Went to two Elliott Carter concerts in Washington this weekend, neither much good. Not Carter’s fault; weak performances. Sent me running back to the old Arthur Weisberg recording of the Double Concerto. Precise, expressive, musical, informed, and above all — in great contrast to the Carter concerts I went to — clear. (I’m starting to think that the striking virtuosity of 1970s new music groups like Speculum Musicae and Weisberg’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble has now migrated to eighth blackbird and the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Alarm Will Sound. And that with a few exceptions, like pianist Steven Beck and the Pacifica Quartet, it just isn’t found in the very serious younger musicians who now have taken up the older — complex, atonal — new music styles.)
After one of the Carter concerts, I was home flipping channels, and came across a Pete Seeger documentary. He says he likes nothing more than getting his audience to sing along, and after Carter’s complications, that seems almost naive.
But on the other hand, Carter’s just as naive. His naiveté starts with thinking that people should care about his complexities. Very few will, no matter how much fun they can be for some of us who enjoy them.
And his naiveté continues with his dismissal of minimalism, so similar to Pierre Boulez’s frequent dismissal of pop and rock. Neither understands what anyone might hear in the styles they so utterly dismiss. They don’t know — or never talk about — the strengths of those musics, as experienced by smart and musically sophisticated people who like them. That’s naive, and the more Carter and Boulez insist on their rudimentary, so easily refuted arguments — after a generation of minimalism, and two generations of rock & roll — the more naive they seem.
And finally Carter’s naive because all he really seems to know about is music. This is charming, actually. Take this excerpt from his program note about his song cycle for soprano and instrumental ensemble, A Mirror on Which to Dwell:
The poems of Elizabeth Bishop impressed me because they have a clear verbal coherence as well as an imaginative use of syllabic sounds that suggest the singing voice. I was very much in sympathy with their point of view, for there is almost always a secondary layer of meaning, sometimes ironic, sometimes passionate, that gives a special ambiance, often contradictory, to what the words say.
Which means, in simpler language, that the poems play with sound, and that they have a subtext — or, in even simpler terms, that they’re good poetry, because we’d find sound and subtext in just about any good poem. But Carter doesn’t quite seem to realize that, and rhapsodizes about things that are obvious, almost as if nobody had ever talked about them before.
That’s sweet, and suggests to me that all he really lives for is to write music. There’s no crime in that, especially since he does it so well.
For some similar thoughts, see my wife’s review of two Carter concerts, in the Washington Post. I agree with what she says, though as always I have to note that she speaks for herself, and can’t be assumed to agree with everything I write here.