Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Challenge of Elliot Carter

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.


Craig said...

Yes, Carter is a bit of a tough case. He doesn't fit into any one school, so far as I know, and it's hard not to admire someone who has been so prodigiously prolific, but, on the other hand, I've yet to hear a piece by him that made much of an appeal to me.

In his Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin has an extended discussion of one of Carter's string quartets -- No.4? There are a lot of interesting things going on in that score, and reading about it made me want to hear it! Unfortunately, when I did hear it, I couldn't hear the structure.

One of the lessons of twentieth-century music, I think, is that if one wants to represent mathematical ideas some media are more suitable than others, and audible representation, in particular, is of dubious value.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was just about to pick up the Taruskin volume and refresh my memory on how Elliot Carter is discussed in that book. I'm obviously going to do some research on Carter before I say anything more!

One of the things that I intuitively want to argue for is the aesthetic quality of music. In other words, does it sound good? The Carter that I have heard does not. Whether it is mathematically interesting would seem to be something only of interest to mathematicians!

But I am very curious about Carter nonetheless.

It would be great to discover how wonderful Carter's music is, but listening to that guitar piece in particular, I just think, this is not beautiful music.

Bridge said...

The Symphonia is certainly much better if only for the increased diversity of texture but still not particularly interesting. I absolutely hate the guitar piece you linked though - it is utterly vacuous and pointless. Had you told me the two versions you linked were different pieces I might have believed you because nothing whatsoever stuck with me after the first listen. It does indeed just sound like mindless "improvisation."

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I pretty much hate that guitar piece too! Bridge, it makes me nervous when we agree...


Rickard Dahl said...

I generally can digest so dissonant music only when I'm not listening actively. It's way harder to listen to dissonant music actively such as at concerts or when following the score. I had this type of experience with Berg's Violin Concerto live, it sounded bad (although a reason why is probably the "theme", especially with those harmonics). I even faced the same issue with Sibelius' 7th symphony, it was odd to hear it live, I didn't enjoy it then (a great piece nevertheless ofc). And now I'm trying to score read Bartok's String Quartets, same type of issue here (there are some nice spots here and there but most of it seems quite incoherent no matter how coherent it actually may be mathematically or whatever).

Rickard Dahl said...

In the case of Bartok there certainly are very interesting pieces and movements too. I think whenever he uses more folk influences in his music it turns out much better. Listening to the 2nd movement of his 2nd quartet right now and it's way better than the 1st movement.

Bridge said...

There's nothing mathematic about Bartok's music at all - it's purely visceral (not vacuously so.) If you think the 2nd movement is way better than the first movement you need to listen to the it again, it's one of the most beautiful pieces ever written in my opinion, though the 2nd mvt. is also one of the coolest things ever.

Bryan Townsend said...

When I was still a bass player, but beginning to discover classical music, a pianist and I had a regular Friday night gig at a Legion Hall. For those who are not Canadian, a Legion branch is a social club for veterans. In the US I believe the equivalent would be a Veterans of Foreign Wars facility. I don't know about other countries. It is basically a bar, with music and sometimes dancing, for retired servicemen. So, a very conservative environment, musically. My friend and I were both enthusiasts of 20th century music at that point and both were discovering people like Arnold Schoenberg, who we thought was cool. This was around 1970. In any case, sometimes, when we got bored, around midnight when everyone was a bit tipsy, we would start to do atonal improvisations, just to amuse ourselves. No-one ever came up to complain. I guess that shows they weren't listening very closely!

So yes, the more closely you are listening, the more you are going to be affected, positively or negatively, by the music. Sometimes I wish I were not such a highly-trained listener!

But I was listening again to some of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto last night, played by Hilary Hahn, and I may at some point get to enjoy it--or parts at least. It has a kind of eerie Viennese surrealism to it, like much of Schoenberg's music.

Bridge said...

Plus that argument makes very little sense with a predominantly tonal composer like Bartok. I can understand it with the hidden structures of 12-tone that almost nobody can hear without analysis, but in Bartok's music and especially the second quartet you can literally see the structure. It's based around a central motive that is developed in Beethovenian fashion and the harmony, while complicated and dense, is perfectly coherent. Check out the axis system if you want a full understanding (I don't claim to understand it beyond a surface level though.) Unlike with 12-tone which results in mysterious relationships, you can feel the tonality of Bartok's chromaticism, just as you would in a piece of Wagner. His music and especially his string quartets are some of the most poetically beautiful (and ugly and violent and sarcastic and serene and stoic and jolly and every shade inbetween) works of "atonality" ever. Not even despite their "atonal" basis, because of it.

Rickard Dahl said...

