One of the joys of unemployment is the all the extra reading time. Recently, I’ve gone through studies of two of my favorite postwar American artists – Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty's biography of his friend and mentor Donald Barthelme, and David Schiff’s latest assessment of his friend and mentor Elliott Carter.
Writer and composer have now become linked in my mind, and not just because I’ve read books about them in quick succession. For decades, they lived literally around the corner from one another in Lower Manhattan -- Barthelme at 113 West 11th Street, Carter at 31 West 12th – although there is no record that they ever met. We also don’t know if Carter knew Barthelme’s work, even though Barthelme was a regular contributor to the New Yorker, and Carter a regular reader. (He was not familiar with Woody Allen’s writings for the magazine, Schiff says.) On the other hand, Daugherty informs us, in September 1962, Barthelme, then working as director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, arranged a performance of Carter’s music. (I would really like to know what the piece was.)
Barthelme, born in 1931 and raised in Texas, was a full generation younger than Carter, a native New Yorker born in 1908. In terms of their intellectual pursuits and their efforts to expand the language of modernism in their respective fields, however, the two appear to have much in common. I got the feeling of covering much the same philosophical ground in each book. Names of influential figures -- Beckett, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, Philip Johnson – recur, and Schiff and Daugherty reach similar conclusions in trying to pin down the meaning of “modernism” and “post-modernism.”
Here’s Schiff: “The overused term Modernism makes the most sense when it denotes an evolving, many-sided disputation about the relation of art to the rapidly changing conditions of modern life, rather than a coherent movement or body of ideas.”
And here’s Daugherty: “’Post-modernism’ does not – cannot -- denote a single ethos. Nor is it solely the province of artists, writers and academics; if by ‘post-modern’ we mean style over substance, a blurring of values, and vague historical awareness, then the conditions for it are set by lawyers, real estate developers, money speculators, televangelists, and the nation’s professional political class, along with its symbiotic companion, the professional media.
“Remember Don’s remark: ‘The disorientation in my stories is not mine. It is what is to be perceived around us.’”
Even the word “flaneur” shows up in both texts. I had never in my life encountered the word “flaneur.”
Despite the difference in their ages, Carter and Barthelme produced some of their most characteristic, innovative work in the 1960s, a time of political and cultural turmoil – and of violence -- in the United States and abroad. Barthelme addressed the Vietnam War and the Parisian Days of Rage explicitly. Carter disavowed any political programs in his music, although the turmoil is certainly there to be heard. (Phil Lesh, bass player for the Grateful Dead and a big Carter fan, once told me that as far as he is concerned, the Concerto for Orchestra is 1968.)
In the end, too, both men saw their moments pass, their stars partially eclipsed by a more self-consciously populist aesthetic. I found it poignant that the phenomenon known as “minimalism” dogged each of them. In literature, the minimalist par excellence was Raymond Carver. In music, of course, it is Philip Glass.
Of the two, Schiff’s book is harder to categorize. It’s not quite a critical biography (which Schiff says has yet to be written), not quite a memoir of a friendship, not quite a reception history, not quite an analysis of the music -- although it contains elements of all of these. If backed into a corner, I’d call it a start in the process of historical evaluation.
Carter’s death, in 2012, seems to have freed Schiff to say publically things he must have kept private while the composer was alive. He is more critical of some of the music than he’s been in the past, offers interpretations and terminology at odds with Carter’s own, and even makes a few good jokes. It’s clear he doesn’t care for Carter’s only opera, “What Next?”, though his dislike seems to have more to do with Paul Griffith’s libretto than with Carter’s music.
(As an aside, I’d submit that Barthelme would have made an ideal librettist for Carter. He had just the knack for surreal comedy Carter was looking for, and some of his all-dialogue stories have been successfully staged. Unfortunately, he died – of throat cancer, at age 58, in 1989 – years before Carter ever considered writing an opera. Life is full of tantalizing what-ifs.)
As with everything Schiff writes, there are quotable insights on almost every page of Carter, but I must say I didn’t find his comments on A Symphony of Three Orchestras as enlightening as they might have been. The decay of New York in the ’70s (another occasional theme in Barthelme’s work) might provide a plausible context for the descent from the soaring trumpet solo of the opening to the “bludgeoning, mechanical ostinato of the coda,” but to my ear, it doesn’t account for all that sumptuous stuff in the middle.
The notion that Carter’s musical personality may be divided into “Carter Light” and “Carter Dark” isn’t quite fully developed, either, and, forgive me, it makes him sound like a brand of beer. (Other product lines would include Carter Pale Ale and Carter Winter Lager.)
Hiding Man and Carter also suggest these New York neighbors currently occupy the kind of critical limbo that often follows an artist’s death. Barthelme and Carter await rediscovery and a cultural positioning that may be possible, if ever, only when our current, partisan squabbles about modernism are over.
In the meantime, I read, I listen.