. . . may cause headaches, and in a few cases, leave the heart unmoved.
Well, they said it about Mozart too: too much head, not enough heart.
Last month, American composer Elliott Carter turned 101. He appeared at all the centennial commemorative concerts the previous year, and at that time was still actively composing. Many think that his later works are lighter in texture and complexity than his fearsome “modernist” scores from the late 1940s through the 1970s.
Carter’s music is the epitome of “process-oriented” thinking. To him, flow is the most important thing, and music is an ongoing process. He wrote his music, as he put it, for “a possible future listener.” Also an incredibly well-educated, analytical listener! Are you that listener?
I remember when Carter’s Sonata for cello and piano, while playable, was considered just about the outer limit of technical possibility. Nowadays, every Juilliard undergrad cuts his or her teeth on it without breaking a sweat. Do technical standards rise as challenges are posed? Beethoven said about his “Hammerklavier” piano sonata (Opus 106) “there’s something that will keep them busy fifty years hence.” He only underestimated by about 125 years.
When you spend a lot of time with Carter’s music, on the page and in performance, two things emerge. One: The awe-inspiring cerebrality of the compositions themselves. Two: How much emotional impact they have in a good performance. There’s the “Carter conundrum” if you will.
Carter is very passionate about music and his music in particular. A sample of readings from his copious writings and program notes shows that. However, the mental apparatus used to produce the music is always front and center. That scares many away from further investigation, and that is really a shame. His strident volume of interviews, written in the 1970s when economic conditions seemed to threaten orchestras and hence commissioning and performance, is titled “Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds.” One might uncharitably call some of his music “Flawed Sounds and Stubborn Words.”
Carter’s uncompromising individuality was evident from his earliest years, in which he loathed the “standard” symphonic repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms et al. He referred to “the museum odor” of the typical concert, a charge which cultural critics often level to this day. Later studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger opened his eyes and ears to the qualities in these and many earlier composers, as well as his contemporaries. He wished to avoid the self-conscious “folk”-izing of American music as represented by Copland for example. The two were good friends however, despite their rivalry for performances and the “accessibility” of Copland’s music.
Many of Carter’s works have extra-musical programs behind them, but you won’t often find him revealing them. As he said: “It is a great temptation to invent ‘likely stories,’ as Socrates would say, to explain your own music when you have only been dimly aware, verbally, of what you were thinking while you were assembling expressive patterns of notes.”
One needs a high tolerance for dissonance and melodic lines that travel simultaneously but not necessarily lined up. Remember, consonance and dissonance are culturally conditioned. Intervals that we think of as harmonious today were once banned in the Middle Ages.
In this bicentennial year for Robert Schumann, let’s give him the last word: “And who expects of the hearer, when a piece is played to him for the first time, that he shall analyze it in mechanical or harmonic detail?” But the punchline follows: “The need for frequent hearing of something, however, seems to me no flattery for the composer.”
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs