In praise of Elliott Carter
January 5, 2012
The composer Elliott Carter was born in New York City on 11th December 1908, one day after Olivier Messiaen’s birth in Avignon, France. By way of introduction, here’s Bridget Kibbey playing part of his 1992 harp solo Bariolage.
Carter gave this piece a motto from Rilke (Sonnets to Orpheus, 2, 10):
But existence is still enchanting for us; in hundreds
Of places still pristine. A play of pure forces
Like many artists of his time, Carter is burdened with a sometimes excessive discussion of his technique and historical significance, which can perhaps be offputting to listeners. I find it hard to resist joining in with this chatter, but suffice it to say he has a preoccupation with the perception of time – a splintering of regular time to match the complexity of twentieth century life; a taste for long expressive melodic lines, and a powerful sense of drama driven by giving idiosyncratic characters to different instruments or groups.
I first encountered Carter’s music at one of my first ever proms back in 1985. It was the première of a substantial chamber piece called Penthode, conducted by Pierre Boulez. I didn’t know much classical music at all at the time and I can’t honestly remember what I made of it. But I do recall a critic sniping about the 1985 season as a whole, saying something like “too much sadly neglected British music plus a helping of Elliott Carter is sure to get the audiences fleeing in their droves”. My teenage identity gave me no interest in the former but demanded I should make a determined effort to befriend Elliott’s spiky complexity.
And I have to admit it’s taken me a long time to really befriend him! I always found his music interesting and enjoyable, but it’s taken me many years to find a real emotional engagement. Unlike, for example, Boulez, with his glittering frenzy, or Birtwistle, with his powerfully evocative dark rites.
I’ve returned to Carter numerous times over the years, encouraged by one work in particular I’ve always loved, Night Fantasies. This long piano piece from 1980 is of fearsome technical complexity (I definitely do not recommend reading up on what’s going on in there compositionally), but to me it invites a very direct emotional response, as befits the title.
My breakthrough came quite recently when I put on a CD of Symphonia (1996). To my great surprise I soon found myself spontaneously rising from my seat and starting to dance around the room to it. I’ve no idea how that happened, but it certainly did, and it signalled a different kind of listening, or perhaps not-listening: certainly not trying to listen.
That experience has transformed how I feel about all of Elliott’s music. I’m still unsure how to put into words my poetic response in the way I easily can for, say, Boulez. I’ve realised there’s a huge difference between musical style and musical personality – a topic that deserves it’s own blogpost – and I’m still wondering who really is similar to Carter in personality, as opposed to style. Names that come to mind are Schoenberg and Berg, who seem to overlap with his robust emotional world. But my response is now much more physical, and through that emotional, and I’m left with a fantasy of finding a DJ willing to play his records for me late into the night.
I’m also left wondering if Carter demands close attentive concentration, or if in fact the opposite is true – and in general if technically complex modern music can sometimes benefit from a more relaxed approach by the listener? I believe there’s room for both. I certainly spent far too long trying to understand Carter’s technique and personality, whereas in the end my response was at least partly physical. You either respond to the energy, drama and playfulness or you don’t – and quite possibly with your feet.
I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the creative output of a significant artist beyond the age of 100 is of enormous intrinsic interest. Elliott’s recent works (and they are legion) have a new delicacy and simplicity, remain playful, and have less expressive extremes but still a wide range of mood. Charles Rosen means no insult in commenting that Carter is “a rare instance in which losing a little edge in old age is not a bad thing”.
In 2010 he composed a song cycle called A Sunbeam’s Architecture, the title referring to the following lines by E. E. Cummings:
such was a poet and shall be and is
who’ll solve the depths of horror to defend
a sunbeam’s architecture with his life:
and carve immortal jungles of despair
to hold a mountain’s heartbeat in his hand
Finally, here are some interesting short video interviews on the Boosey & Hawkes website. Near the end Carter comments that unlike many modernist composers who raised a fist to the past, “I’ve always loved so many kinds of music … Bach and Beethoven … Guillaume de Machaut … and my music is somehow a thankyou note to all of that.”