I thought Bartok was mainly a modal composer, or at least according to Wiki it says: "Zoltán Kodály, Gustav Holst, Manuel de Falla use modal elements as modifications of a diatonic background, while in the music of Debussy and Béla Bartók modality replaces diatonic tonality (Samson 1977,[page needed])"

Or maybe chromatic composer would suit better.

Yes maybe it's structurally coherent but the problem is that no matter how structurally coherent it can be it can still sound not so good which is the case of some of Bartok's music. As for mathematics I was referring to his use of the golden ratio and such (if I remember correctly).

Not saying he was a bad composer, but the reason why I don't enjoy some of his music as much is because of the complicated and dense harmony as you called it. Or possibly because the melody part seems quite incoherent at times (for instance with so many tempo and time signature changes). Maybe it's the type of music that requires more listens to get into and appreciate. Some of his slower movements are certainly more interesting once you listen more times.

Bridge said...

The dichotomy between tonality and modality is one that I don't quite subscribe to. If it helps, my definition of tonality is music that is based around a central tone in some way and atonality is music that is not. Debussy and Bartok certainly made extensive use of modes, Bartok much less so, but I'm only using his words as he always called himself a tonal composer.

"Yes maybe it's structurally coherent but the problem is that no matter how structurally coherent it can be it can still sound not so good which is the case of some of Bartok's music."

Well, you're free to hold such an opinion but I cannot even come close to agreeing. Even though I admire the big three of the Second Viennese School I would be quite deluded did I not see how someone "educated" could possibly dislike it. But with Bartok I literally cannot see it - his music is pretty accessible, at least comparatively speaking. I don't want to engage in flowery melodrama or anything but it speaks directly to the soul. When I say it's structurally coherent I'm not talking about structure in a vacuum, I mean it exactly as one would describe a Beethoven symphony. One can hardly call his handling of motives dry or theoretical or a formality that only musicologists pay attention to - it is the music. I have no specific idea about his use of the golden ratio in his music and don't particularly care as I have never really been fascinated by it nor the Fibonacci sequence or any other such arbitrary concepts. I know that Bartok utilized them on occasion but it was always secondary and unimportant - not in any way an objective of the music.

"Not saying he was a bad composer, but the reason why I don't enjoy some of his music as much is because of the complicated and dense harmony as you called it. Or possibly because the melody part seems quite incoherent at times (for instance with so many tempo and time signature changes). Maybe it's the type of music that requires more listens to get into and appreciate."

That's fair enough - I've been listening to the Bartok quartets for many years now and appreciate them more with every listen. When I first heard them I just admired the cool sounds though I admit I didn't comprehend them that much. After my tastes matured and I revisited them several times I just came to realize exactly how great they were. They are an absolute treasure of music and certainly among the best works of the 20th century. I highly recommend if you don't like them now to let them simmer in your mind for a time and revisit them sporadically - it's not a matter of if but when you will fall in love with them. I don't want to rave about them too much because it's annoying to read but just trust me. Same with the Berg violin concerto - these pieces are gems of modern music. They are things of absolute beauty and it would be a shame if you shunned them offhand.

Rickard Dahl said...

So basically modality=tonality according to you? I.e. major & minor are just two forms of tonality and lets say dorian, lydian, hungarian minor or hindu scales (also known as mixolydian b6 or aeolian dominant) are other forms of tonality?

Yeah I will try to get into more of Bartok's music. Some of it is certainly more easily accessible such as his "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta", "Allegro Barbaro" or his various folksong arrangements. Another example seems to be his "Out of Doors" which I discovered now.

Bridge said...

Yeah, I mean, I'm not trying to oversimplify things by denying nuances because modality is certainly not the same thing as diatonicism, but modes are nonetheless based around one principal tone and are therefore tonal in nature. One can be very lenient with tonality and still get tonal results, and I think you can really only call intentionally atonal music non-tonal in good conscience. Listen to any moment of Bartok and you will almost always find some sort of tonal center, even if it is not based on diatonic harmony. The same task is quite difficult in strict dodecaphony. But as for whether the music of Debussy et al. is modal, as I understand it there isn't really such a thing as functional modal harmony (take what I say with a grain of salt, I'm no scholar of modes). The modes are so unstable that as soon as you start being free harmonically you are almost guaranteed to accidentally modulate to the relative major or minor mode. Thus, the harmony of Debussy is more accurately described in my opinion as highly colorized diatonicism, with chords borrowed from the modes and not based on them. There are however moments here and there where he uses modes directly and at that particular point in time it might be called modal music but it modulates to different modes and to actual tonal keys so often that it can hardly be called true modality, but what do I know. A great example of that is Ravel's Bolero, which remains harmonically static for the majority of the piece, using basically the same type of vamp through out - perfect for modal writing (in fact, in the olden days this is how they were written and I suppose also why they were abandoned as musical ambitions became richer.) He uses modes brilliantly to color the C major harmony basically by creating arbitrary tonal centers in the melody. I think it's all in the Dorian mode (although "modulating" to different tonal centers) but I don't really have an ear for modes apart from Lydian which is such a dead give away, Locrian and Mixolydian being pretty obvious too, so I don't really know. Fascinating piece in any case.

