Listening to Elliott Carter

Wilfrid Mellers’s Music in a New Found Land (1964) describes Carter’s music as a synthesis of Ivesian spiritual and chaotic polymorphic flux with Copeland’s more precise crystalline forms. Mellers admires this heroic synthesis but notes that pieces such as the 1st Quartet (1951) require equally heroic attempts by the listener and that by the time of Carter’s Double Concerto the listener is no longer provided with any human element with which to relate as the processes that Carter sets in motion become more and more machine like.

Little did Mellers anticipate that Carter would be writing music for another 45 years after his book was published!

Although Carter’s musical processes present a complexity that would challenge anyone’s musical conceptual abilities, I find this music mirrors the physical-spiritual make up of a human being. One need only explore the processes of our own bodies to realize that extreme difficulty and complexity is in no way antithetical to human nature. Carter’s music helps us to unfold the workings of our nature to bring these difficult processes into our consciousness.

Mellers points out that Carter concentrates on the smallest units of the melodic line at the expense of any even flow of a background meter.  The time signature relates and knits together the individual voices but the voices generally remain independent of each other by possessing their own basic rhythmic units. In jazz, for example, Charlie Parker’s melodic lines, no matter how rhythmically complex, relate to a discernible background beat.

I believe an even background flow of any kind orients the listener in the aural landscape. Without such a flow, the listener must actively find orientation by an act of will and experience divergent and contradictory rhythms simultaneously.

Although  intense listening to any music effects a change of consciousness in the listener , Carter’s music demands a particular change where pure musical receptivity supported by the  security of the even flow of blood circulation is replaced by the most intense pure thinking where the thought itself is the source of life and can exist in a disembodied state. The listener must identify with multiple, evolving, pure wordless thoughts that are self sustaining in a pure void independent of the rhythms of physical life.

This pure thinking is not an abstract analysis based on preconceived concepts which the listener learns and then brings to the piece, but rather the listener must separate their sense of self from their thoughts so that thoughts are perceived as something emanating from outside the listener’s consciousness. Carter’s music then appears on the distant horizon of consciousness as a force of the same substance as our objectified thoughts. It subtlety merges with our thought creating a new thought content.  Our watchful self-consciousness, now emptied of normal intellectual content, becomes aware of these thoughts and experiences a feeling of awe.

Mellers states that Carter’s music is all growth and change without literal repetition; however he imposed order on the chaos in various ways. Despite the extreme independence of the voices where each instrument has its own melodic and rhythmic personality, the Ivesian chaos is tempered by a lyrical evolution (as evidenced by Quartet #1) where the following devices create recognizable form:

  1. The independent voices began to hear and to react to each other.
  2. The voices share the same rhythms  at climatic points.
  3. The lost background beat suddenly reappears in the bass creating a beat to which the other voices refer.
  4. The independent voices may suddenly work together to create a “monophony“. One large melodic idea is composed of snippets that exist in all the voices. Each line has many rests and there’s little overlapping of voices. The listener pieces the snippets together to form one large melody that encompasses the range of all the voices.

Mellers points out that Carter wants the music to sound improvised but doesn’t leave the improvisation in the hands of the players because it is the composer’s responsibility. Also Carter distrusts “systems” and won’t allow his music to be ordered by a preordained serialism. The music should grow organically from the basic material.

The difficulty in listening to this music arises from the concepts that we use to comprehend music we already know. I think that we must clear from our minds former musical experience and attempt to hear the music on the most basic conceptual level-the level of pure sound experience. When the mind is open to the sounds without the interference of thoughts that occur during the perception of familiar music, then a space is opened up for the new conceptual content to meet the basic percepts of these sounds.

A new world begins to appear. What initially was chaos is revealed as the source of our feelings and thoughts.

Combining the music with images may also help to clear a new conceptual space, but not because the images “illustrate” the music. The images take over the conceptual process so the old concepts connect to the visual perception. As our attention is taken up by images, the sounds can come in without preconceived notion and gain familiarity:

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