12/10/10

Happy Birthday Elliott! Again. Ugh.

Another smattering of birthday celebrations; a few newly inked scores; and yet another chance for our critic brethren to reflect upon the miraculous music and career of one of the world’s most vital centenarian composers.

New Yorker Elliott Carter’s 102nd birthday a perfect excuse to venture into his complex world
John Teruads
Toronto Star, A Sound Mind, Classical Music Blog

…with a title that says, “Eh, well, he’s 102; that’s something, at least.”

As the title may suggest, this little puff piece, doesn’t…what’s the word? Puff.

New Music Concerts was not able to get Elliott Carter to Toronto for tonight's celebration of his 102nd birthday at the Isabel Bader Theatre (the actual birthday is tomorrow).

Downer. “Now that’s a concert I want to go to!”

It's not just by virtue of longevity that Carter has become known as a connoisseur's composer.

For those who may be new to the DR, “connoisseur’s composer” means no audience, often for a reason. And what that has to do with longevity, which is a virtue according to our author, I have no clue.

Long ago,

In a galaxy quite removed from today’s schmaltzy nostalgia for tonality…

Long ago, when the art music world was in the thrall of atonal composition, Carter (like his French counterpart, Olivier Messiaen) developed his very own musical grammar.

And all by himself!



Figure 1: Who’s a big boy? Who’s a big boy? You are!

I'm oversimplifying…

No shit. Maybe you should mention that these guys were also atonalists.

…but his music starts with a layering of diverse rhythms.

First of all, “diverse rhythms.” Are you saying that he used both eighth notes and sixteenth notes? Or that the rhythms are more complex than that? Didn’t he exploit metric modulation with some notoriety in the 40s?

Second, I learned metric modulation in third grade. So…

For his sound palette, Carter assembled a catalogue of (unusual) chords…

…based on intervallic content, as in atonal set-theory, which is perfectly adaptable to serialization, which he did.

…Carter assembled a catalogue of (unusual) chords, not a set of tone rows, as his serialist peers would usw [sic].

Serialism is dead, therefore, Elliott Carter is not a serialist, right?

The results are no easier to grasp at first hearing.

His own musical grammar + diverse rhythms + unusual chords = the results. Fucking spot on, John!

Like a lot of expressionist visual art, Carter's music rewards multiple visits and analytical listening.

Okay, I am about to link to Wikipedia, which is something I usually hesitate to do, because…

Well, it’s like this: while there are some awesome-smart people in this world, if I were ever to be charged with, say, murder, I would do everything in my abilities to avoid a trial and, thus, avoid being judged by my peers. Got it?

In this case, however, I’m going to link to the Wikipedia article on Expressionism, because it took me nearly three seconds to find it, which only shows how little research it took to find something to the contrary (it’s also cited):

[Expressionism’s] typical trait is to present the world in an utterly subjective perspective, radically distorting it for emotional effect, to evoke moods or ideas.

Ahem. Either John doesn’t know what expressionism is about or Elliott is getting it wrong. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to judge for yourself.

Hold on a minute! This is a concert puff piece, right? So why should I go, again?

The Isabel Bader Theatre is normally a horrible place to hear classical music because of its dry-as-dust acoustics.

But, for Carter’s music…?




Figure 2 (courtesy of Opera Chic): Happy Birthday Mr. Carter!
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18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Carter remains, for me, one of those incredibly overhyped composers whose inspiration comes (if at all) only in the tiniest spurts. I think he will just continue to decline in esteem. There are so many composers out there who are better, and even some of them don't last.

I think Carter got by on pretension, and not much else. It also seems to me that many people in our cultural climate pretend to an enthusiasm in his music that they don’t actually feel.

Danny Liss said...

To understand the diversity of Carter's rhythms, make sure you check out Fernando Benadon's groundbreaking study Racial Identity and Metric Modulation from The Journal of Musicology's Fall 2005 issue (Vol. 22). The sad irony thing is that Carter's music is more diverse than the people who study it.

Anonymous said...

Danny,

So in order to better "understand" Carter's music I should read a technical study?

This is absurd.

Empiricus said...

Will do Danny.

And by the way, didn't getting to 90 automatically mean that the man's above reproach, at least while he's still kicking? I'm sure it's a law in Oregon or something. I read it in a technical readout of laws.

Anonymous said...

Empiricus wrote:

"And by the way, didn't getting to 90 automatically mean that the man's above reproach..."

No it doesn't.

Carter is basically a simpering mediocrity who might have composed one or two interesting works in his entire career.

Cereal Music said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cereal Music said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cereal Music said...

