04/25/2013 01:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013

Carter Is Dead

Carter is dead! I state the obvious, as composer Elliott Carter died a few months ago at the age of 103. But then again, I am also alluding to the figurative sense, as in the Boulezian dismissal of Schoenberg with the same statement. Boulez's statement was a quasi-totalitarian one, in that he decried Schoenberg's usage of old forms, even his process of narrative progression through time, as antithetical to the demands of the new post-World War II age. He dismissed all composers as simply irrelevant who didn't comprehend the necessity for the use of the 12-tone system and the manner in which he stated it should be used. It was the cry of a right-wing revolutionary. Schoenberg and his music seem to have survived the attack, and we shall see of the fate of the music of Boulez. But what of the music of Carter?

In looking at Carter's music, I am proposing no such blanket condemnation, and at least not in such a thoroughly polemical manner. What I am suggesting is a serious re-appraisal of the only thing that matters -- the music.

Carter's death has brought about a number of hagiographic articles confirming his stature as one of the greatest American composers of the latter half of the 20th century. He finds approval and embraces from some of our finest conductors and performers. This is somewhat perplexing, because even among his musical and compositional friends, while they found Carter quite likeable, few, it is said, really liked his music.

Carter was a steady and prolific composer right up to the end of his long life. A man of wealth, correct education (Harvard), and European credentials (studied with Boulanger), he found his way into music even though, like Copland, coming from a household largely indifferent to the arts.

His early works, such as the "Holiday Overture" and the "Piano Sonata," display an ability to get notes onto the page in a pleasant and felicitous manner. The language is broadly tonal, with the niceties of a tonal journey, as in clearly articulated beginnings and endings, as well as the requisite and well-placed climax.

The "Sonata" displays narrative and emotional continuity. There is comprehensibility in his polyphonic textures. Fantasy-like moments are presented but never distract from the onward flow. There is even a quality of tenderness or the occasional moment of introspection. While perhaps a bit too long and sometimes structurally obtuse, the piece works.

His "Cello Sonata" shows a strong lyrical quality and adeptness at putting together larger scale architecture. While he suggests the instruments have different personalities, a successful and hierarchical relationship is always present and heard. The vivace has a wry and humorous opening, with scurrying fast notes; a combative middle section, as the two instruments are responsive to each other and a jazzy quality pervades the final section with running pizzicatos in the cello and dryly articulated fast notes in the piano. The adagio is more discursive and improvisatory. There is a wide emotional range present and the two voices respond to each other's flights of fancy. In the final Vivace, while the voices are operating in different time frames, it is impossible not to hear them in relationship to each other. While Carter might protest, the gestalt of hearing ensures this. The work is unified by its rhythmic unfolding even more so than by its pitch material, which is actually somewhat bland. The work ends through a process of liquidation, namely adding more rests and taking out more notes, with a little more of that jazz-like pizzicatos. All is tidy, and well, cute.

The "Eight Etudes" and "A Fantasy" (1952) are light and clean but don't hold up very well. They are just too slight and tongue-in-cheek. Only the "Fantasy" retains its charm and whimsy.

These works suggest a decent ear but not a great one. Or perhaps more to the point, they demonstrate a certain blandness of personality. While the pieces are well-done, they simply don't have a clarity of purpose, a sense of being highly profiled. They are nice, genteel, but hardly demand or command our attention. It is perhaps worth noting that while Copland (a friend) strongly recommended Carter's "Pocahontas Suite," a piece of this same period to Koussevitsky -- the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- he was not convinced by the piece and didn't perform it. Also, the "Piano Sonata" and "Night Fantasies" (and all of his piano music for that matter) pale next to Copland's three major piano works, the "Piano Variations," "Piano Sonata" and "Piano Fantasy."

It is at this juncture that Carter took a big breath and pondered his future music. Perhaps sensing the somewhat proscribed nature of his past output Carter decided on a new path. This was his formulation of the notion of instruments having different personalities and displaying their defining characteristics, be they individuals (solos) or groups (small ensembles), with very different languages, as expressed with different interval usage and different rates of rhythmic flow. While an interesting proposition, there is a fundamental problem with this notion; a conversation, to be intelligible, must at least be held in one language. Carter's methodology ends up like a conversation in different languages, and thus is utterly incomprehensible. In the brashness of this decision he was very much hooking up with the nascent European Avant-garde that privileged idea over sound and philosophical exegesis over beauty. While not a party member, he certainly became a fellow traveler.

And while never a serialist, Carter's music has similar surface and pitch qualities in its complete rejection of any relationship to tonality and its avoidance of any notions of dissonance and consonance, and their relationship to each other. In other words, his usage of intervals in relationship to these concepts is almost nil. The compulsion to join in must have seemed overwhelming, as it affected Stravinsky and Copland no less. Carter used a different note technique but he arrived in a very similar terrain, one void of a predictive quality, and rather bleak and barren.

