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Got Carter?
The Barbican 13-15 January 2006, also BBC Radio 3 and BBC4 TV

Read also Bartok/Carter at St Giles, 14 January

"Get Carter!" - so has the BBC been enjoining us unremittingly; not trying to hype the Mike Hodges/Michael Caine film of the same name!

Having found many of the later works of Elliott Carter (b.1908) difficult to the point of inscrutability, I decided to give saturation exposure to his music a try, in the hope of an Eureka experience, seeing the light and entering the promised land...

Standing ovations throughout the weekend for the still hard working 97yr-young composer (a new song cycle on the way and another quartet not ruled out) left no doubt as to the mini-festival's success.

How many sceptics and dissidents will dare put their heads above the parapet?

I have already enthused seperately upon my delighted re-acquaintance with Elliott Carter's mould-breaking 1950 String Quartet No.1 at St Giles Church; gorgeous music. And it was fascinating, in a film from the mid '80s, to see the original members of the Arditti String Quartet (of which the eponymous leader is the sole remaining survivor) working at it.

Another memory was stirred in that evocative film by seeing Uitti and Oppens (one of the dedicatees of Night Fantasies) in excerpts from the cello sonata, another established favourite of mine, which I unforgettably heard them play in Amsterdam to the accompaniment of a pocketful of coins raining down from the Icebreaker's balcony - before the days of mobile phones enlivened our concerts!

But Night Fantasies remains a nut I have failed to crack; in Rolf Hind's recital I far preferred Carter's 1945/82 piano sonata. Nor will his concertos (we heard three of them) enter my 20C pantheon, despite the virtuosity on display. And the First Symphony (1942, the only one so titled) was, in an accomplished account by Diego Masson and the GSMDSO, quietly innovative in its 'constant metamorphosis' of themes and far preferable to the opaque A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), the culminating offering of the Barbican weekend, with David Robertson steering the BBCSO.

Those three orchestras had been completely upstaged by Bartok's double string orchestra in the marvellous (but lamentably misnamed) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), commissioned by Sacher when Carter and friends had been trying to help the proud composer, impoverished in America.

Not insusceptible to the truly new, for real innovation, and breakaway from academic modernism, I have belatedly "got Lachenmann" - and, for three orchestras, give me Stockhausen's Gruppen any day in preference to Carter's rather old-fashioned complexity!

It was Carter's two talks, with wide ranging reminiscences of a whole century's musician friends (many of them represented alongside his own music) which finally made spending a weekend at The Barbican worth while, even though I have not yet quite Got Carter.

Back now (after a break) to Listen Again to some of the broadcasts and to see my BBC4 video of the successful song cycle Of Rewaking (2002, new to London).

Maybe in a few more years the penny will drop and I too will Get Carter!

Andrew Clements' interview
in The Guardian January 3 is the best pre-view article on Elliott Carter's life and this event.

Paul Driver's post-view of the festival in The Sunday Times January 22, "arguably the greatest living composer", is only available on line to (free) subsribers.

Some responses to Musical Pointers' 'Got Carter?':

1.Thanks very much for this. It completely strikes a chord with me.
I'm still not really sure about Carter's work. I can tell there's a quality about it, but I don't relate to it all. I quite like just switching off and letting the textures wash over me. It works on that level even if it's a little mechanical - - VB

2. - - read the Carter piece with interest -  I'm inclined to agree with your reservations about his music. I like his chamber music a lot (particularly post war work) but find later orchestral overly complicated and unlikeable. It is important to like, or feel that you can approach, music.
I listened to the GSMD/Diego Masson broadcast and was surprised in that student concert how much some of the music seemed to embrace the spirit of Ives, and was reminded that Carter is very much an American. I warmed to this performance more than I expected. MD


3   re 'Get Carter!' - - it's unlikely that the BBC is inferring the awful Sylvester Stallone remake - rather the excellent 1971 Mike Hodges film, with Michael Caine in the title-role and John Osborne, no less, as a debauched launderer of girls and drugs. RW [Link changed accordingly! PGW]

