• Email
  • Print

Fascinatin’ Modulation

The Music of Elliott Carter

by David Schiff
Da Capo, 371 pp., $39.50

During a recent public discussion at a British festival of contemporary music, someone told Elliott Carter that his new Triple Duo sounded relatively “free” compared with the elaborate constructions of his previous works. “Oh, no!” he replied. “It has just as strict an underlying scheme…only, at a certain point, this began to get boring, so I curtailed it.” Instantly the faces of his predominantly student audience brightened: “If even the great Carter can break his own rules, then perhaps we needn’t feel so inhibited,” was evidently the unvoiced collective thought. It implied much, not only about Carter’s reputation but about several notions of composition and musical analysis widely assumed today.

Much, too, about the dilemmas David Schiff must have faced in planning the first full study of this formidable composer—little though one might suspect their existence from the confident and readable surface of his prose. Admittedly he has undertaken to explain Carter’s work and only incidentally to criticize it—understandably, it might be thought, since he studied with Carter in the mid-1970s and has kept in close touch with him since. At least this enables him to relay many an enlivening personal comment of Carter’s in a study not ostensibly biographical.

In fact, we get a tantalizingly brief account of Carter’s life to start with. It is well known that he grew up in the 1920s during a radical phase of New York’s musical history, when the scandalous latest from Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varèse, Ruggles, and others was all to be heard. And he had the good fortune, while still a schoolboy, to attract the attention of Charles Ives, who encouraged him in his composing. It is less well known that his parents expected him to go into the family lace-importing business and actively opposed his musical aspirations, cutting down his student allowance when he stuck to his plans and refusing, ever, to attend his performances. We are left to speculate how far the pugnacity of his mature music reflects his early experience of modernism and how far a more personal rebellion.

Schiff’s most remarkable revelation, however, is that Carter destroyed almost his entire output up to the age of thirty—including a piano sonata, a symphony, two or three string quartets, a comic opera, and possibly a ballet collaboration with James Agee entitled “Bombs in the Icebox.” Clearly he took a long view of his musical development from fairly early on. In a way, necessity forced him to. Though his indiscriminate avant-garde ardors had begun to cool before he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger between 1932 and 1935, the exactitudes of Boulanger’s neoclassical regime must still have come as a challenge. And when he returned to the America of the Depression, he found that neither the avantgarderie of Schoenberg or Varèse nor the neoclassicism of the followers of Stravinsky cut much ice; what was wanted was a mildly leftish populism after the example of Aaron Copland.

For the next few years Carter tried to synthesize these disparate approaches in an accessible idiom while variously earning his living as musical director of a ballet company, critic for Modern Music, teacher of mathematics and Greek at a liberal arts college, and, bizarrely, as an employee of the War Information Office in 1944–1945, where he found himself orchestrating national anthems ever more desperately as more and more countries came over to the Allies. Schiff does not mention the national anthems, but he confirms that around this time Carter came to the conclusion that synthesis of prominent contemporary modes was not the way forward and that what was needed was a basic reappraisal of the elements of musical discourse. There followed his first attempts to compose music out of the very characteristics of the instruments themselves. The Piano Sonata (1945–1946) derives its harmony from idiosyncratic overtones of the concert piano and the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1948) exploits the differences between the two instruments dialectically. His extracreative work was henceforth to center mainly on the teaching of composition itself.

Before embarking upon a chronological survey of all of Carter’s published works, Schiff cogently summarizes his main technical innovations from this period on in a pair of chapters concerned with musical time and space. He deals with Carter’s spectacular method, known as “metrical modulation,” for gearing and even superimposing constantly varying speeds, and with Carter’s more recently elaborated way of mapping out unique harmonic backgrounds to entire movements. The technique of “metrical modulation” (to which Carter’s name has become attached) makes it possible for the composer to conceive a set of different tempi, or speeds, as interrelated and clearly defined, so that a new tempo can start in one instrument while the others continue with a previous beat and different accents. There are classical precedents for Carter’s practice. What distinguishes his work is that there is no longer a single basic tempo central to each movement, but only a basic set of tempo relationships. But throughout the survey, Schiff scrupulously relates such procedures to wider aesthetic and historical issues. Carter’s advance toward an ideal of “emancipated discourse” in the late 1940s and 1950s, Schiff argues, was not an isolated development but was closely related to contemporary accomplishments of such composers as Varèse and Wolpe, to the later poetics of Wallace Stevens, and to the New York Abstract Expressionist painters, all of whom were (in Schiff’s words) “attempting to rediscover the basic elements of [their] arts free of familiar associations.”

