Tough Love: The Music of Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter, who died on November 5 a little over a month before his 104th birthday, wrote music that is tough to love: it can be thorny, knotty, dense, complex, brainy, abstract, atonal, harsh, jagged, and sometimes genuinely off-putting. It has no intention of seducing listeners, of attracting love through flattery, cajolery, putting on a song and dance, of singing “let me entertain you.” It is also prismatically colorful, rich in varied gestures, dazzling, continuously stimulating, full of the liveliest contrasts, always connected to human utterances, capable of suggesting a complete personality in micro-seconds. Its complexity is layered, and every layer speaks in a different voice, each voice constantly modulating itself in response to the others in ways that often seem all-too-human, reacting defensively, opposing, ignoring, or criticizing, harping, deploring, chuckling ironically, cackling, and on occasion, agreeing. Here is a sampling of titles of some of his later works: Dialogues, Soundings, Interventions, Two Controversies and a Conversation, Illusions, Instances, Con leggerezza pensosa, Explorations, Diversions, Epigrams, Figment, Retracing. Carter is a supreme dramatist/psychologist: he has translated human interactions into abstract musical conversations without taking sides, without imposing an agenda or ideology. For his eighty-plus years of composing, he remained eternally fascinated with the way humans interact not only with each other but with time itself, and he has anatomized and catalogued the ways of experiencing the passing of time.
Stravinsky was the modern composer Carter revered the most, even though his music would be unthinkable without the important influences of Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg. In “The Poetics of Music,” Stravinsky (or his ghost writer Pierre Souvchinsky) wrote about music’s existence within ontological time and its ability to shape psychological time. Carter’s music lives within the tension between these two, the one constantly pulling the other into new shapes like atomic particles traveling at great speeds through highly charged electrical fields. And Carter’s music is never less than highly charged. Its intensity demands an equal intensity of attention from both performers and listeners. This is where listeners may get turned off—I have been stumped by the music a number of times—or at least found myself in a situation akin to being in the center of a very robust blackberry patch.
The locus classicus of the thorny Carter piece is his Third String Quartet, premiered early in 1973. I heard this performance, by the Juilliard Quartet at Tully Hall, and came away wondering what had hit me. I also marvelled at the ability of the four players to saw away at their incredibly virtuosic and chaotic-sounding parts with little apparent order or relationship for over twenty minutes. It was like listening to a roomful of over-excited people all speaking at once in Russian (or whatever), often at top volume, going on and on endlessly. Talk about psychological time!
Having discovered Carter initially through his Second Quartet, which I listened to countless times, I knew that with repeated listening, Carter’s music can start to open up and let my ear inside with some sense of space within which I can direct my attention intelligently. So I went to the next performance of the Third Quartet by the Juilliard a few months later, this time at Amherst College. The programming for this second concert was much more appropriate. In New York, the new work had been surrounded by Mozart and Ravel, which made it feel like a briar patch in the middle of a flowery meadow. In Amherst, the context was provided by quartets by Bartok (no. 6) and Ives (no. 2), which proved perfect for preparing the audience to pay the kind of attention Carter’s work demands. And indeed I did start to be able to parse out some of the structures. After purchasing the score and following the recording, however, I concluded that I really was having a hard time loving this obviously extraordinary work.
The Third Quartet was composed during what I will call Carter’s central “epic” period. This began with the path-breaking but very lyrical First Quartet of 1951, continued with the “Variations for Orchestra” (1955) which sounds both epic and American, connecting to the rhetorical tradition of grandiose orchestral works of Ruggles, Copland, Harris, and William Schuman but adding elements of layering and metric flexibility that had appeared in the quartet. The series of break-away works really hit its stride with the intensely concentrated Second Quartet of 1959, followed by the fiercely complex “Double Concerto” of 1961 which is violent, delicate, wonderfully exciting, and amazingly colorful. A single vast structure which is incredibly difficult to perform (problems of balance and lyrical shape must be solved by the conductor and musicians through many rehearsals) it is, if performed well, one of the most rewarding pieces for listeners. The last recording made, under Carter’s supervision, is the best available, but the performance I heard at Tanglewood in the summer of 1972 conducted by Gunther Schuller with Ursula Oppens and Gilbert Kalish as soloists surpassed it in coherence. (I asked Schuller how he did it, and he said that he had rehearsed it with the New England Conservatory instrumentalists for a whole year!) It is not a piece that you have the opportunity to hear in any given year, or possibly in any given decade, but if it is being performed, it is well worth seeking out. Hearing it might be the beginning of a very long love affair.