His approach to time and structure is similarly obtuse. Differing rates of movement in different parts of the orchestra, or the simultaneous creation of different architectural shapes, while an interesting and intriguing idea, just can't be realized with his musical materials. It is like trying to play with the onward rushing of different streams of colored water; sooner or latter they mix into a very boring shade of continual grayness.

Carter wrote works in this newly found voice that begin with the "String Quartet No. 1" and the "Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord" (1952). Both pieces are less than successful. There is a profusion of ideas, however ill-defined or amorphous, but the rhythmic flow keeps them in the same frame. Shards of musical material are thrown out, with sharp contrasts. Nothing is terribly memorable, as the musical gestures fail to add up. Notes remain completely on the surface, floating free as isolated atoms; nothing binds them together, not any true musical sense. At least in this transitional phase he still uses the occasional ending gesture, which gives a modest sense of phrasing. Vertical sonorities have little meaning, at least certainly in their relationship to each other. The idea of conversation seems an odd one as no one actually ever seems to be conversing with each other.

The disintegration into chaos proceeds apace in the next six decades. This is displayed in the "Symphony of Three Orchestras," the "Concerto for Orchestra," "Piano Concerto," and more recently, "Sceravole," in the orchestral realm, in the string quartets two-five, and in many piano works, from the "Night Fantasies" to the much latter "Intermittences."

David Schiff notes about the "Concerto for Orchestra" in a recent article that appeared in The Nation:

...he found ways to combine European and American developments on his own terms. His music became more disjointed, percussive and unsettled...Leonard Bernstein, who had never performed Carter's music before (and never would again), conducted the premiere performances and the first recording.

Schiff alludes to the fact that Bernstein must not have particularly warmed up to the piece. It should be noted that Bernstein wasn't impressed by the fact that Carter wasn't aware that the clarinetist was playing in the wrong transposition for much of the piece. But why should the qualities of "disjointed and unsettled" be matters for appreciation? These qualities remain in his music right to the very end. And why, when certain pitch relations were important to Carter, and he apparently couldn't detect errant pitches, shouldn't this suggest serious reservations about the composer and his music?

Schiff further notes "All this derangement produces a hallucinatory effect as the sound washes from one direction to another in changing combinations of timbres." What Schiff might note is that chaos clearly reigns over order, or more importantly, that the pitches, whether as a single line, as polyphony, or as harmonic structures, have ceased to make any coherent sense. Berlioz, in "Symphony Fantastique," makes audible and musical sense of the opium or drug trip in Carter, it is just a bad trip. Why should this experience be celebrated or acclaimed? Schiff describes the first climax of the piece which occurs early on, as a "cacophonous tsunami for the entire orchestra" and an "apocalyptic explosion." I would concur with this assessment. However, I would also add that it is one of an undifferentiated sort, not particularly related to any musical idea of the work, and thus, sounds like an adolescent tantrum. This kind of cataclysmic and destructive sound (a tsunami is nothing if not destructive) had already been done earlier by Penderecki in "Threnody for Hiroshima," another adolescent work from which that composer wisely retreated in his latter and more mature music.

Schiff notes that in the 30s Carter existed in Copland shadow, with "only the occasional hint of a distinctive voice, let alone musical genius". He then suggests that the new Carter did indeed find that musical genius. I think not and here is why: Carter, like Cage, gave up his ear for an idea. Can we really relinquish the heard realities of dissonance and consonance, or the ear's desire to seek out a musical totality or gestalt? Can different moods be so quickly traversed without producing chaos or undifferentiated boredom, a problem also noted with the quick and repeated presence of all twelve pitches, or the complete filling of the entire registral space, almost all of the time? Can a wild flotsam and jetsam surface really make up for any sense of deep note coherence?

And then we come finally to the problem of time in Carter's music. Like the moment-form pieces of his European brethren, his music is in the always present, without past or future. The severe disjointedness that Schiff describes guarantees this. In this, the latter music corresponds to the pathological condition of dementia, a psychological form -- and a most uncomfortable one -- of being in the eternal present. And while Carter and others seem to think that time development, as in metric modulation, can replace tonality, it can't and does not, because music is not primarily about time any more than are the occurrences in our lives. Both happen in time and make us aware of the passing of time, but they are primarily about making and finding moments of meaning. These moments are rarely to be found in Carter's music.

A number of years ago I attended an all-Carter concert played by some of his most important admirers. They are truly great virtuosi, but even their technique and interpretive powers could not bring coherence to a music in which there is so little. For to produce finely etched music demands a great ear, a large heart, a rich and deep personality, and an unerring sense of drama and pacing. Carter just didn't have it to give, or he thought he was on to something better, but wasn't. His deluded music of the eternal present will sadly have little future.