After This Nonsense

Jonathan Bellman

On December 12, the New York Times ran a cover story on Elliot Carter’s one hundredth birthday.  And many happy returns to him; he entered a period of unprecedented productivity at age 90, and has been composing many new works.  I would love to hear some—particularly the recently premiered Intervention for Piano and Orchestra, a seventeen-minute work—because Carter himself says, “I finally have done all my adventures and great big noisy pieces. Now I write simple ones. That’s a new adventure.”

Carter is a national treasure; there is no question about that.  Early works such as the Piano Sonata and his ballet  The Minotaur are deeply beautiful works, expressions of a young and assured Americanist, at least to my ear.  Later works are Important (thinking, for example, of the little timbre pieces for woodwinds), but I have difficulty purely enjoying them, and some of the big, ultra-complex stuff—well, I have to leave that to wiser sages than I.  One thing that made me smile in the article was Carter’s condescending comment about music from the age of “gaslights and horses,” and his preference that he’d rather hear music from the twentieth century, because twentieth century composers “have a spark” and their music expresses “what it’s like to be living now.”

Maybe; maybe not.  One doesn’t get into this kind of tired argument with an iconic centenarian.  I might point out that the time required for most mortals to play, say, works of Carter, Babbitt, or Martino renders such things all but impossible except for the independently wealthy and single-minded-bordering-on-obsessive, and that a certain number of people might differ with his assessment of precisely what the music of, say, Barraqué or Stockhausen actually express.  I am not taking major issue with either side of that argument, though; I sometimes surprise people with what I find beautiful and expressive, and sometimes disappoint them that I don’t appreciate more.  So it goes.  What really made me smile, though, was this:

“He said he has gone back to reading the classics, including Hamlet. After starting a third bout with Proust in the original French, ‘I got a little sick of it two months ago,’ he said. ‘That’s why I turned to Shakespeare.’”

Indeed, Sir.  So Proust and Shakespeare express modernity?  Proust lived much of his life in the era of gaslight and horses, dying in 1922.  Shakespeare’s life would have been lit by rush-light, candles, and torches, no?  So, “classic” literature (currently a contested idea in music, as we know) is OK, but music needs to be relevant and modern…

I offer this with at worst a gently arched eyebrow.  Few of us maintain complete consistency between our tastes and philosophies, and I daresay that those who do distort one to accommodate the other.  Carter’s remark about gaslight and horses got my attention because, obviously, I’m a nineteenth-century guy.  It continues to seem, though, that music is judged by a different measure than the other arts, with greater expectations of relevance or likeability or au courantisme than would be required of literature or visual art.  Or maybe I’m being hypersensitive.  (It would be the first time.)  Anyway: many happy returns, Mr. Carter; I wish you more happy birthdays, and I look forward to hearing your more recent music.

The title of this blog comes from the final two lines of the NYTimes article, which I can’t resist quoting verbatim:

“With the interviewer out of the apartment, Mr. Carter was heard on the other side of the door saying to an aide, ‘I’ve got to rest a little after this nonsense.’”

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to After This Nonsense

  1. karl henning says:

    ==========
    One thing that made me smile in the article was Carter’s condescending comment about music from the age of “gaslights and horses,” and his preference that he’d rather hear music from the twentieth century, because twentieth century composers “have a spark” and their music expresses “what it’s like to be living now.”
    ==========
    That’s an interesting echo of a remark of Prokofiev’s, in which (from dim memory I paraphrase) he praises Americans for driving cars, but chides [us] for ‘behind-the-times’ musical values.
    Cheers,
    ~Karl

  2. “It continues to seem, though, that music is judged by a different measure than the other arts, with greater expectations of relevance or likeability or au courantisme than would be required of literature or visual art.”
    I agree that there are differences in this regard between music and other arts, but unless I’ve misunderstood you, they seem to me to be the other way around. You have probably heard plenty of composers whining about the relevance and necessity of contemporary music, so I won’t subject you to more of that. But I think the reason you don’t hear such pleading as much from other contemporary artists is that the relevance of other forms of contemporary art can be more safely taken for granted. It just goes without saying, for example, that people who like novels will read novels written in the last hundred years — it would be strange if they didn’t. But for whatever reason, it’s not the same for classical music.

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