Alex Ross Speaks About Music, Writing, and the Role of the Artist at the Dean’s Symposium Reply

alex-rossBefore a full house in Cohen-Davison Family Theatre on Monday, Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein led a wide-ranging conversation with Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, touching on the future of classical music, the writing process, and the role of the artist in society, among other topics. 

“Art cannot separate itself from contemporary political reality,” asserted Mr. Ross, whose 2007 book The Rest is Noise traces the connections between 20th century music and the social and political forces of the time. He stressed the collective influential power of artists and the arts, while maintaining that society cannot, and should not, try to dictate the social/political responsibilities of individual artists. Noting that pop culture has in many ways become one with the power establishment and the corporate economy, he offered a vision of classical musicians and artists as “standing on the outside,” with the opportunity to “use our work to present an alternative vision. Not just against any particular politics, but against the fabric of information and distraction.”

Mr. Ross, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Guardian First Book Award, responded to numerous questions from the audience about writing, encouraging students not just to take every opportunity to write, but also to read the great literature of the 19th and 20th centuries and immerse themselves in writing at the highest level. “Performers and composers who are able to write well and engagingly have added a very powerful weapon into their arsenal for engaging audiences,” he said. He emphasized that musicians and writers today share in common the responsibility for cultivating their own audiences – in addition to creating their art.

Acknowledging that the landscape is ever-changing and the demands on performers continue to evolve in the digital age, he expressed optimism about the general state of classical music, noting in particular the progress that has been made in shifting the focus more to music of our time rather than music of the past. The overwhelming diversity of new music, he opined, along with a lot of collaboration and interchange among indie rock/pop musicians and young classical composers, means there is music out there for every audience to love. It’s just a matter of finding it.

This was the third of four Dean’s Symposiums scheduled during the 2016-17 academic year. The final event in the series will bring the renowned theater and opera director Peter Sellars to campus on Monday, April 17.

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