Not many writers dare to take up the subject of music. There’s always this risk of music criticism becoming too impressionistic and confined in scope, with the writer going on about the “feeling” or “emotion” that a musical piece evokes in him or her. What’s missing from such works is a deeper sense of engagement that a music critic must maintain not just with a handful of compositions or composers, but with musical history as a whole. It’s rare to come across critics who manage to do just that: critics like Alex Ross. 

Ross’s writings on classical and contemporary Western music have added to our understanding of the subject, as well as greatly enriched our listening experience. His beautifully written history of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise, is the only book of its kind. Actually, calling it a history book would be doing it gross injustice. Rather than present a drab, chronological account of how the musical canon developed over time in the Western world, Ross’s book takes us to the real heart of the story, telling us how the political history of the 20th century – with its mass pathologies of blood and soil – influenced and interfered with the history of European music.

The question of Richard Wagner, a confirmed anti-Semite whose music found favour with the Nazi ideologues, is often invoked in this context. “Well, Wagner…” sighed Ross, when the inevitable question was posed at a session here on the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. “It’s a very complicated question. The truth is, that he was a complex thinker, with several aspects to his ideology, including, for example, pacifism.” Ross’s next book deals with the subject of Wagner more thoroughly. But the crossroads between arts and politics, between creative expression and totalitarian power has always intrigued him.

He has written quite a lot about artists, writers and musicians contending with authority figures and autocrats, (The chapter on the Russian composer Shostakovich and his brush with Stalin, in The Rest Is Noise, comes to mind.) Yet he is quick to dispel the common myth that dictatorship can somehow become conducive to great art. “It’s true,” he said, “that some extraordinary music and literature came out of the Soviet Union. But there was very little that came out of Nazi Germany. So these things are by no means certain.”

The rise of the pop industry in America and popular music bascially becoming a numbers game – with the most-sold single earning the tag of a classic – are all examples, according to Ross, of a totalitarianism of a new, but insidious, kind taking root. That’s why Western classical music has now been marginalised in the US. “Classical music in the US is seen as snobbish, elite, kind of geeky, socially backward. And that is an enormous problem,” Ross said.

Unless musicians themselves learn to make their work more relevant to our times, these problems will remain. Interestingly, Ross believes that Indian classical music is better off in this respect. “Hindustani classical music seems more integrated into the larger culture here,” he said. That sounds true enough. But we are facing a different kind of crisis in India: while we doubtless have great musicians, there are hardly any critics here of the stature and ability of Ross, to teach us the real worth of our musical riches.