What I am calling Carter’s “epic” period continued with similarly ambitious, large-scale orchestral works, the Piano Concerto (1964), the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) inspired by an epic, Whitmanesque poem, “Vents,” by St. John Perse, and the Symphony for Three Orchestras (1976) based on an epic vision of Hart Crane. It also included the powerful “Brass Quintet” (1974).
These works were the products of mighty labors, great architectural monuments which required the construction of scaffoldings of musical languages and processes, some of which are unique to each work, and some of which were absorbed into Carter’s formidable compositional technique. (These are well described in David Schiff’s important book, “The Music of Elliott Carter.”) The “epic” compositions made great demands on listeners and performers similar to those of the Double Concerto. Ironically, Carter has written that he composes with an awareness that his music will most likely be encountered on recordings, where the fierce complexity means that each hearing of the identical performance will be a new and different experience for the listeners as their ears become familiar with the intricate surfaces and begin to delve below to the emotional and dramatic scenario and then finally to the overall structure, all of which have been fully planned out and meticulously executed. And yet, since the musical gestures are so directly and dramatically expressive, the works come fully alive in good concert performances.
In the early 1980’s (around the time of the chamber works “Penthode” and “Triple Duo”) there came a change. Carter began a series of chamber and solo works of more modest proportions. Critics heralded a “late style” for the 72-year-old composer. Little did they suspect that this “last phase” would last for more than thirty years, a time-span longer than Schubert’s or Mozart’s entire creative lives. As we get to know more and more of the music, we will undoubtedly discern further sub-styles and trends. In the ‘90’s, there suddenly emerged an opera and the longest, most elaborate orchestral work yet, a full-blown, three movement symphony (Symphonia, 1993/6). During this same period, a series of concerti or concerto-like works began to appear, eventually including works for oboe, violin, clarinet, cello, French horn, piano (multiple late works), flute, harp, and bass clarinet, as well as two chamber concerti (Asko Concerto and Boston Concerto). These works were composed on a smaller and more transparent scale, and some of them were wholly or partially light-hearted and humorous. The Fifth (and last) String Quartet turned out to be the most whimsical of that genre, whose older siblings had been complex and intensely serious: it is as if Carter around age 90 fully developed his wry, playful, light-hearted manner into a consistent approach toward life and toward his creative project.
But it is impossible to pigeon-hole Carter. Yet a third trend began to manifest itself even more recently: a series of song-cycles, each devoted to a favorite modern American poet, set for solo voice and chamber orchestra, chamber ensemble, or piano. The first such cycle, “A Mirror on Which to Dwell,” on poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, was actually written at around the same time (1975) as the “Symphony of Three Orchestras,” proving in retrospect to be a pivotal work. The small scale of the structures, the individual instrumental color combinations of each song, the personal diction and expressiveness emanating directly from the poetry makes Carter seem, if not warm and fuzzy, at least an accessible, familiar personal voice. These songs embody the conflicts and ambiguities of the modern condition articulated by the poetry, amplified by Carter’s spontaneous-sounding interactions of musical layers which lend expressive shape to each song. These qualities were to reappear later in the cycles devoted to poetry of John Ashbery, T. S. Eliot, John Hollander, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, e. e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens, all of whom Carter knew personally. And the musical settings have a corresponding sense of personal presence and connection to the poetry. The poems themselves are challenging and rewarding for their readers, among whom Carter is peerless. His cycles are almost love letters to the poets, and his settings are fantastically sensitive to values of sound and sense as well as of drama. I, as a life-long lover of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, was instantly drawn into that poet’s very individual imaginative spaces by Carter’s settings, “In the Distances of Sleep,” which were heard at the Tanglewood Centenary concerts in the summer of 2008. Brilliantly performed, I instantly found them to be sensually gorgeous, and Carter’s engagement with the poetry to be intensely moving.
