Mr. Holland's Wooden Shoes

Get yourself a drink, or two, and settle in.

We’ve all been privy to those awkward moments when our elders regale about the old days of yore. Like when your grandfather, in a gruff voice, said something like, “I remember the day when people had to sharpen pencils in order to write things. You even had to write it by hand. Not like these new-fangled interwebs and their automatic typers. Then you’d have to lick a sticky paper stamp and fix it to an envelope, which was like taping a coin to the outside. I remember coins, you could buy a whole three-course meal, with a cherry pie at the end, with just one halfpenny, which took a week to earn on my paper route. Where was I? Pies. I remember pies, especially Mrs. Wilson’s pie. Her pie was delicious. Then you’d have to take that envelope to the local negro and have him go to the United States Post Office and send it off. Four months later, you might get a reply.”

Similarly awkward, Mr. Holland is still trying to tell us about the virtue of his wooden shoes, as opposed to those unfamiliar, difficult, soulless, unpopular new Converse High-tops. Or, if you prefer, substitute “wooden shoes” with “stuff he likes,” and substitute “Converse High-tops” with “Elliott Cater.”

Prototypically American, Atypically Challenging

I bet Mr. Holland doesn’t like America.

Mr. Carter, approaching his 100th birthday and subject of the Focus! 2008 weeklong series of concerts at the Julliard School, could not be mistaken for a soulful Russian, a singing Italian or a Central European bearing the weight of the centuries.

So Americans are not soulful, like Russians; they aren’t songbirds, like Italians; they aren’t Jesuses, like Central Europeans. And neither is Elliott Carter. But what could his music be mistaken to be?

In his music there is no patina [the green film of oxidation on bronze after many years], only fresh paint.

Okay... his music is not old; it’s new. Yep. That’s exactly what his music could be mistaken to be, new! Well, not quite the answer I was looking for. I mean Russians are soulful! What are Americans? New!??

And what about Holland’s metaphor, paint? I don’t know if he really thought this one through, because paint, as I understand it, is something attached to a surface. Is Holland saying that Carter’s music lack depth? Or is it just new? Keep that one in mind as we go along. It might resurface.

The edges are not worn smooth but sharp to the touch.

Okay, it’s new. I got it. Everyone else got it. (keep in mind: “new,” and “sharp”)

James Levine conducted the Julliard Orchestra in the “Symphonia: sum fluxae pretieum spei” and the Cello Concerto, a very large mouthful of Mr. Carter’s art and one that assuredly left these splendid musicians and a packed Saturday night house...both satisfied and exhausted.

Keep in mind: “very large mouthful.” I omit “satisfied” and “exhausted,” for now, because this is not Holland’s opinion. I don’t think he has ever been satisfied with new music.

The cellist Dane Johansen was brave and virtuosic and needed to be both.

This, however, is Mr. Holland’s opinion. He thinks that the cellist needed to be brave. Why? To do what he has been training for his entire life, to play the cello? Or was Elliott’s music just that intimidating and the cellist had to be brave in order to face it, like an American Gladiator? I think that Holland thinks that Elliott Carter is a monster. What do you think?

The idea of Mr. Carter as American-made makes sense.

Oh yeah. How?

There are the reserves of psychic energy: the impulsiveness and aggression, the hard work achieved through high sophistication, the absence of neurosis.

Mr. Wooden Shoes calls Carter: impulsive, aggressive, highly sophisticated, and cold, cool and unexpressive. Gee-willickers, Wally. Is Holland saying that Americans are these things, too?

Please note, though, his use of “highly sophisticated.” It has been my experience that Holland uses this term ad libitum, for anything new that he doesn’t understand, or like (it’s placation—it sounds nicer). I’m sure, if he ever looked at, or heard, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” with any understanding of music whatsoever, that he’d find it a very sophisticated tune. It might not be as sophisticated as his Puccini, but it’s certainly complex and worthy of the moniker: “highly sophisticated.”

It’s one of the most egregious and backhanded compliments hands down. And remember, this is what he’s also saying about Americans, too.

The concerto greets us with the musical equivalent of gunshots.

Gunshots greet me with a sensation of fright and pain (my ears hurt). Thus, in Holland’s veiled words, Carter greets us with pants-wetting, ear pain. Nice. Carter is an American.

The contrasting lyrical writing sings gracefully; it shines but without a hint of sweetness.

And although Americans sing gracefully, they are not sweet, like Italians, who sing.

The “Symphonia” gathers three movements composed separately that together constitute an evening of listening all in themselves. Mr. Carter makes no pretense of simplicity. He has that American knack for making complex constructions work.

Americans work hard and Carter’s complex constructions work. But damn, it’s dense. That reminds me of a story my grandpa once told me about the war.

“Those damn mortar shells got my buddy, Danny. He had a girl back in Chattanooga, who always made him cookies. He’d go over to her place and put the bunny in the hole. Then she’d make him some cookies. Chocolate Chip, I think. Anyways, when we made it to Burgandy, I found a little doll on the side of a bombed-out road. It was covered in mud. Which was the name of my favorite beer, back in Toledo. I’d go to the bar there, and because I looked older than my age, they’d serve me up some Mud. But those chocolate chip cookies were hard as rock, Danny told me. He said they were so dense that you couldn’t swallow a bite without chugging a gallon of milk, which we used to have to get ourselves from the cow. But, oh, he said it was torture watching her make them. She used every dish in the house. I had myself a few dishes. Somehow, after all of the rigmarole, you could eat her cookies.”

