. And it's tricky, you know, because I

(02:43):
think that the fires of invention are alive in every
genre all the time, and they remain alive in quote
unquote classical music as well. And so the kind of
seduction of the past, for me as a critic and
also just as a listener, is something to be you know,
it's inescapable, and I love all the music of the past,
but for me it's also something to be resisted, you know,

(03:04):
because you you sort of have to pay attention to
what's going on now, and you know there is in
every genre sort of always also that completely new kind
of feelings. So it's kind of I mean, a lot
of has to do with well, what's getting marketed, you know,
what's getting marketed as kind of new music now in
pop music, and I think a lot of that is

(03:27):
just kind of market driven and not necessarily paying attention
to where the real originality is. And so you know,
if something is just being sort of shoved down your
throats so kind of relentlessly, people will, Yeah, people will
tend to kind of go back to the past because
they have a sort of freedom. This is kind of

(03:47):
wonderful freedom for like, I don't know if someone who's
like fourteen years old now like choosing to become obsessed
by by the Beatles, you know, And I think there's
a joy in that, you know, in just in kind
of taking ownership of the pa asked. And I think
you can also like open you up to sort of
new ideas in the present, Like once sort of engage
with something that just seems from a totally different world,

(04:09):
almost irrelevant to your own when it comes alive and
just feel so urgent, then I think that just sort
of changes your perspective on the present and opens you
up to new possibilities. So so there's there's a real
power also in and just disappearing into the past and
kind of re emerging on the other side, and in
real safety and security too, you know. I mean, I
I found like I would look at popular music today

(04:32):
and I neither listen to nor collect anything today. Nothing.
I mean that the artists whose contemporary recording as I
buy more regularly is Winton Marsalis. I mean I listened
to classical music. Pretty much of my listening is classical music,
or five percent, five percent of it might be jazz.
The other ten percent is Beetles Stone Zeppelin, who from

(04:53):
my pots smoking south Shore Long Island youth, you know,
I mean that which these were are? I mean, whose
neck exten all that kind of stuff. But another thing
I thought about reading that Dylan article you wrote a
while back, and I think about artists of their day,
and certainly Dylan is by and large of his day
and thoughtful. And I'm wondering if back then you wanted

(05:16):
people to help you negotiate that new frontier we were
in of learning the truth about the American government and
our political process, and people did that, and they devoured
a lot of thought provoking and political content in music
and in films and stuff forth, and now we're in
a place where people have a fatigue from that and

(05:37):
they're like, I don't want to talk about that. I
want love songs. It's almost like your audience is saying,
I need my art art my artistic menu, my artistic
reality to be easy and simple. Do you feel that
way that's how the audience used it. I don't know.
I mean, I think you're right in that you're just
in the marketplace. You know, the sixties and seventies were
just a really remarkably open moment in terms of themercial

(06:00):
musical marketplace. A lot of voices came in who were
not being kind of just unexpected voices, unexpected faces, being
sort of allowed that that space to to speak to
a really broad public. You know, if you just look
at how Dylan, how his career developed at at Colombia,

(06:21):
he put out a couple of records and they went nowhere,
and and they just sort of waited around and sort
of kind of they just let him go on making
records even though he was getting very little attraction. And
then suddenly he became Bob Dylan. Suddenly these this extraordinary
phenomenon began. But there was a patience there to sort
of sign up an unusual artist and and sort of

(06:42):
let them develop. And I think that that kind of
patience is much less common, you know, the idea that
you would sign up an artist, give them some money
and and sort of see what they come up with,
you know, I mean now, and an artist gets signed today,
like you know, they're they're already They've often already become
super famous you know, on YouTube, on on TikTok. You know,

(07:04):
they already have the audience, and so just kind of
carving out the creative space. It's it's more uncommon. But yeah,
the seventies, it was just remarkable how many albums were
made where artists were just really exploring just in terms
of themes, not just political themes, but also just spend
the sounds, you know, the kind of sounds that that

(07:26):
got explored. And yeah, I think maybe going back to
the eighties, eighties and nineties, everything became you know, a
bit more kind of straight and narrow in terms of
what was going on. And then it is a celebrity,
the power of celebrity and just how we mean the
biggest problem I think in any arena is we just

