Notes from the underground

Last week, I reviewed a CD of the works of my favorite composer, Witold Lutoslawski. I asked you to have faith in me, saying that although the music seemed difficult to listen to, if you listened in the right way it would make sense. I believe that this is true. This week, I have decided to review a disc of two works by Elliott Carter (CD C167 6), a man regarded by many as the most “important” American composer of this century. Whereas Lutolsawski’s music merely seemed difficult, but had an underlying sense of beauty, this music truly is difficult. I felt a personal triumph in following the scores of the two works, Piano Concerto and Variations for Orchestra all the way through (although I got lost once or twice, I will admit).

This music is some of the most complex music ever written. Every player who attempts to play it must have the mentality of a composer or perhaps a mathematician. This provides a window to the type of mind that Carter himself must have. I do not believe that music can be reduced to mathematics or intellectualism; however, neither did Carter, although the music sounds that way.

I enjoy listening to his music, despite its difficulty. Music should not always be easy to listen to — for example, is all good literature easy to read? Is A Clockwork Orange easy to watch? It is only because of the preponderance of popular music that we assume that music should be listener-friendly, and this is a huge mistake.

Therefore, the question is raised: how does one listen to this particular music? First of all, the two works are quite different in character. Piano Concerto pits the soloist and a cadre of instrumental accompanists against the large orchestra. The former ensemble is loose and free, while the orchestra is mechanical and overbearing. I am not skilled enough to follow all of the counterpoint that occurs within the tremendous structure of this work, but there are certain themes that poke through. For the most part, one listens for musical “characters”: the sharp attacks of the orchestra, the lyrical lines of certain solo instruments, the fast passages of the piano solo. Carter is certainly a great composer, despite his difficult language: I have never felt bored or truly lost while listening to this piece. Don’t think of Tchaikovsky when listening to this; think of James Joyce.

Piano Concerto is, perhaps, the most difficult work I have ever encountered, in terms of counterpoint, harmony and rhythm. The second work on the CD, Variations for Orchestra, is not nearly as difficult. Here, the orchestra behaves as a traditional orchestra and evokes beautiful colors, not just finely-crafted statements of musical fact. This is not to say that this is an easy work to listen to, but there exists some frame of reference. There are solos, melodies and variations: look at the title! Carter weaves a wonderful web of sound and it is quite a joy. Listen for the jazzy eighth variation, as well as the ending. The entire work is infused with drama, something lacking in Piano Concerto. Throughout, pay attention to the melodic passages in the strings which acts as the glue that binds this work together.

Elliott Carter’s music, especially that in the vein of Piano Concerto, raises interesting philosophical issues; most importantly, what responsibility does the composer have to the audience of his day? I agree with Carter that, as a composer, he has very little responsibility towards his audience. If today’s public is not interested in challenging themselves, that is their loss. Also, who will play music that is so difficult to comprehend? Carter’s music is heard almost exclusively on programs devoted to contemporary music, and most musicians have probably never heard a note of it. If a composer is satisfied with that situation, so be it, but I believe that music is dead if it is not performed. Lutoslawski’s music is challenging to perform, but, unlike Carter’s music, it is certainly playable without going to absurd lengths; performers of Carter’s String Quartet No. 3 have to wear earphones to listen to metronomes, or else they would get lost. Does this mean that Carter is a bad composer, or that we shouldn’t listen to that piece? No, but I will stress that it is Lutoslawski who is my favorite composer, not Carter.