Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More on Elliott's passing

One of the nice things about having a blog is that I get to argue with the New York Times. In the yesterday's obituary of Elliott Carter, Allan Kozinn quotes Harold C. Schonberg's review of the Concerto for Orchestra in 1970: "It may be a tour de force of its kind," Schonberg wrote, " but to me it is essentially uncommunicative, dry and a triumph of technique over spirit."

Because I have this blog, see, I finally get to call the guy an asshole. He's wrong, too. No piece of music in the past 40 years has shown as much spirit as Mr. Carter's Concerto. Yes, it's complex, and daunting, and [insert your cliché here], but it kicks neoromantic ass.

Anthony Tommasini has an appreciation in today's edition. He's much more understanding and insightful than Schonberg (who wouldn’t be?), although still drags out the usual shopworn stuff about “astringent” harmonies. And I disagree with him about the String Quartet No. 3. OK, so the music "unfolds in dizzying thickets of overlapping lines and jittery rhythmic explosions," but, you know, that's what I like about it.


Edward said...

After the election fever had died down last night, I put on the Concerto for Orchestra to celebrate. Because, as much as anything by Ives or Copland, the Concerto for Orchestra sounds like America, and about the one sad note last night was that EC hadn't lived quite long enough to hear the news.

Some very nice tributes at the Guardian:

A particularly unexpected detail is the warm tribute from as unlikely a figure as John Tavener, who says "I think he did something no other modernist has ever achieved. He, in the last 10 years of his life, seemed to rid modernism of all its angst, creating sparkling edifices of joy and beauty."

Joe Barron said...

Carter always denied the Concerto was meant as a comment on the social turmoil of the 1960s, but I remember speaking once to one of his great admirers, a well-known bass player who was at the epicenter of the San Francisco hippie scene, and he told me, "To me, that piece IS 1968!"

Cal said...

OK, I just tested the bass player's assertion that the Concerto for Orchestra IS 1968. Here is my conclusion: I am a total wuss. One of the truly striking things about EC's music vis-a-vis myself is how easily manipulated I am into buying such assertions. As I was listening I could hear the anger and domestic combat of the first months of 1968 in the first three movements, the horrible wind-knocked-out-of-you sorrow of losing RFK during the maestoso, and at the end the sense that the year had not really resolved anything once and for all when it came to an end. What I'm waiting for now is somebody to say, "Ha, fooled you! It was really written in 1948!" Unfortunately, I could probably find some way to buy that, too, if I knew anything about 1948 other than that Orwell wrote 1984 that year.

EC's music, for me, is very difficult to approach because it is so completely different from anything I've ever listened to. The proper strategy, of course, is just not to listen to what anybody else says and come to my own conclusions, which I have also tried to do. Regarding the C for O, they are (so far) two: 1) it is very percussive, by which I don't just mean that it has lots of percussion instruments in it but that almost all of the non-percussion instruments are played in a percussive way, as if the composer meant the sounds to strike the listener, and 2) of all the pieces I have listened to by EC, it is by far the most engaging, standing above his other works the way Guernica stands above Picasso's other works, brilliant though so many of them are.

With EC, too, I keep coming back to artists like Pollock and Rothko. There is something abstract about him that allows suggestions to carry more weight and that should warn people like me to listen in a way that we are not used to with composers like Mozart and Beethoven.

Joe Barron said...

Here's another manipulative suggestion for you: Look up "Vents" ("Winds") by St. John Perse. Carter includes excerpts from the poem, in both French and English, at the front of the score. He came across it while he was writing the concerto, and it appealed to him for its evocation of the "winds of change" passing over the continent, and its descriptions of destruction and rebirth (which lends weight to the social-turmoil angle). The verses did not inspire the music, he said. Rather, they captured the tone of the music he had already begun to write. The excerpt associated with the first movement mentions dry husks and men of straw, which you can hear in the rattling wooden percussion. David Schiff has said that the Concerto for Orchestra may he thought of as an aerial analogue to "La Mer." So there you have it: Wind. Think about that for a while.