@anonymous

Agreed. When people like modern-Carter but dislike early-Carter, it is a sign that they understand neither. Carter command of techniques is pretty much consistent through his entire body of work, and he noodles throughout for better or for worse in both. Personally, I think it is for the worse.

@Danny

As for his metric modulation, while this technique has potential an expressive tool, Carter's use of it is Czerny/Hanon-esque. Several years ago I transcribed the oboe part of the oboe quartet for saxophone. The undulations up and down where mindless, and his sense of proportion, frankly, is awful. Many composers are able to use strict formulas for rhythm, pitches, and form without sucking.

And like anon., I believe that your suggestion to read a book to understand a piece is next to absurd. Music comes first, then, if the music warrants, come books. I'm still waiting to read Bach's Harmony Book explaining the use of the total chromatic in the WTC!

Anonymous said...

@ Cereal Music:

"I believe that your suggestion to read a book to understand a piece is next to absurd. Music comes first, then, if the music warrants, come books..."

Precisely.

Music, of all the arts, is the one that does not and should not require explanation or education. If it works at all it should talk directly to the inner listener, beneath the layers of pretension or persona.

If the music has more going for it that simply satisfying the short-term pretensions of elitists and pseudo-intellectuals then it will survive on its own merits

A person doesn't need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music. I'm not talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time, but you do hear people criticising those who don't "understand" certain strands of modern music where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it. The point I was trying to make was that music ULTIMATELY should be able to transcend education and intellect and culture.

Danny Liss said...

I'll warn you guys before you waste your time: I was deadpanning on the idea of "diverse rhythms" mentioned in the review. To the best of my knowledge, no musicologist has ever explored the racial identity of Elliott Carter's rhythms.

But I'm taken aback at the hostility towards scholarship about music.

Anonymous said...

@Danny,

"But I'm taken aback at the hostility towards scholarship about music..."

It's not so much hostility as exasperation.

Scholarship or theoretical analysis ultimately doesn't tell us anything about music. It only tells us something about the rational mind's flawed apprehension of it.

Empiricus said...

Sounds like we all should reread Heart and Brain, from Style and Idea, by Arnie. It's never just one or the other (see Apollo vs. Dionysus). To suggest otherwise implies complicity in ignorance, on whichever side the argument may fall.

Besides, most of the Carter defenders of late have insisted that the theory behind his works "does not require explanation or education" and is trumped by a unique and approachable sound. I think I'd agree; his most recent stuff, which I find to be of a softer nature than his earlier stuff, is pretty engaging on an aural level. But one could look at his works with an analytical approach and find quite a bit.

Niether one nor the other, if you so choose.

Sator Arepo said...

"Anonymous said...

@Danny,

"But I'm taken aback at the hostility towards scholarship about music..."

It's not so much hostility as exasperation.

Scholarship or theoretical analysis ultimately doesn't tell us anything about music. It only tells us something about the rational mind's flawed apprehension of it."

Because, clearly, music isn't composed by rational minds? Just asserting that "music is what you feel" doesn't make it so.

Perhaps be aware, maybe, that people (maybe none you know?) spend a great deal of time and often their lives studying music...but there's no way they know more about it than you, because you're special?

I don't know anything about sculpture, but I also don't claim to "understand" it to cover up my ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Empiricus and Sator,

You are missing my point.

To clarify:

Of course emotion and intellect don't operate independently of each other. There is some intellectual effort involved with what we deem emotional responses, and there sure are emotional colorations to what seem to be intellectual responses. I don't however, think that emotion is expressed through music "conceptually", ie via an understanding of music theory which can "decode" an emotional message. There is no such language to learn.

Knowledge of music theory is not the basis for aesthetic experience. What it describes is, but theory is the description, not THE OBJECT. We still have the object without the technical data. We still have ears and we are still fully equipped to hear it.

Possessing knowledge of music theory and other technical matters does not correlate with a greater aesthetic pleasure and love of music.

Sator Arepo said...

Anon,

No, I'm not missing your point; it's quite clear. I'm sorry if I was curt earlier, but what you did is the equivalent of walking into a cartographer's convention and tell them that they're all idiots because the earth is flat.

Without rehashing all of the above, my position regarding your claims/assertions about theory and aesthetics is:

1) You're wrong; and
2) It's your loss.

Anonymous said...

Sator,

I believe that I'm correct in my previous statements on aesthetics.

On a separate note:

Would you agree with me that Debussy's 'Pelleas et Melisande' is the finest, the most ravishing and the most addictive of all operas?

And does it mystify you that it has never had the impact nor the popularity of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss?

Empiricus said...

Uh...

pass.

Anonymous said...

Empiricus,

But why?

Don't you have any thoughts/feelings on Debussy's unique, gorgeous and immensely sophisticated opera?