Here’s what Carter wrote about his setting of Robert Lowell’s poetry: “What attracted me about these texts were their rapid, controlled changes from passion to tenderness, to humour and to a sense of loss. The music reflects these very human qualities and their constant shifting qualities, and as in other recent scores, I have tried to write music of a continuous but coherent change, which to me is the most evocative kind.” To connect with the beauty and meaning in Carter’s music is to connect with the specific expressive qualities of each moment in a piece, and then to notice how such qualities are dynamically and continuously transforming through interaction with other qualities. This is not always an easy task for the listener.
Music, especially Carter’s music, does not and cannot stand still. Many styles of music try to fight against the fleeting nature of time and of human consciousness. (In 1925, Stephan Wolpe, another composer who influenced Carter, composed a work called “Stehende Musik”—standing music. It is an exercise in trying to do the impossible.) Music of the baroque tends to slow time down so that individual states of being can be contemplated at leisure. Classical era music attempts to bend the arc of time into a full circle so that all events within a time-span seem to constitute a whole, a complete and bounded experience. In our time, John Cage and Morton Feldman ask us to immerse ourselves in a continuous present tense, without the distractions of memory or anticipation. From 1951 on, Carter dedicated himself to an aesthetic stance that acknowledges the true nature of the human experience of time: it is essentially linear and unrepeatable; this has profound emotional consequences; and music is an ideal medium for exploring the variable nature of psychological time and of our relations with the past. At first, such a task required tough-mindedness; in the first part of the twentieth century, it went against the grain of our cultural heritage to re-think human experience in such volatile terms. Carter shared a tough-minded stance with many great modernists (he was always an avid student of poetry and painting) in his rethinking the aesthetic experience, and he needed to ignore the demands of audiences in order to break through to his own unique voice and vision (as he recounts in his narrative about the genesis of his First Quartet, which almost sounds like a version of the Founding Myth of Modernism). After a while, it was no longer necessary to shake the listener loose from dependency on strategies of orientation and comfort. Carter’s modernism, it turned out, never lost touch with romanticism and lyricism, and this became apparent in the miraculous thirty year coda to his career, which produced forty works (and counting, since we have not heard them all even now that he is gone). These works all focus, one way or another, on individuals, either composed for specific performers or based on the words of specific poet-friends, or both.
The astonishing longevity of Carter’s mind, the unfailing resourcefulness and clarity of his (inner) ear, and his ever-renewing creative impulse turns out to have been fuelled by his love of people, of music, and of the world. But it is a love which eschewed sentimentality, and insisted on clear vision. His music portrays with astounding realism and vivid projection the way humans actually feel things and experience the events of their lives, buffeted by the lives of those around them, as individuals and as parts of groups of all kinds. While this is sometimes conveyed to the listener by music of irresistible color, humor, and drama, it is also true that at other times the listener is plunged into a chaotic scenario in medias res, as in the opera “What Next?” which opens the instant after a car crash. It takes a while for the characters and the audience to figure out what happened, and we really learn whether the action is in this world or the next. We need to accept the suspension of disbelief, to cultivate tolerance of ambiguity, to pay careful attention to detail, to embrace complexity, and to be open to the expression of any and every state of being. Carter expected this of his listeners but was always surprised to learn that some of them were actually up to the task. He knew that what he was expecting was challenging, but he returned the favor with his own brand of tough love.