Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Elliot Carter: Criticism and Collegiality

This blog often wrestles with the problems of musical aesthetics and criticism. Sometimes it is on the relatively trivial level of which current diva is least annoying, but other times we dig into some knottier problems. One of the knottiest is that of musical high modernism, the maximal complexity of one trend in 20th century music. This musical world is inhabited by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and the recently-deceased American composer Elliot Carter.

Elliot Carter is widely respected and one example is this recent article by Tim Page. He talks about the Oboe Concerto of 1986 as some of the "warmest, most direct and intimate music of his career". Let's put part one of that piece up to listen to while you read on:

The article is full of praise for Carter. Another article, this time by composer Daniel Asia, is critical throughout. Here is a sample:
And while never a serialist, Carter's music has similar surface and pitch qualities in its complete rejection of any relationship to tonality and its avoidance of any notions of dissonance and consonance, and their relationship to each other. In other words, his usage of intervals in relationship to these concepts is almost nil. The compulsion to join in must have seemed overwhelming, as it affected Stravinsky and Copland no less. Carter used a different note technique but he arrived in a very similar terrain, one void of a predictive quality, and rather bleak and barren.
His approach to time and structure is similarly obtuse. Differing rates of movement in different parts of the orchestra, or the simultaneous creation of different architectural shapes, while an interesting and intriguing idea, just can't be realized with his musical materials. It is like trying to play with the onward rushing of different streams of colored water; sooner or latter they mix into a very boring shade of continual grayness.
The point he is making is that maximally complex music, that presents us with intricate atonal pitch structures and similarly intricate and jagged rhythmic structures, after a while simply sounds like chaos. Any structure that you can't actually hear is no structure at all. It certainly isn't noise because by listening closely you certainly hear the pitches and rhythms and perhaps can discern motivic relationships, but overall, the music refuses to be heard as a discernible structure.

To write such severe criticism of another composer is a bold act. What most composers do is either behave with warm collegiality to their peers or ignore them. But with the growth of ideological manifestoes in the 19th and 20th centuries, composers more and more attack other composers, often out of self-interest. As Daniel Asia mentions, Pierre Boulez furthered his career by writing a notorious essay proclaiming the death of Schoenberg!

One of the dangers of being so critical of a fellow composer is that you will get a great deal of negative reactions as we can see from the comment section to the article by Mr. Asia. Let's have a listen to some of his music for a comparison. Here is his Symphony No. 1, dating from 1987, the year after Carter's Oboe Concerto:

Perhaps this is just an indication of my limitations, but I find that more interesting than the piece by Carter. I have tried to find my way into Carter's music quite a few times, but I always lose interest because I can find no thread to follow. On the other hand, I do get a sense of structure from the piece by Daniel Asia.

Which composers win prizes and are frequently praised in the mass media is often accidental or a product of skillful marketing. After a hundred years, if you look back, it is often the lesser-known composers whose music grows in popularity after their death. Of course, I don't know whether it will be Daniel Asia's music that lasts or Elliot Carter's, but time will tell. I certainly don't see anything wrong with criticizing a composer's music.

So, what do you think?


Nathan Shirley said...

Elliot who??

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh...

Anonymous said...

You mentioning how lesser-known composers being more popular after their deaths makes me wonder: what make a composition, or for that matter, any work of art, a masterpiece, something that will stand the test of time and still be admired centuries after its creation? Why is Bach's music remembered and admired today than that of his contemporaries (i.e. Telemann)? Why is Mozart considered a musical genius while Salieri, who was much more popular than Mozart, was later forgotten?

It make be a tall order to ask of you, but could you shed some light for me on this subject?

Bryan Townsend said...

I've been thinking and writing about what makes a piece of music a masterpiece for quite a while now. One of the very first articles about music that I published was in an arts magazine in Toronto way back in the 1990s in which I addressed precisely this question. So while a tall order, as you say, it is one that I welcome. Talking about stuff like this is the raison d'être of the Music Salon!