This is doubtless true. Carter has always discouraged purely technical analysis of his music, analysis divorced from its expressive character, while his interest in the other arts has been deep and lifelong. Accordingly, even the most labyrinthine of the masterworks that slowly emerged during the next two decades—the First String Quartet (1951), the Variations for Orchestra (1955), Second String Quartet (1959), Double Concerto (1961), Piano Concerto (1965), and the culminating Concerto for Orchestra (1969)—were either partly inspired by, or subsequently furnished with, visual, literary, or other extramusical analogies that help the listener to get into them.

Technically, for instance—as Schiff explains—the opening of the Concerto for Orchestra comprises a twelve-note chord which is then split into the segments that are to generate the work’s contrasting textural layers. But this, in turn, was touched off by St. John-Perse’s vision of America as swept by great winds of change in his long poem Vents. It is as a sonorous image that Carter’s opening pages prove so memorable: the music seems to approach from the distance as a numinous whirring and then to burst about one’s ears.

Schiff’s main problem in writing about these middle-period works is that their technical and expressive preoccupations have long since been set forth by the composer himself in interviews, record liner-notes, and more formal articles, but are not yet so well known as to be taken for granted. Thus the Carter enthusiast may well find fresher interest in the author’s observations on the less familiar early music up to the Piano Sonata. Schiff also has much to reveal about the more recent works from the Third Quartet (1971) to “Night Fantasies” for Piano (1980)—though the increasing spontaneity with which Carter now uses his accumulated resources means that three further works have appeared since Schiff’s cut-off point, and a fourth is well advanced. The book’s appendices include Carter’s own listing of all the possible three-to-six-note chords that have provided him with the basic vocabulary for his work. There is an extensive bibliography and discography and the use of music examples throughout is exceptionally lavish (just as well considering the prices of the published scores).

David Schiff is clear about the scope of his study. He is not concerned to “place” Carter among his contemporaries; nor at any point does he promise the kind of full-scale analysis that would have impossibly increased its length. The book “is intended as a guide for listeners, performers and composers” and as such has been widely welcomed. But not quite unanimously. Among certain students of Carter in Britain and, I gather, certain American reviewers too, there has been some disappointment that Schiff has failed to raise a question about the apparent disparity between the clarity of procedures suggested in Carter’s published descriptions and charts and their sometimes less than obvious realization in the flux of his actual music.

In part, such complaints may simply reflect a surprisingly common confusion between compositional means and analytical ends. A composer like Carter who is not really interested in systems for their own sake may still invoke some precompositional scheme of pitch, rhythm, or structure as a way to “get going” or as a psychological subterfuge for distracting consciousness so that unconscious fantasy can be drawn upon more readily. Moreover, once such a scheme is clearly articulated, it can be treated freely—interrupted, displaced, blurred—and brought into a dialectic with other schemes. Not for nothing are Carter’s scores scattered with directions like “drammatico,” “leggerissimo,” “fantastico.” To grasp the music and recreate it as the composer conceived it, the analyst, no less than the listener, must be capable of comparable imaginative leaps. As Schiff remarks: “To see the music only as an illustration of tempo modulation, for instance, would be as misguided as to see Tristan only as an example of chromatic tonality….”

Except that it would never have occurred to Wagner to publish a scheme of his harmonic practice for Tristan in the first place. It is true that composers since time immemorial have issued instruction manuals, taken part in aesthetic discussions, manifestoes, and whatnot. But only in the present century and, in particular, since the Second World War, has the idea gained ground that a legitimate, even necessary aspect of a composer’s activity is the discussion of his specific techniques and precompositional plans. Here we ought to distinguish between, say, the scientistic-messianic monomania of Stockhausen’s series of Texte and the more covertly personal prescriptive historicism of Pierre Boulez’s Penser la Musique Aujourd’hui; between Milton Babbitt’s systematic serial theorizing and Peter Maxwell Davies’s classroom discussion of his “magic square” practice.

To be fair, Carter long remained reluctant to reveal his hand in this way (perhaps recalling Schoenberg’s well-founded forebodings about going public with the twelve-tone method. And he has always striven to link his disclosures to larger issues. So the pitch charts for the Double Concerto and Piano Concerto appeared in a discussion of the economics of concert-giving and the chart for the Concerto for Orchestra in a meditation on the nature of Time. What nevertheless links all these statements—what leaves one regretting that Schiff did not, for all its difficulties, attempt a chapter “placing” Carter among his contemporaries—is the modernist assumption that vital composition is inseparable from a continuing reinvention of the musical language itself.

