Loving, Hating Carter, Boulez

September 3, 2003

By Kyle Gann

Astute reader and fellow critic Marc Geelhoed took exception to my dismissive remarks about Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter, and did so intelligently. My attitude, he says,

comes across as a simplistic rejection of their respective styles. You wrote that their music is "difficult to remember," but this "It's not easy to hum" is lousy grounds for critical acceptance, like saying that the Aladdin soundtrack is superior to Brahms, just 'cuz you can remember all the melodies... You criticize composers for not meeting criteria they don't pretend to aspire to,... namely, instant memorability.... It's not a matter of pretentious vs. approachable, it's a matter of compositional technique as well as the aim of each composer....

He's right. Of course I don't equate easy memorability with quality, though my comments did seem to point in that direction. My relationship with the musics of Carter and Boulez has been complex and changing, but as a critic of Downtown music, I rarely have an opportunity to write about them with much nuance. But what's a blog for?

In my early teens, I discovered Ives's "Concord" Sonata and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Both were incomprehensible but fascinating, and I kept listening over and over and over until I totally fell in love. Next came Carter's Double Concerto and Second String Quartet, and I assumed the same thing would happen. All through college and grad school I avidly followed every new Carter premiere, bought his scores and recordings, listened dozens of times, analyzed what I could. Then, one day in the early 1980s, I was listening to the Double Concerto with the score again for what was at least my 50th time. And the thought popped into my head: "I've studied this piece and studied it for over ten years, and I don't give a damn if I ever hear it again." I closed the score, and never listened to the piece closely again until I wrote my American music book in 1995. In a way, what drove me away from the music was its unmemorability. There's a tremendous pleasure in becoming familiar with something as mammoth, dense, and complex as the "Concord" Sonata, and learning to love every skewed little harmonic implication. But while I had the general overall plan of the Double Concerto in my head, and could anticipate the climaxes and piano and harpsichord cadenzas, the vast majority of the pitch complexes just never imprinted themselves on my memory. (You can assume I have lousy ears if you want, but when I entered grad school the professor who administered the ear-training entrance exam told me I did better on it than he could have. It included some Stravinsky 12-tone vocal music that I transcribed correctly, including the solo vocalist's quarter-tone mistakes.) Though by then fond of Ives, Stravinsky, Cage, Stockhausen, and even Babbitt's wonderful Philomel, I had failed to develop the slightest affection for the Carter Double Concerto after dozens, maybe hundreds of listenings.

And it wasn't just listening. In the '70s every young composer analyzed Carter's Second String Quartet, and I was no exception. I started with loads of enthusiasm, but increasingly found the ideas unmusical: especially that the tritones were all in the viola, the perfect fifths all in the second violin (or whatever - I disremember the details), which isn't something one can hear in a polyphonic texture. It's a stupid idea, really. And as fanatical as I am about tempo contrasts, Carter's seemed mechanical and musically unmotivated. I came to think that Carter had invested a lot of time in overly literal aspects of music that didn't appeal to the ear. As I'm always reminding my students, art isn't about reality, it's about appearances.

And yet, I never turned against all of Carter's music. I've always been fond of his Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (which I plan to analyze for class in my next Advanced Analysis Seminar at Bard), and also like his First String Quartet, Piano Sonata, and Cello Sonata. These transitional works he wrote between 1948 and 1952 seem poised exquisitely between his neoclassic period and complex atonalism, and for a few years there I thought he perfectly cross-hatched the near-tonality of his Boulanger years with the intervallic precision of serialist technique. But then he visited Darmstadt and started one-upping the Europeans, apparently, and from the orchestral Variations of 1955 on I find his music lacking in personality. So it's true I don't like most of Carter's music because it isn't memorable, but simplicity is not the only key to memorability. The F,O,C,&H Quartet is not necessarily simpler than the Carter Piano Concerto, but its pitch choices seem much more meaningful, not nearly so bland and randomly scattered.

