|Elliot Carter at a young age|
Tom Service's excellent series on the symphony continues this week with an article devoted to a late piece by the American composer Elliot Carter (1908 - 2012). Yes, he lived to be 103 and was hugely productive in his last two decades when he was in his late 80s, 90s and even after he was one hundred! It certainly gives me hope! But at the same time the music of Elliot Carter poses, for me, a big aesthetic challenge.
Why is that? Well, just to trace out a bit my own aesthetic journey, I began by playing the music of my immediate environment, which was rock and pop. As soon as I encountered classical music (in the form of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto) I became a convert. I devoted several decades of my life to being a classical guitar virtuoso. But alongside this I was always a composer. As a pop musician I had written over forty songs before I was twenty years old. Then, after becoming a classical musician, I adopted the stance of a progressive 20th century composer, that is, I wrote avant-garde music. The one big exception was that I never had any interest in twelve-tone music. But I wrote moment form and process music as well as other pieces that were too intuitive to be classified. However, at some point perhaps a decade ago, I became an apostate. That is, I came to see the basic ideological assumptions of the 20th century avant-garde and rejected them. Of course, this didn't come all at once and in fact, I am still uncovering the aesthetic assumptions underlying modernism. It is one of the ongoing themes of this blog.
Once I got started and began to understand how aesthetic judgement works, then I discovered that I could critically evaluate not only modernist music, but any music. We all do this all the time, but I was becoming a bit more conscious of it. So now I feel perfectly free to say critical things not only about composers like Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez, but also about composers like Mahler and Brahms.
Elliot Carter followed almost the opposite course. In his early years he composed tonal, neo-classic, music. But later on, his music became atonal and rhythmically very complex. So what do I think about Elliot Carter? He is posing a real challenge. It is not terribly hard to look at the music of John Cage and come to the conclusion that a lot of it is simply not serious, despite Cage's own assertions. But Elliot Carter is much more difficult to evaluate. He has a pretty solid following and his music certainly is taken as being serious and important. He won two Pulitzer prizes.
Ok, let's listen to some. Here is his Changes (1983) for guitar:
Let's listen to a different performance:
If you read the Wikipedia article on Carter you will certainly get the sense that his music is structured in very complex ways.
But one of the ideological assumptions of modernism is that complexity is a Good, that is to say, an end in itself. This is something that I rejected. Complexity is often not of any aesthetic benefit whatsoever, but merely results in confusion and loss of interest in the listener. I started to work this out in studying the music of Milton Babbitt when the realization came that there was simply no way to determine if the score contained misprints. All scores do, of course, but the complexity of a Babbitt score means that you will never be able to decide which notes are wrong! The aesthetic consequence of this, from my point of view, was that music should have a kind of audible coherence to it. I was encouraged in this view by reading the writings of Steve Reich who said that he had no interesting in writing any music where the process and structure were not clearly audible to the listener.
So what is going on in the music of Elliot Carter? I don't know, which is the challenge. I plan to look at some scores and see if anything is evident. But in the meantime, let's listen to some more. Here is the only available clip of the piece that Tom Service is presenting, Symphonia:
This is just a small excerpt from the longer piece.
I'm afraid I just don't hear much coherence. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that there is, but apart from little things here and there, I don't hear it. The aesthetic significance of music like this, which sounds jagged and unconnected, is that it superficially resembles the ravings of a madman, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting but with no apparent reason. The word "apparent" is carefully chosen. As I say, the music purports to be complexly structured. But it sounds rather random. So that's the challenge for me. What is the aesthetic status or quality of this music? I really don't know. What do you think?
About ten years ago a rather unusual book was published which is a compendium, compiled by Carter himself, of all possible pitch permutations. It is available from Amazon.
The very useful Cambridge "Studies" series has a volume on Carter, but the Kindle edition costs $65.60!! I'm not sure that the insights contained therein would be worth quite that much.