People on Saturday... struggled to find their seats, so concentrated and intense was this sophisticated gathering.

Of course, you didn’t think you were going to get away from a Bernard Converse-Hater article without mention of those elite fucks who go to these damn complex concerts, about which Holland writes and gets paid, did you? Americans who, like Carter, were sophisticated went to the concert, and seemed to be intrigued by it, or according to Holland, were so exhausted that they couldn’t muster the strength to find their own seats.

Yet in the larger world of classical-music audiences—those who find comfort in Mozart, inspiration in Beethoven and exotic fantasies fulfilled in Ravel or the young Stravinsky—Mr. Carter has virtually no audience at all.

In other words, most classically-minded audiences (who mostly live in Europe, by the way) don’t listen to Carter’s music for comfort, inspiration or to fulfill exotic fantasies. In other, other words, Elliott Cater sucks! I hate new music! I hate New American Music! I especially hate new American music that reminds me of Schoenberg!

Laughable running tally—

Carter IS NOT: oxidized, soulful, singing, a Jesus, smooth, simple, sweet, comforting, inspiring. Nor will he fulfill your exotic fantasies.

Carter IS: like paint, new, sharp, a monster, impulsive, aggressive, highly sophisticated, cold, unfeeling, frightening, complex.

I hope, after all this Carter bashing (By the way, he’s fucking 100 years-old! This just further exemplifies Holland’s intellectual cowardice, I believe), Holland will finally tell us what Americans are like. Please, Mr. Shoe? Pretty please? Pretty please with fulfilled exotic fantasies on top?

Like America as seen by some nations [Holland?], he is famous, admired and not particularly liked.

BINGO! In his own words, “America is famous, admired and not particularly liked.” And so is Carter.

I love how Holland draws a parallel between the dislike of America with Elliott Carter. Mr. Elliot writes music. You may not like it. But he just writes music. And to draw this baggage-laden parallel is childish, and sort of, in a way, racist. It’s as if Holland just started writing, like my grandfather rambling, typed enter, and Presto! His work was done.

But go on Mr. Tulip-Levees, I want to know why Carter is not liked, like Americans are not liked.

Also like many Americans in the postwar era, he was born into comfort, has lived in prosperity and functioned with a confidence bordering on impunity.

He just writes music. Why do I care if he is wealthy? Oh wait. Stop, stop, stop. I get it. Holland is saying that Elliott Cater is a social elite. And his bread and butter is to buy more oil companies and step on the little man. Right?

Most of us...

You know, us working-class, blue-collared folk going to Elliott Carter Concerts in New York.

...want everybody to love us, but Mr. Carter seems comfortable with the admiration of the chosen.

Don’t include me Holland Dyke! Speak for yourself. Apparently, Mr. Carter, who is 100 fucking years-old, only cares about himself and other elitist snobs who have money. This is fucking bat-shit crazy bullshit. He's comparing Carter to Eisner, which is like comparing apples to fulfilled erotic fantasies.

“I remember the Great Depression. I was going on fifty, or was it twenty? We lived in a Hooverville just outside of Stockton. My dad picked almonds and my mother picked tomatoes. I picked artichokes twenty hours a day for three pennies, which could buy a new house in those days, but they fired you before you could collect. The girls in the ‘ville would let you collect. The farmers said you didn’t work the whole day, so they couldn’t pay you. We were always trying to get the money, but the jobs weren’t coming. I remember once taking a job writing about the local symphony concerts. But I hated it. The money was good, but I couldn’t stand the clothes you had to wear. A tie and clean long pants. I remember having a pair of shoes that I got back in Modesto. Those were the good old days. I wrote columns about the concerts and the stupid people going to them. I don’t think anyone ever read my reviews, probably reading the more expensive paper across town. There was a good sandwich shop across town; we got the ham. Then...”


.... zzzzzz

“.... the Germans! (snort) Oh where was I? Oh. Then we’d get a soda from the street vendor. He used to go to those concerts. But he wasn’t rich. For some strange reason he just liked them because...”


.... zzzzzz


.... zzzzzz

Check out this comparison article by Allan Kozinn.


Sator Arepo said...

So ornery! So many backhanded compliments. I just don't get it. I totally don't want a job reviewing corporate country music for the exact reason that I hate it.

Anonymous said...

I love this analyis! Holland has always struck me as a tiresome old poop, and his attempts to draw the line between elitist and us just plain folks (who of course include him) is as offensive as it is dishonest. I am also not sure what Carter's money has to do with anything, and I don't now what "bordering on impunity" means. I guess what he's saying is that Carter has enough money to tell audiences to go screw. But a lot of composers had to make money in ways other than selling their compostions. Stravinsky conducted and concertized throughout the 20s and 30s. Ives sold insurance. Did they have "impunity"? I think Mr. Carter would have found a way to compose the way he wanted to regardless of his comfort level. Of of course, all those sophisticates scrambling for seats sorts of gives the lie to the idea that Carter had no audience. Oh wait, that's right, these people are phonies who don't find inspiration in Beethoven. I was at that concert, and I wasn't exhausted. I was jazzed.

Bernard Holland is an ass.