Master Class of the Pod People

Someone wrote to chide me for pretending that Elliott Carter has more influence in the new-music world than he currently has. And then today I got a message from a teenaged composer:

I’ll never forget when at a summer camp a
distinguished guest composer came in to give us
composers a lesson, and she informed me that my
music “lacked that Elliot Carter mentality” and I
ought to listen to his entire repertoire again
before writing another piece.

(In case it’s not obvious, the above scenario would have been equally repellent no matter what the name, whether it was “lacked that La Monte Young mentality” or John Cage or Beethoven or Kyle Gann. Nothing has disillusioned me more than the amount of slavish conformity found among people who call themselves composers.)


  1. Richard Mitnick says

    In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, there was a piece about Elliott Carter. There was a reference to a 1961 work, the Double Concerto for Harpsicord & Piano With Two Chamber Orchestras.
    I sincerely hope that I do not sound like an idiot here.
    I have been reading Alex Ross’ “The Rest Is Noise” and using it as a guide for what to buy to see what Mr. Ross is talking about. I am not yet up to Maestro Carter; but I decided to plunge in with that work. I found a nice compilation of three works at Amazon in .mp3.
    I bought the album, corrected the ID-3 tagging and put the files in my music folder.
    I found Carter’s work sort like getting hit in the face by sleet. This is not to say that I did not like the music or that it made me uncomfortable. But, like sleet in your face, there is no question that something really dramatic is going on.
    I have and enjoy music by some of the composers generally considered to have influenced Carter, such as Stravinsky, Hindemith and Copland. I am not sure that I hear the influences; but I am not musically knowledgeable. I would have thought to see others as being in his background, maybe like Schoenberg.
    KG replies: Not like an idiot at all, I like your description. As a Boulanger student, Carter started out as something of a neoclassicist, in works that no longer receive much attention like Pocahontas and the Holiday Overture. I think that’s where you’ll find the Stravinsky, Hindemith and Copland influences. After 1954, his music appears to be inspired more by competition with Stockhausen and Boulez than anything else, seems to me. I do enjoy his music between 1945 and ’52 – the Cello and (especially) Piano Sonatas, the First Quartet, and the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord. Others more sympathetic will undoubtedly offer other recommendations. The Double Concerto, with its attractive recording on Nonesuch, strikes me as the event that suddenly lifted him from obscurity, though I was pretty young at the time – and the piece remains kind of emblematic, though I’ve heard from even Carter fans who think it’s a huge failure.
    I love the sleet analogy: something dramatic, yet somehow with no apparent motivation.

  2. says

    That reminds me of the poll we recently took over this Feldman quote. Currently, the results are running 9-2 in agreement with him:
    “There is something rotten here, and we don’t have to go to Denmark to look for it. It’s not the public. That was always a lie. It’s not the mass media. A bigger lie. It’s not the capitalist system – another lie. It’s my colleagues. My fellow American composers. The most pedantic, the most boring, ungenerous bunch of human beings one can meet on an earth so crowded with the last men that hop and make it smaller and smaller. This earth, I mean.
    It’s the college boys that are deciding what’s what in America. I’ll leave them with their judgement. I’ll leave America with my fame.” — Morton Feldman
    KG replies: Wow, how fabulous, and I’d never heard it (and with its own embedded Nietzsche reference, no less). That gets framed and hung on my office wall. Thanks!

  3. says

    Jodru, great Feldman quote – but don’t you think there’s something disconcerting about people (themselves American composers, I presume) being in agreement with that 9 to 2…?

  4. says

    [14-3, as of this posting] 😉
    No, I don’t find it disconcerting. It strikes me as funny. Everyone thinks that anyone else is the enemy but them.
    In defense of the imposition of style, I think we’ve all been confronted with student compositions that are lifeless, and as a teacher, you cast about for things to jumpstart a sketch. Urging a student to imitate a style we admire isn’t all that different than assigning a student to write a fugue or a theme and variations, which are both standard composition assignments.
    When that crosses into dogma, you’ve got a problem.