(07:46):
pay so much attention to just such a small number
of artists, and so many other voices get crowded out.
And it's just this winner takes all economy at the
works in culture the way it works in in mainstream
kind of worlds, and frankly it works in classical music too.
You know, we have we have a few just celebrity
artists in classical music who cog up too much attention

(08:09):
and in factly the repertory you know, I mean, I
think we we tend to play you know, a certain
number of pieces over and over again. Yes, there are
fantastic pieces, but there's so much more, you know, to
be explored in the past and in the presence. People
don't want to take a chance. Yeah, yeah, just people
only buying tickets when they see just really familiar names,

(08:30):
you know, on the on the program. So it's something
to be pushed back against in class musical world, you know,
as well as the kind of mainstream arena. It's just
been kind of my proccupation, like from the start of
the critic is just kind of all right, so you know,
you know this like trying something new, try to break
composer or sort of try kind of Alexander Zemlinsky, you know,

(08:51):
instead of Maller. You know, they're just there are other
options out there, and it's just this, It's what I
get really excited about, you know, because I grew up
and and I just first I devoured you know, Mozart,
by Demon and Broms and divor Jack, you know, and
then I started discovering more and more and just the
ongoing excitement as always finding new music as well as

(09:13):
of course kind of interesting new ways to perform the
familiar music. But that's just kind of what I try
to communicate on my writing is just try something new. Well.
The thing about Dylan is that I'm always reminded of
that line that people had about Olivier in my business.
They said, if Olivier came around today, he'd be on
a soap opera. They said they weren't quite sure that

(09:35):
that really rich flavor of hisn't that rich quality that
that that heightened sense of of the polished actor would
have a place, Or you'd be the villain in Game
of Thrones or something like that. When I look at Dylan,
I think of him being of his time, and if
he came around now, you know, where would he because
there's a period of Dylan and not a lot of albums,

(09:56):
but a couple of them that I just crave as music.
You know, blood on the track because I crave desire,
I crave I mean, there's cuts on that thing that
I just can listen to again and again and again,
and I have the highest amount of appreciation for those.
And then there's a lot of it which is to me,
it's just Dylan sounding like Dylan. When I discovered Dylan,
and it was late, you know, because I had this
strange development in terms of my taste where it was

(10:18):
all classical, correct, all classical, and just all kind of
eighteenth nineteenth century classical. I mean, I was just barely
in the twentieth century. I listened to a little bit
of mod or a little bit of sibilious. You know.
That was as crazy as I got as a teenager.
And then, you know, past the age of eighteen, I
really started moving into the twentieth century in classical music,
discovering modernism and then finally starting to listen to first

(10:42):
jazz and then rock. But it still it took me
a few years until I got around to Dylan, you know,
because I just sort of dismissed him as this something
from a different generation, of no interest. And then I
was in Berlin in summer, never forget this, staying at
a friend's apartment, and he had a few albums c
d s, and I was just sort of looking for

(11:03):
stuff to listen to um while I was working, and
put on Highway sixty when we visited, and almost immediately
became obsessed by it. You know it once, listen to
it again. I listened to it, like, you know, ten
more times that day, and after a couple of days,
I started to memorize the lyrics, and you know it
become obsessed. But when I started sort of looking at
Dylan's career, it is the kind of career that you

(11:25):
find in classgow music. He's always himself, but he goes
through phases, he sort of matures, He takes unusual turns,
He kind of scandalizes his audience at a certain point.
You know, this kind of sort of plugging in, the
kind of going electric moments disturbs his audience, the same
way you know, Scherenberg and Stevinsky disturbed their audiences, you know,

(11:48):
or late Beethoven for that matter. And the sort of
these sort of ups and downs in terms of reputation.
But at the same time, he's he's always kind of developing,
he's always sort of growing as an artist, and and
that is unusual. I think in the pop music arena,
it's so hard to sustain. You know. It's not that
people lack talent, I think just the marketplace. It's it's

(12:10):
just so difficult to sort of keep your place in
the marketplace and the sort of business in the industry
while also sort of continuing to develop because people want
you to keep doing the same thing over and over again,
you know. And and the power of Dylan was to
refuse to do the same thing over and over again,
to go in new directions and to keep his place,
and that just doesn't happen very often. I think there's

(12:32):
just an incredible willpower they're not to give in and
to sort of continue going in his own direction. But yeah,
I just think we're lucky to be living at the
time that this man is alive. You know, he's completely
extraordinary talent um and just kind of will Like thousands,
for thousands of years, people will still be talking about

(12:53):
Bob Dylan. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross, If you
like conversations with insightful journalists, check out my interview with
Alex Ross's colleague New Yorker editor David Remnick. The magazine
is not the magazine if it doesn't have a sense
of humor. You're not in business to depress the hell

(13:17):
out of the reader. Unremittingly, it's like a band having
a set list. If you do everything, it's all sixteenth
notes from mentioning. So you got a divito? Or will
you sound like the Ramones? Although I've heard of worse things.
So you want some variation in tone, invoice, and that's
your responsibility, you feel, I feel all of it's my responsibility.

(13:41):
Hear more of my conversation with David Remnick in our
archives that Here's the Thing dot org. After the break,
I talked to Alex Ross about one of the most
important composers in the world, Ricard Wagner, and the dark
specter of his anti Semitic views. I'm Alec Baldwin and

(14:08):
you were listening to Here's the Thing. Alex Ross has
been a music critic for three decades. I wanted to
know how his line of work has evolved as our
access to media has changed, the world has definitely changed,
you know. I mean when I started out in the
early nineties first writing for the New York Times is

(14:28):
their most junior, very junior critic. There were just so
many more of us, you know. I remember the world
premiere of John Corleano's The Ghosts of Versailles the Meto,
I mean I think they were they were seventy or
eighty music critics from around the world, you know, attending
that that performance. You know, I just had so many

(14:48):
colleagues from different papers that I would see, you know
at concerts, a latent Kerner from the Village Voice and
Kyle Gann from the Village Voice, and people from the
Post and the Daily News, and you know that someone
was still writing a Terry teach Out was still writing
back class music for a Time magazine. You know. So
there were just a lot of us, you know, and
now very often when to go to concerts, like I'm

(15:10):
the only critic there, or it's just kind of one other,
one other colleague, and that diminishes the power of criticism,
I think, because I think the sort of critics have
power and usefulness as a pack, you know, because no
one wants like a single voice laying down the law
in terms of what's good and what's not. But what
you want is the conversation, the debate. You know, you

(15:33):
want Pauli and k L and Andrew Sarah's yelling at
each other, you know, and for the reader, you kind
of triangulate your idea of what's actually going on from
reading different critics and and you know, I usually agree
with this person on such and such a thing, And
so if as the field kind of empties out, we're
losing our sort of ability to to really have an impact.

(15:55):
But still, you know, we're still here, and and there's
still a bunch of us here, and I think really
critics still have a very big role to play. For me,
it's never been about delivering a judgments. You know, it
was a good or bad thumbs up, thumbs down, That's
not what it's about. You know, my opinion kind of
needs to be somewhere in the review, but it's not paramount.

(16:16):
The first thing to do is just sort of convey
the texture of of what happened, something that happened. You're
a journalist, an event has taken place in musical form
and you're reporting on it, but to give it context,
to show well how did this concert compare to sort
of a bunch of other sort of beet symphony performances
of the past, you know, this new composer, where did

(16:37):
they come from? How do they depart from sort of
the given styles of the day, And that I think
is really useful to the reader, just giving the sense
of context and just starting a conversation. You know, let's
just let's think about this music and talk about it.
And in classical music, I think there's so many people
who are experienced. They go to concerts all the time,
they're very knowledgeable, but they don't they're kind of reluctant

(16:59):
to say anything, you know, they're not sure sort of
how to articulate, you know, what they've experienced. And so
for me, I just always feel as I'm just kind
of throwing a phrase out there to begin the conversation
and to filter you know, I think there's just we're
just being assaulted by so much information and so many
just kind of possibilities, and so I'm just here sort

(17:19):
of filtering out as best I can and seizing on
a few things and saying, you know, try this. And
I think that's that's a very important role. You know,
you can get that in other ways, you can read
the Amazon reviews and and sort of have you know,
there are other people out there filtering. But I think
kind of I've been doing this long enough that, you know,
like to have experience. I have a kind of track record,

(17:41):
and people kind of know what to expect a little
bit when when they read our reviews, whether whether they
agree with me or not, they kind of know where
I'm coming from. And I think that's that is something
that you can trust. So I hope we'll still be
able to keep doing this, you know, for for a
while longer. But you know, I feel very lucky to
be where I am at the New Yorker and editors

(18:02):
who really give me freedom to explore different areas. Many
years ago, I was doing a film and I went
off on location and just devoured Scott Berg's biography of Lindburg.
I read the book in like three nights. Obviously, there
were some things about Lindbergh that he discovered that he
was very disturbed by his his isolationism and his uh

(18:25):
anti Semitism or what have you. And ironically, the same
thing relates to your book about Wagner. Was for people
who don't know was Wagner known to be white supremacist
anti Semitic. Was that common knowledge in his day or beyond?
Or do people just suspect that for certain because of
the company he kept. Oh no, it was very vocal.

(18:46):
It was. It was in prints from eighteen fifty on.
He wrote an essay in eighteen fifty Jewish Nous in Music.
It was actually first published anonymously, but it became known
that he was the author, and then almost twenty years
later he reap published that essay under his own name
eighteen sixty nine, and he was becoming just one of
the most famous composers in the world. And he threw

(19:07):
his reputation behind this repellent document and did not deviate
from that, you know, from until the end of his life.
What was he suggesting? He had the idea that you
know that, of course anti Semitism had had existed, you know,
for centuries, for for millennia. Wagner and they sort of

(19:29):
had this religious basis. But Wagner was moving towards a
more racial kind of idea. You know, it's sort of
beyond the idea that that Jews could convert and and
therefore solve whatever problem was deemed to exist with them.
And Wagner was sort of moving towards this idea that well,
there's a problem here that can't be solved because just

(19:50):
you know, Jews are are inherently different from other people.
And his thesis and that essay was that you could
tell if Jewish people writing music, you could tell there
was something off, there's something inauthentic, something we kind of
seeped through. They can never master this language. Now, when
you when you write a book, let's use the Wagner
as an example. I would imagine that the process begins

(20:14):
with just a mountain of reading. You're just doing nothing
but reading in the beginning, and I was wondering whether
are things that were disqualifying or the books you were
going to write, or the biographies you were gonna write.
And you started to get into it when you go
maybe not, I don't want to write about this guy's
life and this woman's life. Did you ever have that happen? Yeah,
I mean Wagner does not. Yet Vagner does test your

(20:36):
your There are moments you know when sort of sort
of towards the end of the process, I really I
got to the stage I was talking about Nazi Germany,
and it is. It is horrifying, you know, to watch
a film like The Eternal Jew, this absolutely disgusting propaganda
film that the Goubbles made demonizing the Jews, and Wagner

(21:00):
is quoted right right there at the beginning of the
film as an authority, you know. And this was literally
a film that was designed to make people comfortable with
the idea of murdering Jews on mass was designed to
sort of reduce Jews to a level of just sort
of vermin, you know, literally, people, is this this entity

(21:22):
that needed to be exterminated. So that was the function
of the film, And there was Wagner being cited as
an authority at the beginning of the film, as a
as a great German cultural figure who would apparently approve
of this undertaking, you know, horrifying, And you know you
stop and think, well, you know, have I just gone
sort of completely taken wrong turn here? But then you know,

(21:43):
there are so many other aspects of of Wagner that
that contradict that Nazi image. Like I said, they're very
appealing aspects to his personality. You know, he was a
clownish kind of human being who just ran around talking
all the time, jumping around was was just sort of
overflowing with with ideas and energies. Wagner was not this

(22:05):
kind of cold, dogmatic figure. And I think when you
look at the fact that Tator Herzel, the great Zionist
loved Wagner's music, Artist Schnitzler W. E. B. Du Bois,
the great Black civil rights Titanic intellectual figure, absolutely loved
actions music and and so these figures found something in him.