Except for Le marteau, Boulez is a different story. In youth I attacked that piece with all the fanatacism of a new convert: read Musique aujourd-hui (of which Boulez eventually autographed my copy for me), did what analysis I could, and even did an independent tutorial learning to conduct the piece. But here again, I eventually came back to the piece in the late 1980s and realized that, after so many years of devotion, I couldn't meaningfully tell one movement from another, aside from the instrumentation. If someone had come out with a recording of Le marteau with half the pitches transposed by half-steps one way or the other, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. (I also analyzed every note of the Boulez Second Sonata before hearing it, and was so brainwashed that, when I finally heard it, I cried over its beauty. Today I wouldn't recognize that piece in a blindfold test.) Ultimately, I think Boulez was trying to be very avant-garde in Le marteau, but didn't really know what he was doing yet, and made lousy pitch choices. I've run into a surprising number of composers who have exactly the same opinion, and who were afraid to mention it for years.

But that's not my opinion of Boulez in general. His next work to grab public attention was dynamite: Pli selon pli, a lovely atmospheric piece with a highly original rhythmic sense and sensuous textures, and one he conducts gorgeously on disc. It seems to me that what happened next was that Boulez's confidence failed him. He left so many pieces unfinished, and after a long dry spell, came out in the 1980s with Notations - a thick orchestration of a not-very-interesting piano piece from his student years. My favorite Boulez piece besides Pli, the 1973 memorial for Maderna called Rituel (I heard the exhilarating American premiere in Cleveland), seems like an anomaly in his output, an abandonment of serialism for an almost minimalist concentration on evolving melodic contours. (His much-heralded Repons picked up this thread to some extent.) So I don't see Boulez as a bad composer, but as a failed composer who got sidetracked into conducting and administration and never lived up to the exquisite promise evident in Pli selon pli. But I do hear Le marteau as a terribly overrated, lackluster youthful indiscretion, and even some of his later pieces like Doubles and Explosante Fixe as perfunctory.

Certainly I love the music of a whole host of atonalists who, in most people's minds, would hardly differ from Boulez and Carter. Among the Darmstadt serialists, I always felt Stockhausen and Boulez grabbed the attention via political means, when the more talented, less dogmatic composers were Bruno Maderna (who died young, and whose music is seductively sensuous), Luigi Nono, and Henri Pousseur. All three of these were able to make pitch a secondary concern in their music, and put timbre and atmosphere at center stage; or in Pousseur's case, theatricality. Nono's Contrappunto dialettico alla mente wowed me again when I heard it recently, and I've been waiting for decades for the world to make a big deal out of Maderna's gorgeous Grande Aulodia and Pousseur's dashingly collage-based opera Votre Faust. One has to wonder why the most doctrinaire, least interesting composers in a scene are allowed to rise to the top.

As for Carter, I always felt it was Stefan Wolpe who better achieved what Carter was aiming at. I would have a difficult time explaining to a nonmusician what it is I greatly prefer in Wolpe to Carter, Davidovsky, Wuorinen, or most of the American atonalists. But despite Wolpe's density his music is endlessly playful, and though it can be as opaque as anyone's for stretches, every single piece has moments that stand out vividly, and spring up in hearing after hearing like old friends.

To repeat, simplicity is not the only, or even primary, key to memorability. A subtle sense of harmony and voice-leading, even in an atonal context, is very important, and not many 12-tone composers managed that; the Italians, Dallapiccola, Maderna, and Nono, were superb in that regard, and underrated. I feel that Boulez's sense of harmony in Le marteau, and Carter's in the music from Variations on, were extremely weak. And though I may have strayed far from my original point, I do think this is at least partly related to a refusal to anchor the music in simple pitch cells. Thus my too-dismissive attitude toward Boulez and Carter: not simply that their music leaves me cold, nor that they've wielded more power in the music world than they deserve, nor yet that they became emblematic of a gray, bureaucratic music (though that's all true), but that I invested many years of enthusiasm in both of them - and they disappointed me.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

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