  5. Ryan Howard says

    Well, I’m thankful I never had an experience like that. As a teenager I was chided by my teacher for trying to write music that was too Carter influenced. (Actually, it was probably sensible advice…I really didn’t have a grip on what I was doing at the time.) He suggested I go listen to Stravinsky instead.
    KG replies: I was trying to write serialist Berio in high school without knowing what I was doing, too. I think there’s a danger in trying to get young composers to imitate music that requires techniques beyond their ken.

  6. says

    It’s bad enough when composition teachers are explicit in their advocacy of any given One True Path, but the implicit messages are just as bad. Even without explicit indoctrination many composers end up getting trained to impose these stylistic dogmas on themselves. I was properly indoctrinated to an extent that I still every now and then have a moment of weakness where I wonder if minimalism is really serious enough, and then I shake it off and get back to work. Even within postminimalism I sometimes question whether the occasions when I’m not using technically rigorous systems are somehow problematic. And then I shake it off and do what I want to do. But the fact remains that to a certain extent I too have internalized the imperative of the Elliott Carter Mentality. I was talking with another postminimalist composer a year or two ago who came to postminimalism while she was in grad school–she said she still sometimes struggles to justify what she’s doing, wondering whether it’s “too much like Tori Amos” to be serious.
    KG replies: Beautiful. I was still struggling with the same thing into the late 1980s, and it bogged down my composing. It really wasn’t until I was 38 that I completely shed that mentality like a dead exoskeleton and flew away never to worry about it again. I really think the issue needs to be addressed profession-wide, but I find damn few who agree. Survival of the fittest is the attitude, I guess.

  7. says

    “Nothing has disillusioned me more than the amount of slavish conformity found among people who call themselves composers.”
    People tend to assume that composers, as a group, possess a particularly high level of creativity per capita. After getting to grad school I began to realize that the distribution of truly creative people among composers is no higher than the distribution among the general population. Possibly lower.

  8. Rodney Lister says

    I’m not sure, but I think the college crowd these days are the anti-Carterites, rather than the other way around. I’m not sure where the Carter boys and girls are.
    I think the key to things is jodru’s comment that it’s when anything becomes dogma and ideology that it becomes toxic, whether it’s pro-Carter, anti-Carter, pro-Reich…whatever–name your poison.
    I can’t ever imagine telling a student to write a fugue–first of all it’s impossible to say what a fugue is, any more than I can imagine telling them that there music should sound more like…anybody’s, including Tori Amos.
    I can imagine saying something along the lines of “You’re doing something that reminds me of a place in….fill in the blank…some piece of Carter or Cage or Glass or Stravinsky or Eastman or Gann or Beethoven. Why don’t you look at it and see what he did in a similar situation. It might give you some idea of what you might think about doing.”
    Just to say it again, it’s the dogma and ideology that cause trouble.
    KG replies: I completely agree with you. But I have a question.
    Elliott Carter despises the kind of music I write and like: minimalism, pop-influenced stuff, and like that. He thinks it’s total crap. He doesn’t even think jazz is real music. I agree that if I were to reject all of Carter’s music purely on stylistic grounds, which is to say ideological grounds, I’d be a horrible person, and should be banned from the blogosphere and all decent society. But what about Carter? Were he to join this discussion, would you insist that he not be allowed to reject all minimalism on stylistic, which is to say ideological, grounds? Would his dogma and ideology, which he unquestionably holds, be as objectionable as my ideology would be were I simply to announce that I hate Carter’s music? Is this situation truly symmetrical?
    For instance: for 20 years, Charles Wuorinen has been going around saying and writing that minimalist music is the cause of America’s increasing musical illiteracy. Not only does he despise the music of Reich, Glass, et al, he considers it actually harmful. And recently I, a minimalist, made a mildly negative comment about a Wuorinen piece, and certain people jumped all over me for it. So it feels like serialists can despise minimalism and say whatever they want about it and no one objects, but minimalists are required to keep an open mind, and admit that a lot of serialist pieces are really beautiful. Which I do. I know what you say to me when I get a little rough on Carter and Wuorinen. What would you say to them, about hating minimalism? Or to put it another way, since I keep a much more open mind about Carter than he ever would about me, do you cede me the moral high ground here, over Carter?