(22:26):
They not only enjoyed it, they found it inspiring to
their their personal projects. And so there's that energy and
Wagner which can really be turned in in any direction,
and it can be turned toward evil, it can also
be turned towards good. It can be just completely reinvented
and and transplanted to two different kind of uh world entirely. Um,

(22:47):
that's what art is, you know. I mean, just art
goes out into the world and just kind of is
subject to whatever people make of it. However people want
to use it, whatever the creator intended. Uh, something completely
different can be made out of it in ways that
are sometimes really disturbing. But that's I think the fascination
of the mystery of just how art works in the world.

(23:13):
Music critic Alex Ross. If you're enjoying this conversation, be
sure to subscribe to Hear Is the Thing on the
I Heart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get
your podcasts. When we come back, Alex Ross talks to
us about the amazing artists that have come back from
failure and how they did it. I'm Alec Baldwin and

(23:44):
this is Here's the Thing from my Heart Radio. Writer
Alex Ross ponders the big questions, including one of the deepest,
the nature of art and how much of oneself must
the artist put in their work? Yeah, and the joy
of art, I think putting on masks and sort of
playing different roles, and yeah, I think we do. And

(24:06):
of course this has always been going on and art,
you know, artists have always made art about themselves and restive,
use their own experiences, and then the audience kind of,
you know, reads into that that work and and it's
sort of you know, finds the traces of the self
that that the artist put there, you know. But then
you also have I just feel like going back to

(24:26):
the beginning of time, you know, whenever what we recognize
as art first arose, it was not kind of you know,
Jeff cave guy acting out, you know, whatever happened to
him the previous day. It was him putting on a
mask and and you know, becoming fooling everyone to thinking
that that you know, the devil was in the cave

(24:49):
with them, and that was the thrill of it. And
so yeah, I think there is probably too much of
this kind of autobiographical reading of art these days. And
you know, for me, I just love getting lost in
a work of art and getting lost in this in
this other world. And it's somehow particularly thrilling when you know,
I know that the artist has has sort of disappeared

(25:11):
as well. It's not that I'm disappearing into the artist's world,
is that he or she has created this new kind
of sphere which is something that has never existed before,
and and now we're being you know, invited into it.
I mean just you know, look at the world of
Schubert's music. You know, we don't know very much about Schubert.
He just does not seem to have been a particularly

(25:33):
remarkable person in a lot of ways. There's no one
really remembered very much about Shubert. You know, he seems
to have been this rather mousy guy. He was not
brooding and mysterious and and it's kind of violent in
his temperaments, you know, but he created these these worlds
to become infinite, just kind of you know, the B
flat major, the final Piano sonata where we're on this

(25:56):
out on this huge landscape shadow we beautiful but also
shadowy and goes on and on and and so that's
what I love. I think in art is being transported
and following the artist on some strange journey or like
you know, Morton Feldman, Morton fun was this this hilarious
guy who grew up in Queens talked to all the

(26:18):
time just kind of just never shut up, dominated every
every conversation was funny, you know, but also just kind
of a lot you know. So it was just one
of these guys. It's just a lot any about this
music that is almost silent and moves very slowly and
and just sort of hovers on the on the edge
of silence. But it's just yeah, it's sort of he

(26:40):
knew Rothko and his his music. He was writing what
period inties, Yeah, sort of really the fifties and sixties,
sort of the peak of his career. Fifties sixties seventies.
He knew Rothko and and his music has I think
there's a lot in common. Um, there's that with Rothko's paintings.
There's one called roth Chapel, which is ordinarily beautiful piece. Yeah,

(27:03):
he writed for the opening of the Rothko Chapel and
then he performed by who was quartet or piano or orchestra.
It is a sort of small group of instruments and chorus,
wordless chorus. And yeah, it's this liminal music. It's sort
of music that's just hovering on in a in a fog.
But I find incredible beautiful. But what's what's fascinating about

(27:24):
filament as a phenomenon is the music sounds nothing like
it's it's It seems to have been created by a
completely different person from who he presented himself, you know,
in daily life. And that, Yeah, that kind of division
fascinates me. That once he sat down at his desk,
he created a world which had nothing to do with
his his daily world. Well, my friend put this into context.