4. I'm inclined to agree with your reservations - though Carter at his best is very powerful, I often find him sterile and routine. I found Driver's article off-putting, displaying the superficiality and celebrity-worship that are so rampant in the British press. I was happy to note your remark about Gruppen ! WH, Birstein-Hettersroth


5. [Deeper reflections by IAN PACE] - - Carter uses a wide range of pre-existing musical gestural types, that is a compositional strategy of his; what interests me is less that very fact than what he does to make those gestures his own. Sometimes that can be very striking, as I felt for example in the violin solo in the first movement of the String Quartet No. 1 - both performer and composer (it's difficult to ascertain how much is one, how much the other) investing those types of phrases with a highly personal range of emotion. But often I find the 'individualising' of the gestures doesn't go much further than simply rendering them abstract by the lack of a clear tonal context.

Many critics almost respond on demand to the identification of gestural allusion and duly report the learnt expressive categories that these represent in the manner of a language. To me that is a rather sterile mode of listening, based upon recognition rather than feeling and mental stimulation.

I look for new experiences from each piece of music (or each performance of a piece of music), not simply to be presented with a second-hand reduced version of the old. Of course this isn't all there is to Carter's music; the dramatic and rhythmic processes he employs can be most compelling, if somewhat over-used at times. The use of the metaphor of the Berlin Wall in the Piano Concerto, which I do think is one of Carter's stronger works, still seems a little facile; a way of attempting to portray the world from outside more than present one's individual response to it. Portrayal rather than reflection (or mediation) seems common to a lot of Carter's music, not least those various works that present certain stock 'character' types in individual instrumental parts.

What I'm identifying is, I think, a certain post-modern outlook that is being brought to bear upon composition, performance and listening, the substitution of what I call 'reified expressive tropes' (historical modes of expression that have come to assume the role of objective categories) in place of the pursuance of individualised expression (which I think is truer of modernism).

Similar criticisms of Stravinsky's 'Jeu de Cartes' were voiced in the 1950s by Rene Leibowitz. This outlook is characteristic of a musical culture that is forever looking backwards rather than forwards.

Carter used to somehow *mean* something different, I feel - he was associated with a more forward-looking approach to music. Nowadays I feel, as is the case with many composers (including others more emphatically within a high modernist tradition), that Carter is admired more because he seems to represent an established institution than because his music is perceived as offering new and visionary types of experience.

It is a worrying situation when music is so often valued only to the extent that it reminds us of something we already know. I'm not for a moment advocating that composers should (or even could) draw a line under the past entirely and start from a musical 'year zero' - instead I'm arguing for the value of expanding the range of possible musical experiences whilst building on past achievements.

This is where it is particularly appropriate to mention Lachenmann, who you also brought up. Lachenmann's music introduced a wide range of new types of instrumental sonorities together with a relentlessly self-reflexive approach to musical process and structure. The contexts for his sonic events are forever in a state of continual development so as (to my ears) to create radical new ways of hearing them. Yet the works frequently have a symphonic quality in a quite traditional sense. This is not primarily because he simply employs surface stylistic elements of past symphonies or other music (though that can happen) or because he slots his material into an abstracted form taken from a past model, but rather because he understands the symphonic form as a historical process rather than an object. A form was created (or, perhaps better, a work was formed) through a dialectical interaction with past musical history. This is very much how Lachenmann responds to musical history (including his own), as well. To me that reveals a much deeper affinity with 'tradition' than is present in any number of neo-romantic works.

Those, like myself, who are interested in the work of Theodor Adorno and critical theory know of the recurring preoccupation that musical history might be moving towards progressive dissolution of the possibilities for expression of the individual subject in composition (and I would say in performance as well). The subject is unique, individuals are unique; with a sufficiently developed craft and a degree of self-confidence it should be possible for many people to create unique and personal music. I worry that the aesthetic climate is becoming progressively more and more hostile towards that possibility. IP




© Peter Grahame Woolf