  9. Rodney Lister says

    Forgot to say:
    I’ve come to rather like the Double Concerto, especially the percussion writing.
    On the other hand, the more I hear the third quartet the less it does for me (that of course, could change the next time I hear it), and I’ve never been able to get on with the fiddle duo.

  10. Richard Mitnick says

    I wanted to add, and found no better place, the way I am using “The Rest Is Noise”, I am doing the same thing with your essays for “American Mavericks”.
    I saved all of the text material from the web site, your essays and all of the text interviews, all as .html files. So, when I printed them out to build a big fat book, I got nice wide margins. As I read along in your essays, I jot the names, dates and compositions in the margins. Then, I go looking for the music. So far, Nancarrow, Partch, Varese, Antheil, others, all available in .mp3 at Amazon, and decent quality for my 67 year old ears, generally about 256kbps.
    We all owe you a great debt for this series of essays.
    KG replies: Thanks. I had the great pleasure this week of a student coming in saying, “Hey, I found this great site called American Mavericks. Do you know about it?”

  11. Rodney Lister says

    Well, just because somebody’s a great composer (which I will admit, especially after a week– last week of being not just marinated, but stewed in his music, I believe that Carter is) doesn’t mean you can’t be wrong some of the time about just about anything and/or everything else. I’m skeptical about the claim that Carter doesn’t think jazz is music, though–can you cite chapter and verse on that? And I take your point, and agree with you that his ideological bashing of minimalism is on the same level as what I’ve been nagging you about, (remembering that everybody’s entitled to dislike whatever they choose–that, of course, isn’t what bothers me). I’m not going to call you to task, incidentally, about anything you might want to say about Wuorinen.
    KG replies: Thanks for the admissions, which fill me with a sense of calm. I don’t have a lot of evidence for the jazz thing, but a friend of mine was a composer in the 1970s, and got to spend some time with Carter when the Great Man visited SUNY Albany. My friend was on the verge of switching to jazz (which he eventually did, and is a great jazz pianist – John Esposito), and Carter warned him sternly that he was making a big mistake, because jazz wasn’t serious music.

  12. Kevin Whitehead says

    Carter on jazz, quoted by Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian last week:
    “As a young man, I would go to jazz clubs here [Greenwich Village] and on 57th [52nd] Street. I loved Art Tatum and was very interested in the whole movement of jazz, which is reflected in some of my music. In some ways, the whole conception of music from that time is jazz-related in terms of irregular rhythms and working against rhythms, and improvisation are things I’ve done in many of my works.”

  13. Ken Fasano says

    Once upon I time – I admit it – I had that “Elliott Carter mentality” – or at least I tried to. Now, a few decades later, where did my old ears go? My nephew asked me to listen to the webcast of his college concert where they played Berg’s Chamber Concerto – and even THAT was too hysterical expressionist over-the-top mad for my current pair of ears. I’ve loaded my IPod with lots of Carter to celebrate his birthday. Tomorrow I think I’ll replace it with all the Messiaen I had on yesterday. And maybe Feldman, Machaut and Ockgehem. Easy listening for these old, tired ears.

  14. says

    I get a vague, strange pleasure out of imagining how much Elliott Carter would dislike the way I’ve grown to listen to his music of the past 50 years–in snippets of one or two minutes, just enough time to soak up its monochrome brittleness, cleansing my palate before moving on to something much more viscerally pleasing.

  15. Ingram Marshall says

    Of the two composers who have centennial birthdays this year (one dead the other not yet), which do you think will still be viable (ie, listened to) in another 100 years?
    KG replies: I wasn’t expecting a pop quiz.

  16. says

    “wondering whether it’s “too much like Tori Amos” to be serious.”
    – I struggle to imagine what would make anyone think Tori Amos’ music is not serious.