(27:46):
He said that you become an artist when your career
is over. Now, for some people, there's the embryonic artistic period.
And remember that most actors and actresses and and performers
or whatever and whatever field don't make it. They don't
become commercially successful. Only five percent or something of the

(28:07):
people in my union make a living as actors, and
the rest it's a part time endeavor. And he said
to me that you might have the beginnings and the
and the scratchings of an artistic career, and then if
you make it, then you go off into your career
and the artistry stops. And I was devastated when I
read that article. And you say, you know, the most

(28:28):
googled aspect of wells career of the poemssan commercials, which we,
of course we hear in this office in the studio.
I was regaling them with stories about how I would
my friends were in on the gag on the set
of the movie, who knew this material? We would parody
it on the set. So we'll be shooting a movie
and they'd say action, and I wouldn't say anything. And

(28:50):
then the person who was hipped what was going to
go Austin, Austin, and I doesn't he do something? Doesn't
need to do? So I would murmur in my drunken
wars and Wells and doesn't need to do something and
everyone will be howling with laughter. Who was in on
the joke? But I mean, here's Wells, and what you

(29:10):
wonder is not this a career to all careers have
a shelf life, although for most artists that seems to
be that way. Artists who are very skilled, they sell
a lot of records. It's particularly music, because music occupies
its own place. But it was well someone who he
really was frustrated by being misunderstood the sands of the

(29:34):
business and what audiences wanted. We're shifting, all of which
may be true simultaneously, or was it really the case
that he just was out of ideas? I think, you know,
I mean, I have a very special kind of relationship
with Wells's work. I've just been fascinated by him for
for so long, And I'm just one of these people who,
you know, can focus on some sort of fragment of

(29:55):
some unfinished project of of Wells and get really excited
about it, and of other people just won't see anything there,
you know. So I'm just I'm just a fanatic when
it comes to Wells. But what I find so interesting
about his career and I think it's actually a weird
similarity to Wagner in this respect is he was extremely
successful very young and then and then there was a
series of colossal failures just by the by the end

(30:17):
of his twenties. You know, he seemed to be washed
up certainly by the time he was getting into his thirties.
And then he I feel as though he in that
condition of failure and he didn't enjoy it. It was
just endlessly frustrating for him. To the end of his career.
He made something of that failure. It actually liberated him,
I think. And when he started making movies like you know,

(30:39):
Charms of Midnight and Touch of Evil, just very threadbare productions,
you know, very little money, and he just he was
able to conjure, you know, something out of almost nothing.
I think if he had sort of continued his if
he continued having a kind of great success, you know
from the start, I feel like that that might have
never happened for him. And the comparison with Wagner is that,

(31:02):
you know, Wagner had this massive collapse of his career
eighteen forty nine eighteen fifty after he achieved great success
at having this position as contrecting the opera in Dresden,
one of the leading you know, young younger German opera
composers as well as conductors. And then he joined the
uprising in Dresden in eighteen forty nine, was exiled from Germany,

(31:25):
didn't come back to Germany for more than ten years,
was just thrown back on almost no resources, living in
Zurich and in that instant and this is just this
kind of stunning thing to look back on, he decides
to come up with with this massive four part operatic cycle,
the biggest opera project ever undertaken, and really kind of

(31:48):
one of the biggest works of art in any medium,
and with absolutely no prospect of performance. It just the
world just it just it just seemed inconceivable this thing
would or come to light. And he kept writing it,
you know, amid failure, amid near poverty, and and pursued
it and somehow got to the point where, you know,

(32:09):
twenty six years later it was finished and he had
built his own opera house in which to perform it.
There was one tremendous stroke of fortune that allowed this
to happen, which was King Ludwig the Second becoming King
of Bavaria, who who had a fanatical relationship with Wagner's
music and was willing to spend huge amounts of money

(32:31):
to bring into being. But even before that happened, you know,
Wagner had written most of this, a good part of
this cycle, and somehow the total collapse of his career
liberated him to do something completely new. But it takes
a special kind of talent, I think, to pursue your vision,
you know, amid failure and amid collapse, but also in

(32:53):
any of these arts, to endure, you know, the white
water and the tough times, and to come out as
an artistic type. But to be Wells, who was an
incredibly insightful guy. I'm under I'm from the school that's
of the belief that it all died for him after
Anderson's Like, he realized he was never going to have
the control he wanted and the money he wanted to
make the movie to have those two things. The only

(33:14):
person that I can tell in film history who got
the money that he needed and had the economic security
he needed to fortify his creative dreams is Spielberg. Spielberg's
the person was given exactly what he wanted and needed
to make the movie exactly the way he wanted and
made the movie exactly the way he wanted, you know,
it was his production. So the Rest is Noise, which
I loved and thought it was a great book. Now,

(33:36):
when you write a book like this, I'm assuming that
when you write a biography of someone, there is a
certain framework of the life of that person and the
things that you're able to gather together about that life.
But with this other book, you can go in any
direction you want to. Basically you can. It's much more
free ranging. Was the book something that you understood what
it was from the get go or did it change

(33:57):
while you and didn't meander while you were writing the book. Yeah,
well thanks so much, first of all, and yeah it was.
It was quite a journey at that book because I
started it with a less ambitious idea. I thought I
was going to write a series of essays essentially about
different twenties century composers and and sort of showing different
aspects of the world of twenties century music, you know,
through them. Actually, my original idea was I was going

(34:18):
to end the book with Bob Dylan. That obviously wouldn't
have worked at all, it was a whole different topic,
but that it was going to be that kind of thing.
It was gonna be a series of portraits. And then
as I started sort of going into it, I started
becoming much more interested in and that's just kind of
the texture of history itself and what was going on,
you know, in sort of America in the thirties, FDR

(34:41):
and the New Deal and the depression, when you know,
Aaron Copeland was coming to the Four and and how
people's careers intersected with with the politics, with with sort
of the bigger you know, social history. You know, obviously
a Shustakovitch and the civil is an incredibly dramatic and
complex story, you know, because house in Nazi Germany. Yeah,

(35:05):
a very painful, but just you know, fascinating in terms
of how these artists negotiated this treacherous political train. And
so the book turned into something more like history decade
by decade. It's still there, still are kind of principal
figures who come to the Four in different parts of
and that adjustment took years and years of figuring out

(35:27):
how the narrative was going to unfold and figuring out,
you know, very painful decisions about who to include and
who to leave out. But you know, and then I
just wrote too much, you know, in the initial draft
of the book was twice as long, and so that
I had to cut it. But that was very helpful
in terms of refining the material yet more and really
figuring out what was the most important kind of moment

(35:50):
in each decade that was going to sort of advance
the story. And so it was. It was very difficult,
but I think it was very um. I was just
very lucky, I feel like, at the beginning of a
new century to to be tackling this material and to
discover the people actually wanted to read this story, you know,
because at first it seemed like this was not going

(36:11):
to be sort of widely kind of popular book, and
it wasn't. It wasn't a runaway best seller or anything,
but it did surprisingly well, and I feel as though
people were ready to look back on this century. And
it's not just about music. It's about the century itself.
It's about the political upheavals and how artists who happen
to be composers people. I want people to understand that

(36:31):
is Wagner is um not Wagner, Yeah, and just real
live this century in a different way. So Wagnerism is
your most current book you're working on another one, now
do you? Can you say what it is or now?
I am starting to think about a new book. And
actually I have not talked about this in public yet,
but the book I want to write next is about
the emigrads in Los Angeles, the German speaking emigrades and

(36:54):
film in music, in literature. This incredible Herman convocated shuldn't
of Lubitch and Fritz Long and Billy Wilder and Thomas
Mann and Schernberg and Corn Gold and so that's the
focus of the next book. Well, listen, thank you so
much for taking the time to do this and best
of luck. Okay, thank you author and critic Alex Ross.

(37:21):
I'll leave you with one of Ross's favorite pieces. This
is Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel. I'm Alec Baldwin. Here's the thing.
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