The title of New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s new book, Listen to This (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), takes its name from an essay about the discovery by this “classical music purist” of pop music via Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu as a Harvard undergraduate. Programming avant-garde classical music at the school’s WHRB-FM, Ross began hanging out with the noise-punk crowd at the Record Hospital show. Eventually, as a recent graduate in December 1991, he and his band Miss Teen Schnauzer, were booked by Billy Ruane to open for the John Davis Folk Implosion at the Middle East. I talked to Ross — also the author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century — about Ruane, the Record Hospital, and the relationship between the audiences for experimental rock and classical music. Ross comes to the Harvard Book Store on November 10 at 7 pm.
What were your years at Harvard exactly?
’86 to ’90.
What was the Record Hospital about at that point?
The idea, at the time at least, was severe non-commercial punk and post-punk rock and indie rock. It was probably more straight-ahead punk. Patrick Amory (of Matador Records) had been there just a couple years before. Billy Ruane was around the station a lot. That’s when I first met him. He was sort of cavorting around the station, hanging out with the DJs that he knew. He was on the air sometimes. He’d come to parties at the station and made his presence felt in a significant way.
You came to rock music late in life?
It was because of Record Hospital. I had been a total classical music purist until I got to that station, which was the great thing about a place like that — the permeability, where people of different enthusiasms are sharing music with each other. I’d be playing my sort of crazy avant-garde stuff on my radio show. And they’d say, hey, why don’t you look at Sonic Youth or Pere Ubu. And those were the first rock records I ever bought and listened to. Pere Ubu’s Terminal Tower and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. For a couple years at Harvard I was just listening only to their music and nothing else, and I started branching out from there and evolved a more comprehensive view of what was going on in rock and pop. But it was a great transition to make.
This is also a way to enter classical music. If you’re listening to this band, then you can start listening to contemporary stuff or move backwards from there. You don’t have to start with Mozart. I sort of wrote The Rest Is Noise with the idea that this is as valid a way to enter into classical music as anything else. I just watched that happen. I converted some of my friends to classical music along that same path. It’s amazing how little classical music people are taking advantage of those kinds of connections or just don’t know about it. With modern music, and looking at the younger people who are listening to whatever it is — say, Joanna Newsom — today. I’m thinking: can we put on a concert that somehow creates a bridge from this to our music? It’s not happening very much, unfortunately.
What did you do in Miss Teen Schnauzer?
I played keyboards — we just had a synthesizer, someone else’s synthesizer that I was making weird noises on. I also prepared the tape loops that were playing intermittently throughout the performance — mostly Richard Strauss operas. Which I would loop in the background in these ominous minor-key ostinatos. Everyone was sort of playing instruments that they hadn’t necessarily ever studied before in-depth. It was all pretty unstructured. But there was one moment halfway through when I got everyone to play in the key of C# minor to line up with the Richard Strauss tape loops. But it lasted very briefly. Then atonality resumed. We played one song, which lasted 45 minutes. Lou Barlow referred to us as “the jazz band,” which was flattering. We were kind of pleased by that.
As a Harvard undergraduate, do you remember your impressions of Billy Ruane?
He was a big force in the music scene and by extension everyone at the Record Hospital knew him. I don’t know too much about him from the academic side of his career. The one thing I was very impressed by was that by day he’d be guarding the Gutenberg Bible. Harvard’s rare, immaculate copy of the Gutenberg Bible. So that always seems amazing and excellent to me, that he’d be doing that by day and then by night he would be doing his thing. The wild guy on the rock scene — somehow that was a great combination of duties that he undertook.
Where does Harvard keep their Gutenberg?
It’s in Widener Library. I guess we always wondered if he was the right person to guard the Gutenberg Bible. But no one stole it under his watch so he must’ve been the guy. The perfect guy for the job. He was an inspirational or influential figure for so many people. I don’t know if that many people leave such a vivid mark on so many people’s minds. Whenever someone passes away you’ve got these fond memories, but with Billy Ruane for thousands and thousands of people, there’s this immediate, incredibly vivid image and a kind of a life force.
Part of what has come out over the past week is that as much as Billy was a wild character and personality, he was central in creating the Boston/Cambridge music scene as it was at the time.
I think it was his curatorial sensibility. Our little band was absolutely among the least significant things that he brought about. But it was kind of a sign of his taste. He would think: there’s this bunch of crazy people who can’t really play their instruments, but they have some kind of idea, let’s give it a try and then combine it with the Folk Implosion. Just this sense of all his enthusiasms and awareness of so many different things going on musically could connect together into such a great kind of ever evolving vision of what music can be. There’s definitely a serious side to it.