Also, be sure to check out the Concerto for Orchestra, that's one of his best works and yet almost completely tonal. I might even say it's the most accessible Bartok work. His piano concerti are also pretty good as is the second violin concerto. These are decidedly more dissonant but not as much as the quartets and are also quite accessible (certainly great works.) Listen to the second violin concerto first of these, I'm sure the introduction will hook you.

But anyway, you must listen to the Concerto for Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - it will change your life. It's one of the most fun orchestral pieces in the repertoire and nobody conducted it better than Fritz Reiner in my opinion. Here it is on YouTube with a piano reduction if you want to follow it like that, but you won't find the full score difficult to follow if you prefer to listen with that (which I recommend.) It's pretty straightforward - it's a concerto for every single instrument and instrument group in the orchestra, at different points in the concerto. If that sounds like the most awesome thing ever, it's because it is.


Rickard Dahl said...

I will look into the piece later (I've listened to it once or maybe twice before).

As for modes I disagree. Yes it's true that modes are based around principal tones, lets say C Dorian, the mode is dorian and C is the tonic. Ofc the scale relationships are different compared with major or minor but that's the point, it gives a fresh perspective (new chord layouts, new melodic possibilities etc.). However while I don't think it's necessary to be overly cautious as you suggest by using vamps and such, it's important not to overemphasize certain chord progressions or certain tones. You can also weaken links to minor or major and strengthen specific modes. Obviously this gives many options, you can modulate between different modes (parallel or relative for instance), modulate between different scales (as in collection of tones) (for instance from C Dorian to D Dorian), modulate to a major/minor if desired or just use some chromaticism here and there and so on. In "Modal Music Composition" the author suggests having similar types of systems such as major/minor but for modes, basically he suggests dorian/lydian & phrygian/mixolydian systems. Basically the point is that you can base pieces on modes. As for Ravel it doesn't sound like you're describing something modal, "C Major Harmony". Yeah well, modes are easier to spot if you improvise and write music in certain modes. I'm just a beginner composer but I'm relying more on modality than tonality. It's not too difficult to write progressions in a mode that are stable. And besides for instance you could a dorian scale as basis for a piece but move into relative lydian or a far locrian scale somewhere in the piece if you want for instance. It's all about controlling the direction where you want. It gives lots of possibilities.

Rickard Dahl said...

Oh and I recommend that you read "Modal Music Composition" to get a new perspective on it. I don't follow it anymore than I follow any other theory book (which is not at all pretty much) but there are some interesting ideas.

Bridge said...

Bolero starts out in C major with what is essentially just a I-V-I vamp played by the cellos and violas. The harmony gets colorized in interesting ways later on but it remains essentially unchanged throughout the entire piece, which is why C major serves as a sort of pivot for his modal excursions. In other words, the basic harmony of the homey key gets constantly reinterpreted through the use of modes. Just listen to the piece with the score, it's a lot of fun and I think you will immediately see what I mean.

The book looks interesting, I'll definitely keep it on my radar (unfortunately or maybe fortunately I have such a monstrously huge backlog of things to read that I want to get to first.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, I go off to play a concert and a furious discussion breaks out about Bartók and modes! Very cool, guys.

Let me just add a couple of things. Bartók was quite interested in some mathematical ideas, especially the Golden Section. And it could sometimes be of fair significance. For example, see how often the climax of a movement happens around .618 of the way through.

I think that some of the discussion you were into got a bit confused because of one important factor that you didn't mention too much. That is the amount of dissonance vs consonance. Bartók, while having tonal centers, can be very dissonant and I think this is what Rickard is reacting to.

Composers like Bartók and Debussy use tonality in very complex ways. I am certainly not an expert on Bartók, but I did do some work on him in graduate school. He may use folksong, but he does so in transformative ways. For example, he may analyze the content of the melody in order to create a specific harmonic content based on it. As for Debussy, if you look at a piece like "Voiles" you can see how interesting his harmonic ideas are. For most of the piece he uses the whole tone scale, which inevitably generates nothing but augmented chords in the accompaniment. I posted on that here: