Alex Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, describes his seven favourite places to Rebecca Willis ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010
With “The Rest is Noise”, his hit book (and blog) about the music of the 20th century, this New Yorker writer became probably the best-known of contemporary classical-music critics. Upon the release of his next book, Ross waxes lyrical about the seven wonders of his world.
For anyone who cares deeply about music, Vienna has an irresistible attraction. It’s tremendously exciting to be walking around and pass by one of the houses where Mozart lived, or where Beethoven died, or Mahler’s apartment—it really is almost tangible, the feeling of a living breathing past. Vienna began to acquire its musical status towards the end of the 18th century—Paris and London were already thriving musical scenes—because of certain aristocratic music lovers who singled out people like Mozart and Beethoven and supported them. By the early 19th century Vienna had already produced a monumental succession of composers. And the audience was here, from every stratum of society; so many people played music themselves and had a thorough knowledge of it. Even today, if you are in a cab and the driver finds out you are going, say, to see “Die Frau ohne Schatten” at the opera, he will tell you all about the time he saw it back in the 1970s.
WORK OF ART: ALBRECHT DURER'S "FOUR APOSTLES"
I first went to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich in 1995, and the room with the Dürer paintings absolutely overwhelmed me. The “Four Apostles” is an ancient work of art, but there’s something burningly present tense about the expressions on the faces. On the left you have John and Peter, absorbed in studying, and on the right are Mark and Paul with these strange, secretive, almost fearful looks on their faces, and Paul’s eyes sliding out suspiciously towards the viewer. It’s very enigmatic and haunting—a complex human situation. It’s also to do with the Book, and the power radiating from it and the effect it had on people in so many different ways.
JOURNEY: HIGHWAY 1 NORTH OF SAN FRANCISO
One of my favourite places on earth is northern California, and my journey starts at the Golden Gate Bridge. I drive out to the Marin headlands and veer off onto Highway 1. The road takes you through Bolinas, the old hippy enclave, and the parklands of Point Reyes, one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s an extraordinary drive, twisting and turning, with an incredibly varied landscape, and there’s always the drama of the weather, too—fog and then sun, or mixed together. The journey also has a musical resonance for me. In college I fell in love with the music of John Adams, who lives in Berkeley and also has a house on the coast, and whose music is inspired by these landscapes. I used to listen to his minimalist romantic orchestral pieces while taking this drive, and I still like doing that today.
HOTEL: SOHO HOTEL, LONDON
I’ve stayed in a number of hotels in this group. The decor is fun and vibrant and everything is comfortable, with good mattresses and towels and water pressure. They have a good restaurant and room service, but there are so many great places to eat nearby. The location is fantastic because I can walk up the road and have my favourite Italian coffee on the corner. I can walk to Foyles bookstore, lots of other bookstores beyond it, the opera house, the ENO…I can walk for about 15 minutes in different directions an d be right where I need to be.
BEACH: MOUCHA ISLAND, DJIBOUTI
I love to go out to Fire Island but I decided to choose something much more exotic, where I’ve only ever been once. A friend of a friend had set up a scuba-diving operation on the small island of Moucha, in the gulf off the port of Djibouti, and we went there for the millennium and had a party. It’s a beautiful, wide, open beach, slightly stony and perhaps with not the most gorgeous sand, but it was empty as Djibouti doesn’t get a whole lot of tourists. I remember walking down the beach by myself shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve and looking up and seeing the startlingly bright night sky and the new constellations I wasn’t used to. It was a magical moment. I could have been in Times Square!
BUILDING: DISNEY HALL, LA
Some of the great concert halls and opera houses where I spend my time are glorious old buildings, and the thrill of the music is inseparable from the splendour of the architecture, but I'm choosing a modern one because I really do believe that classical music is very much a modern art, still evolving and thriving despite all the obvious obstacles. The Walt Disney Concert Hall (pictured), designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2003, is an architectural masterpiece, extraordinarily visually striking. It also happens to be one of the great concert halls of modern times: beautiful-sounding, acutely responsive, musically alive. The LA Philharmonic has become an exceptional ensemble, constantly innovating and evolving and arguing very powerfully for new music and living composers. The fact that the building is such a glowingly modern place, with no nostalgia about it whatsoever, says that the best moment in music is right now; so it's a great symbol for the city institution which is saying the same thing. That building gives me hope.
VIEW: THE OLD MAN OF HOY, ORKNEY ISLANDS
Between my junior and senior years of high school, in 1985, I got a fellowship from my school to travel and study something, and I chose Neolithic remains in the northern parts of the highlands and islands of Scotland—stone circles and chambered tombs. It was a wonderful trip to very remote and far-out places. There are so many striking views, especially in the Orkneys. I took the ferry to the isle of Hoy. The whole west part of the island is uninhabited and you have to walk across—it’s quite high—until you get over to the west and see the Old Man of Hoy. It is a shocking view because the land falls straight off these enormous cliffs and there’s a single tall tower of stone standing there. It’s breathtaking and a little frightening to be standing at the edge.