Curating the sound of a new generation
Jiwon Simpkins - Class of 2019
Culture Editor of the Grace Gazette
In the age of high-speed internet streaming, popular music is determined by the choices the listeners make. Songs and artists can become instantly popular across the globe, which allows us, the consumer, to shape our own mainstream. The system’s broad-stroke approach to prioritize the most popular music naturally overshadows certain genres, however. The young people of any era determine radio hits, which can prevent older sounds from breaking into the mainstream. And while renaissances of a genre occur frequently, with retro styles reemerging onto the music scene, classical music can find itself waiting for that elusive rebirth. It is ironic that the foundation on which most musicians stand should be so neglected, and yet classical music fans and musicians alike often find themselves in the minority, shrugged off for something more instantly gratifying. Enter, Alex Ambrose: Grace alumnus, class of 1994.
Alex attended Grace from junior kindergarten through eighth grade. From an early age, he had a passion for music, crediting Grace as one of his inspirations. From his time with the GCS singers to the relentless zeal of Ms. Abrams, Grace’s music program helped “plant the seed,” as Alex describes it, for his “lifelong love of music”. He attributes choral music specifically, a hallmark of the Grace community, as one of his first and most self-defining muses. While not necessarily rooted in the religion of the sound, Alex notes that the choral music of his younger years “struck a nerve as no other, one melancholic and introspective, but also communal and hopeful.”
Through high school and college, Alex tried to convert this adoration for music into his own projects, creating mixtapes with friends to share his own take on the contemporary sounds with the world. After eight years of self-discovery–four years at Concord Academy, and then another four at Brown University studying music and comparative literature–Alex moved to France to dive further into composition at Université Lumière Lyon 2.
His quest for musical enlightenment culminated in a return to New York, where he landed a position as an associate producer on the Evening Music show with Terrance McKnight and David Garland at WNYC, which has the largest public radio audience in the nation. Alex and the team soon moved to WQXR, New York’s oldest classical station, when WNYC acquired it, and there he found a platform where he could show the world the sheer wonder behind contemporary classical music.
Alex says he found his calling at WQXR. In 2010, he founded Q2 Music, a 24-hour streaming service. Q2 offered listeners a handpicked contemporary classical experience free of algorithms or genres. Its curated music stood fundamentally apart from the billion-dollar streaming services dominating the market. Made for humans, by humans, it became a welcome alternative to the computer-generated playlist that links together artists through popularity and genre, creating a homogenous sound. Granted, there is an appeal to allowing a software to cue your next track, a notion that is indicative of our dependence on artificial intelligence: why waste time searching for a new artist when Spotify can deliver you one in seconds? Call it laziness, but millions of users call it practical.
That is what makes Alex’s cause so noble. He crusades against a generation of pragmatists in the name of musical enlightenment. While Q2 ostensibly focused on contemporary classical music, the genre itself features such an eclectic band of artists and aesthetics that it transcends a monolithic labelling. More recently, Q2 has been folded into a larger umbrella at WQXR – New Sounds.org -- which aims to further diminish lines of distinction in music. From my own experience listening on New Sounds, I was amazed at how personal and wide-ranging the selection was. A curator at New Sounds sees no genres or statistics, his only lense is his ear. He might draw a line between the electric pop of Icelandic singer Björk with the experimental compositions of The National’s Bryce Dessner. Two artists miles apart in the eyes of a computer, but united by the irreplaceable guidance of human touch. While the majority of music listeners elect to hide behind the algorithm, there remains a determined few who want more from their listening experience, who are willing to dive as deep as the exploration will take them, and reemerge enlightened.
Fighting the good fight is not without its obstacles. Radio broadcasting simply does not hold the same power that it did a few decades ago, and the budgetary pie is finite. With less resources than a Pandora or Apple Music, there is a legitimate worry about organizations like New Sounds’s ability to compete. Yet, Alex is far from throwing in the towel. With such shows under his producing belt as the Peabody Award-winning podcast “Meet the Composer” with world renowned violinist Nadia Sirota, Alex is proving that the work he is doing still resonates with the general public. “Meet the Composer,” now in its third season, gives listeners a new way to understand music. In each episode, host Ms. Sirota interviews a contemporary classical composer about certain work, and elicits the nuanced and subliminal meanings behind the piece within a 20 minute podcast. The audience gets to hear the minute details of a composition from the voice of the composer, a revolutionary way to experience music, and something that epitomizes the philosophy behind Alex’s mission.
Looking forward, Alex and company have taken measures to combat the approaching tide. By uniting Q2 and other like-minded stations under New Sounds, they can continue to provide a haven for listeners without a focus on one genre. In his words, “we are in a new era...there’s no reason to segment an audience when we believe that they are defined by their curiosity.” Within this reincarnation of New Sounds, Alex hopes to see a “return to basics”–old-fashioned 24/7 radio shows, an entity that functions like a Spotify, while still maintaining its artisanal sheen. Working with six new hosts, Alex sits at the helm, bringing in new music and artists every day. They are also branching out into live events, sponsoring live shows from the most adventurous and cutting edge musicians in the industry. While maintaining the podcasts and playlists of Q2, Alex and New Sounds are, in his words, “carving out” their place in the market for listeners dissatisfied with one-dimensionality of mainstream streaming sites.
As a musician myself, I felt enchanted stepping into the WQXR headquarters when I interviewed Alex. His mantra of giving his listeners a human experience unrestricted by genre
, and the work he dedicates himself to, is truly something to behold. Often times we feel oversaturated by the rise of technology in the modern age, something we both rely upon and fear simultaneously. I have always been concerned with how the age of AI will dissipate the essence. Music, an art form that feels quintessentially human in how it synthesizes sounds and rhythms to illuminate the human condition. Yet, with people like Alex leading the charge for the daring music enthusiast, I can feel safe knowing that the quality of music listening in the future will not dissolve quietly into an automated service, but can be preserved and spread to anyone willing to listen.
Alex currently resides in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his wife, composer Gity Razaz, and cat, Peanut. When he’s not at New Sounds, Alex spends his time playing ultimate frisbee and enjoying life with his family, but thoughts of new music and ideas are never far off. Alex said, “I owe this love of experiencing and making music to my time at GCS, and regardless of where I am professionally or with whom I’m sharing this love, I know I can trace it back to my years at Grace.”