Great Moments in Teaching

I played the first several minutes of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto.

Student #1: Who decided that this work was one of the great pieces of 20th-century music?

Student #2: It’s just like what happens in popular music.

Student #1: But no, popular music becomes popular because people like it.

Student #2: No, popular music is made popular by the industry. Somebody decided that Miley Cyrus could be popular, and so they poured a ton of money and publicity into her. Her career was completely orchestrated.

Me: Between the two of you, you have just arrived at the insight that Elliott Carter and Miley Cyrus are mirror images of each other.

[General laughter]

UPDATE: Let me be clear – other examples besides Carter and Miley Cyrus (whoever she is) could have served. I’m trying to teach the class that the canon is an artificial construct, and that it is indeed created by people in power making decisions. Musical academia has its collective narrative, critics tend toward a different narrative, the classical-music performance world has yet another narrative, and the corporate world makes decisions on a different set of criteria. All of these narratives are contaminated by self-serving premises, and none should be misunderstood as resembling any kind of pure meritocracy. And thus every student needs to judge every piece on its own merits as they appear to him or her, and such decisions should not be made on the first listening, or necessarily the second or third. It took me listening to the Double Concerto about a hundred times before I decided there just wasn’t anything there for me. It’s part of what Bard calls “Critical Thinking,” and I’m really into it lately.



  1. says

    Seriously that’s extremely correct. I’ve never gotten any of Carter’s works except for parts of a few of his earlier compositions. There is one string chord in the Concerto for Orchestra that I really like, and the first page of Night Fantasies is pretty decent but goes to shit after that. At least one classmate at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division stopped talking to me in the late 70’s because I admitted that I couldn’t stand Carter’s music. Sigh.

  2. kea says

    To be fair, Elliott Carter’s “greatness” has more to do with him being the right person of the right social/class background and aesthetic-political views (and independent financial means) at the right time. At least the pop music world’s patronage model doesn’t require you to be white, male and upper-class to be a Great Artist.

  3. says

    Seems about right. I always liked Barney Childs’ historical theory called ‘Blunders of the Ancient World’, in which ancient, medieval, and even more recent historical great works were not actually the best work of their era, but the popular commercial pulp that was pushed and promoted so much that there was a lot of it around to survive. Thus the work of Miley Cyrus, Elliott Carter (Eric Whitacre?), Barbara Cartland, or Jack Vettriano may remain after the demise of our era to be worshipped by future generations as great art without the rationale and historical context that made them popular in the first place. Or not. See the movies Star Trek IV and Demolition Man for the legacy of art in a science fiction context.

      • says

        Yes, Matthew, it’s a real thing, from Barney Childs (1926–2001), composer, poet, and theorist, and probably the greatest thinker on music (my opinion only, as once you follow Childs, there are no intrinsic masterworks). ‘Blunders of the Ancient World’ was a concept that he introduced many times in his teaching (I was variously his student, assistant, and partner from 1971 to the 1990s). He might have introduced it in one of his writings on composition (maybe ‘Aporia as Parataxis, or I Had One of Them, but Its Wheels Fell Off’), and certainly used it in his various conference papers and keynotes. It might be in the DVD I have of one of the last. You’re right, it certainly knocks Weber into a cocked hat, and Adorno (in fact, all the Frankfurt School), plus all the so-called ‘new musicologists’, such as Taruskin and Lawrence Kramer, whose work has always struck me as musicology brought bang up to date to the mid-nineteenth century. It’s part of Childs’ historical model that extends Cage’s concept (in reference to Ives) of history as a ‘field situation’. This thinking avoids the Romantic and Marxian social evolutionary models that have infested arts scholarship in the postwar years.

  4. says

    The question we’re all waiting to have answered over on a Facebook discussion about this is… what happened next?

    KG replies: Hmmm. I don’t exactly remember. I think the idea that corporations manipulate people’s tastes for financial gain was sobering to some people and took a minute to sink in. I did also play some of Carter’s Night Fantasies with the score and explain the underlying structure. I didn’t do the usual metric modulation thing though, I’m tired of it and you can’t hear it.

    I was also careful to point out that our flute teacher, Pat Spencer, gave the American premiere of the Carter Flute Concerto, and that she loves his music. I will not hand down my opinions as law.

  5. says

    And the “masterworks” of even the acknowledged masters….who decided this? Why are there 5000 recordings of BOLERO but I didn’t learn of Ravel’s Mallarmé songs until I was in my 50’s? Oh, and the answer to “who decided” Carter’s Double-Concerto is a masterwork is: Igor Stravinsky (prompted by The Great And Powerful Robert Craft behind the curtain). Carter? Not one work I can think of “gets to me” at all. Of course, I’ve not heard everything. And on the basis of what I HAVE heard (a lot), I don’t intend to.

    KG replies: Why Andrew, I didn’t think you found me relevant. But perhaps compared to Carter.

  6. mclaren says

    If you keep this stuff up, Kyle, a Swedish woman is going to come forward to accuse you of vague but unwholesome practices and pretty soon you’ll wind up living in the Ecuadorian embassy somewhere with your passport revoked.

    KG replies: Geez, that’s a *best*-case scenario.

  7. Jon says

    Certainly corporations and gate-keepers play a significant role, but it’s misleading to imply that they’re all-powerful or that audience taste has no impact. The music industry also frequently gets it wrong and invests in duds, while little known artists become unexpectedly popular. Adele strikes me as a recent example from the pop music world whose popularity was fairly unanticipated. Certainly Philip Glass and Steve Reich are examples in the non-pop world of artists who rose to prominence on the strength of popular support, in spite of zero (initial) support from the powers-that-be. Again, not denying the power of corporations and taste-makers, but it’s a complex interplay between them and popular opinion; the arrows of influence move in both directions.

    I also think it’s tempting to blame the system when music we love isn’t as well-respected as we feel it ought to be . But sometimes it really is just that most other people don’t like it that much.

    On the other hand, I’m with you 100% on Carter. It continues to boggle my mind what anyone sees in any of his music.

    KG replies: Well sure, as I discuss with the students, there are limits. No mega-corporation and its billions could turn me into the next Lady Gaga. But I find it really significant that no one since Reich, Glass, and Adams (all hot items before Reagan took office) has been able to benefit from that kind of grass-roots support, and I think there are quite a few composers who could have filled the bill with a modicum of corporate attention. Look at Gorecki, the exception who proves the rule – Nonesuch poured major publicity into that mediocre symphony of his and made him a star. Why not Dan Lentz instead? Or Bill Duckworth? Or Elodie Lauten? His case practically proves they could do it if they wanted to.