Elliott Carter is one of the few composers to have reached the exalted status of being widely and generally respected amongst a cognoscenti who nonetheless have few qualms about ripping into him whenever the opportunity arises.
Contrary to his forbidding reputation, his success can be attributed to the ease with which anyone can summarise his life and work: he is very old, and his music is very complex. Fortunately for his career, his long life has not resulted in an unmanageably large oeuvre, thanks to a slow work rate and to being a relatively late bloomer – all his music written before he turned 40 being largely, and deservedly, forgotten. Still working at a steady pace despite being in his 98th year, he has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies. You too may be apprieciated in your lifetime if you stick it out for a century or so.
Every American article I’ve read about about Carter observes that he is much more popular in Europe than at home, an idea reinforced by the festival thrown for his benefit at the Barbican, featuring a series of concerts the promoters titled Get Carter (ha! English humour.) Sadly, Michael Caine (or even Sylvester Stallone) was not on hand to punch on with the nonagerian composer in the car park afterward. I can’t wait until they stage a series dedicated to Luciano Berio called The Italian Job (“Sinfonia: It’ll blow the bloody doors off!”)
The complexity of Carter’s music (assigning each instrument unique musical characteristics, so that you hear a collection of individuals each with their own, distinct melodies, rhythms and harmonic traits) has earned him a reputation for weighty intellectualism; a reputation assisted by the music’s obscurantism. You can be complex and lucid, but in Carter you won’t hear any readily definable cross-rhythms or harmonic interplay – his string quartets come closest to achieving this. It’s hard to come away from any Carter performance remembering anything about the music in particular, other than the sense of an overwhelming rush of details.
Many of his fans (like me, to a certain extent) doubtless keep coming back to his music to get lost in its intricacy, but many critics and academics have seized upon the obvious difficulty of the music – writing, playing, and listening to it – as grounds to build him up into a Beethoven-like hero to whom all must defer. It’s a very old-fashioned, romantic idea that has paralysed the art-music establishment for decades, that there must always be a central authority figure to which musicians of all persuasions must aspire, or else be cast into darkness. Carter fits the role far too well, logistically and aesthetically dependent upon the classical music infrastructure to produce work that in turn supports stolid careers in academia. To many in music circles less obsessed with dead white men, Carter is a figure to be ignored or scorned.
For all the profundity attributed to this complexity, I can’t think of a magnum opus of sufficient depth to satisfy the reputation his supporters have saddled him with. Most of Carter’s major compositions seek equal status, to a greater or lesser degree, as works of entertainment, of compositional and musical virtuosity: qualities traditionally found as ends in themselves in the form of the concerto. Carter has shown a clear preference for writing concertos (I can think of 9 off the top of my head) but has avoided the charge of superficiality that critics habitually ascribe to the form. Claims of greater philosophical import in Carter’s work are invariably external to the music itself, and tend to age badly: their awkward appeals to intellectual concerns of the day come across in retrospect as calculated assertions of seriousness. The program notes to the Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras (1961) burdened the piece with ponderous musings on quantum physics and nuclear proliferation. One review described the piece as “a tempestuous, multifaceted dialogue” – an expression which applies equally to everything Carter has written. It’s an exemplary display of his style, a constantly shifting scene of roiling activity between the soloists and their orchestral counterparts, complete with several BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians almost losing their way at several critical points to add interest.
Stripped of its pseudopolitical baggage it’s a heavy slab of neo-baroque, in its steady flow of dense ornamentation and the curiously static way in which it spins its wheels for 20-odd minutes to no greater effect. The inclusion of a harpsichord telegraphs this intention all too well; even though, for the sake of the idea against musical realities, the discreet instrument has to be amplified to be heard above the piano and orchestra. It was miked up in a way that made it sound flat and ugly, but I’d rather hear this concerto than A L’Île de Gorée.
The Symphony for Three Orchestras (1976) again relies on a putatively philosophical theme, portraying “the idea of America” – note the year of composition and envision how artists must ingratiate themselves to their patrons. It also claims inspiration from another literary figure safely considered OK for the time, Hart Crane (try announcing your creative debt to William Burroughs and see how far you get with an orchestra).
It’s an enjoyably teeming and expansive work , evidently drawing from Charles Ives’ visions of America as a boundless horizon of rough-hewn wildness, right down to the searching trumpet solo at the opening. However, in Carter’s hands this style becomes most more restrained, particularly in this performance, flattening everything with a modesty and self-conscious tastefulness many Australian composers seek to emulate. The same review I quoted before reckons the brass sections in this piece “suggested discomfort and anxiety“, which is an achievement for modernist art music on a par with alt-rockers making teenagers depressed. Again, staging considerations kept the multiplicty of orchestras conceptual more than spatial.
The later works, 1989’s Oboe Concerto and 1996’s Clarinet Concerto, presented Carter at a point in his career where he no longer has to justify himself and can write music without burying it under a welter of complications and portentous earnestness, knowing that critics will handle the intellectual content for him. In both pieces Carter allows his more natural showbiz tendencies to the foreground, with the music more yielding and persuasive to the listener. Both works sounded better in these performances than I’d previously heard them, possibly because the BBCSO was happy to let the percussionists go crazy and dominate procedings, making Carter sound more out-there than his defenders normally allow.
The Clarinet Conerto in particular, with the soloist wandering around the stage to ally himself with one instrumental group, was much more fun than both Carter’s apologists and detractors would admit. The Oboe Concerto, which in recordings sounded a typically worthy, brow-furrowing piece, came across as a much more endearing work in this performance, sustaining a plaintive mood throughout its restive changes. It’s interesting how the punters for both works knew immeidately when each piece had finished and confidently burst into applause as soon as the final note was sounded.
One thing that’s sunk in about audience behaviour in London: the Brits love their musicians. No matter how strong or weak their applause for a piece, they’ll always give a bit extra for the soloists who play them. I suppose it’s the same rule pavement artists live by, knowing that their reward comes from graft seen to be done, rather than the result of their efforts.
Carter himself, in attendance at the concerts, got a standing ovation as you would hope, having dragged his 97-year old frame across the Atlantic for the event. The applause was prolonged, warm, appreciative, and notably lacking in the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the best performances at the Xenakis concerts last year. This may have been due in part to the audience being older on average, and more sedate, with the younger people seeming mostly to be music students – the foyer had a very academic air. It may have also been due to Xenakis being the type of composer who, unlike Carter, will never make you think twice about staying home after all to watch darts on the telly.
Theatrical highlights: Enter Carter, stage right, a factotum for support. During the Double Concerto: Oliver Knussen simultaneously conducting a different metre with each hand for the two orchestras, with as much delicacy and decorum as possible. Ian Brown* getting visibly lost in his piano part during the same concerto, briefly flicking the pages back and forth before figuring out where the hell the orchestra were.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: Sitting by the toilets after the concert, a Chinese-American composition graduate lining up a commission from a London orchestra. The orchestra guy asks him what he thought of the concert. “Uh… exhilarating,” he answers carefully. This is why so many composers resent Carter: he’s such a blue-chip authority figure in academia that if you let slip to the wrong person that you’re not so keen on his work, you can wave your career bye-bye. It’s almost as certain a kiss of death as admitting to liking John Cage.
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Stubbies only. Kronenbourg, San Miguel or Stella (“the wife beater’s beer” – take note, Australians with pretensions) Artois – £3.10 a pop.
* No, not that bloke from The Stone Roses, I mean someone you wouldn’t expect to get lost.