The sources of this assumption, of course, predate the modern movement. They go at least as far back as Wagner’s foreshadowing (apropos. Tristan) of the idea of music as “the art of transition” and Brahms’s technique (what Schoenberg was to call “developing variation”) of deriving almost everything in a work—theme, accompaniment, transition and development—from short basic motives. The ultimate supplanting of the discrete, easily recognizable motive itself by serialism—that is, by the principle of generating a work of music from a fixed order of all the musical elements and a set of transformations of this fundamental ordering—simply completed the trend toward a total relativity of the musical elements. (Schoenberg’s own habit of deriving rows from primary melodic ideas was, paradoxically, a symptom of his conservatism.) This concept of relativity, in which a continuously shifting play of the elements casts up ever-new, passing musical gestures, has been seen both as a reversal (Stockhausen) and as a replacement (Boulez) of the classical principle of theme and development. Though the methods of generation and ordering in Carter’s mature music are not explicitly serial, he would appear to regard such relativity not merely as reversal or replacement of classical procedure but as an expansion of possibilities.

Not that his main impulse is ever likely to have been a desire to “fulfill history.” Composers, even the greatest, commonly develop through an effort to remedy, or compensate for, some incompleteness in basic gifts (it is the all-round prodigies who often fail to grow). The thematic material of Carter’s early, more traditionally constructed works is always wellformed but it is rarely their most distinctive aspect. Possibly it was a growing awareness of this as early as the “Holiday Overture” of 1944 which led him to consider that

the traditional categories, like “theme and accompaniment,” or “subject and counter-subject,” really didn’t deal with what began to seem to me the vast spectrum of kinds of relationship that the contributory vertical elements in the musical continuity can have with each other in respect of the past and future of the piece.*

Those, then, who would seek to attack Carter for choosing at a certain point in his career to play what Virgil Thomson might have called “the complexity gambit” to compensate for a lack of “simple gifts” could well be right, yet beside the point; what matters is the uses to which Carter has put that complexity.

In fact, themes continued to play a part in his music up to the Variations for Orchestra. It was only in the Second String Quartet that themes were superseded altogether by investing each of the instruments with its own repertoire of characteristic intervals and rhythms from which a continuing stream of new formulations could be derived—a procedure that Schiff calls “Epiphanic Development.” And only in the ensuing Double Concerto were the ghosts of traditional movement forms likewise exorcised. The work opens dramatically with the characteristic rhythms and intervals assigned to each of the instruments emerging disparately as fragments coming together, and it closes spectacularly with these elements disintegrating into fragments and disappearing. These advances served to fulfill Carter’s aim, extending back a couple of decades, to express our multiple experience of time itself, in which a dozen independent happenings may be perceived, with varying degrees of attention, proceeding at their own rate at any particular moment. The extent of his success, in such scores as the Concerto for Orchestra, can be measured by the fact that virtually alone among composers who have progressed to a relativistic position, and without using the traditional lever of regular rhythm, he has written music that conveys a true dynamic sense of movement. Boulez himself is quoted on the jacket of Schiff’s book as praising Carter’s handling of time, “that elusive component of all music.”

Yet the suspicion lingers that new musical languages should not need the props of technical explanation such as even Carter, let alone Boulez, Stockhausen, and others seem to have felt compelled to provide. And this suspicion, by implication at least, appears to complement the perception of many a listener uncorrupted, on the one hand, by the critical and academic hard-selling of modernism, or, on the other, by the vulgar old anti-modernism that has resurfaced during the last few years under the name of the “New Romanticism.” While the corruscating surfaces of a Carter, Boulez, or Maxwell Davies score may be welcomed as the most exhilarating, dazzling, or disturbing expressions of transformation, what is being transformed is by no means so obvious—and this is ultimately felt as an absence, or lack.

Of course the difficulty of new music has often been ascribed to its lack of the familiar rather than to its innovations as such. Lack of melody, lack of structure, lack of tonality are charges with a history before the twentieth century, too. But insofar as the crisis of communication exacerbated by the modern movement seventy or eighty years ago shows no signs of resolving itself for a great number of listeners, many of them highly musical, the difficulty of contemporary music suggests the existence of a more fundamental problem, to which these various lacks only contribute: the absence, or at any rate crisis, of identifiable musical statement—whether conceived as idea, theme, musical object, gestalt, or whatever. It is not so much a matter of missing the “tune” but of a principle of stability against which the varying instabilities of the continuous process of change, development, and transformation can be measured satisfactorily. In the relativistic play of Boulez or Carter, much that is expressively new has been won for the domain of music: we may think of the glittering mirror-sonorities of music becoming “the object of its own reflection” in the one, or of the infinitely varied “poetry of change” in the other. But the question remains whether their quasithematic passing formulations can ever achieve a full identity distinct from the interacting processes that throw them up.

This is not to suggest that the epigones of the “New Romanticism” are somehow righter than Boulez and his confreres in relativity, whose evolution, after all, has its roots in the real romanticism of the last century. Still less is it to pose an attack upon Carter. On the contrary, in the kaleidoscopic flux of his music, no other advanced composer has come as remotely close to convincing me that the question could still be irrelevant.

  1. *

    See Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversation with Elliott Carter by Allen Edwards (Norton, 1971).

  • Email
  • Print