Carter’s Continuing Presence

Five years after Carter has left us as a human presence, it is time to assess his continuing musical presence in the still-young 21st century.

Written By

Eric Lyon

Elliott Carter passed away on November 5th, 2012 at the age of 103. It took me several years to adjust to a musical world without Carter’s living presence. This was in part because there still was so much recent music to catch up with: Caténaires, Sound Fields, Two Controversies and a Conversation, String Trio, Tintinnabulation, and the Double Trio, constitute a highly abbreviated playlist of the musical riches of Carter’s last decade. By the 21st century, I had become so accustomed to being surprised and delighted by the freshness and daring of new Carter works from a composer well in his 90s, and then amazingly, into his 100s, that it took some time to accept that this seemingly inexhaustible musical adventure had finally come to an end. Five years after Carter has left us as a human presence, it is time to assess his continuing musical presence in the still-young 21st century.

Elliott Carter in the 20th Century

Before assessing the significance of Carter’s music in the 21st century, I will first summarize the achievements from his most innovative and influential 20th century period, from the late 1940s through the late 1970s.

Carter’s notable musical innovations center on the following techniques: metric modulation, a set-class approach to harmony, extra-musical (especially literary) conceptions of musical structure, stylistic individuation of musical parts, and simultaneous presentation of stylistically distinct musical movements. Two crucial educational experiences informed this work: Carter’s personal association with Charles Ives in the mid-1920s and a rigorous course of training with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1930s. The friendship with Ives put Carter directly in touch with an early 20th century modernist project that embraced experimentation, multiplicity, and a hybridization of “high art” and vernacular musical styles that Carter ultimately found problematic. Studies with Boulanger developed Carter’s mastery of the two fundamental organizational principles of European tonal music: harmony and counterpoint.

Before exploring what these techniques got for Carter, let’s move back before the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet No. 1, which together represent a deliberate move away from a musical style that Carter later described as deliberately simplified in order to be more appealing to general American audiences. Carter’s most crowd-pleasing effort along these lines is the Holiday Overture (1944), which fuses an American nationalist style with strong contemporary European influences, most obviously from Paul Hindemith, but with occasional Stravinskyan flourishes as well. (The influence of both Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky is felt rather more strongly in the Suite from Pocahontas of 1939.) While the language of the Holiday Overture is largely pan-diatonic, and considerably more consonant than Hindemith’s music, there are occasional flirtations with polytonality and cross rhythms that hint at the modernist direction that Carter ultimately decided to pursue.

Elliott Carter, wearing a suit, in profile (1942).

Elliott Carter in 1942.

The Holiday Overture nicely articulates a key inflection point for Carter near the middle of the 20th century, poised between populism vs. modernism, and between American nationalism vs. the European avant-garde. The compositional sequence of the Piano Sonata (1945-46), to the Cello Sonata (1948), to the String Quartet No. 1 (1951) chronicles Carter’s movement toward both a permanent embrace of Modernism in respect of the first schism, and a dynamic balance between American and European elements in respect of the second schism. As a result, many American listeners would consider Carter’s mature musical style to lean European, especially when compared with such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, William Schuman, Charles Ives, or even John Cage, while European composer Pierre Boulez said that he liked Carter’s music because it sounds so “American.” In the 21st century, the question of music nationalism may seem rather trivial (or perhaps takes on new meanings), but nationalism was a question of great concern to many early to mid-20th century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Carlos Chavez, as well as many of the American composers just mentioned.

Returning to musical innovations, the technique most firmly associated with Carter is metric modulation. While Carter did not invent the technique, he employed it with much greater depth and scope than any prior composer. Metric modulation involves a redefinition of the tempo, based on metrical relationships. A simple example is shown below.

An example of a metrical modulation from triplets in 4/4 time to 8th notes in 7/8.

For the listener, there is no change in the speed of the repeated notes. However, the change of tempo allows for groupings (such as the 7/8 bar shown) that are difficult or impossible to notate at the prior tempo. This allows for fluid destabilization of a tactus, and as mentioned in the previous section. The avoidance of a constant, regular tactus is a defining feature of Carter’s post-1940s music.

Carter’s focus on set-based harmonies matures in the String Quartet No. 1, with a harmonic language that hinges on the two all-interval tetrachords, shown below. (An all-interval tetrachord provides every interval class from 0 to 6. By contrast, a whole-tone tetrachord can only provide interval classes 0, 2, 4 and 6.)

The two all interval tetrachords: 0156 (e.g. C-C#-E-F#) and 0137 (e.g. C-Db-Eb-G)

Carter’s interest in set-based harmony led him to write his Harmony Book, enumerating every possible chord in the 12-tone system. The focus on pitch sets (chords in Carter’s terminology) would have been informed by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, and especially the partitioning techniques of Anton Webern. Equally plausible precedents include the fascination with new chordal sonorities exhibited by such composers as Alexander Scriabin and Franz Liszt. Carter’s work with pitch sets in the early 1950s puts him ahead of major publications on the subject, such as Howard Hanson’s Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960), Milton Babbitt’s  “Set Structure as a Compositional Determinant” (1961), and Alan Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (1973). Carter’s adoption of pitch sets as determinative of his harmonic language permanently foreclosed the quasi-tonal harmonic language of the Holiday Overture. Additionally, it gave him a powerful tool for individual and group differentiation within larger ensembles.

Carter’s use of extra-musical literary sources of inspiration motivates his concept of a musical score as a “play,” with stylistically individuated characters. Quotations from inspirational poetry preface such important orchestral scores as the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), clearly articulating that Carter’s works are not mere technical experiments, but harbor ambitious expressive intent as well. The stylistic individuation of musical parts is most strongly introduced in the opening of the Cello Sonata, where the pianist mechanically pecks out a clock-like rhythm while the cello follows a lyric and expressive melody that floats in a different tempo from the piano. The ending of the fourth movement demonstrates that the character roles can be reversed, even though the two parts seem optimized for the inherent character of the cello (a singing instrument) and the piano (a percussion instrument). At the same time, this introduction of the idea of stylistic individuation makes a clear link to earlier classical music, going back at least as far as Mozart, whose music demonstrates a clear differentiation between melody and accompaniment lines.

Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter looking over a score.

Carter with Leonard Bernstein in 1971 in Philharmonic Hall during a rehearsal for a New York Philharmonic performance of the Concerto for Orchestra (photographer unknown; courtesy Elliott Carter Centenary)

Carter’s stylistic differentiation of individual parts breaks free from its classical precedents in the String Quartet No. 2 (1959), where each part is assigned its own rhythmic profile and repertory of intervals. The construction of not just differentiated lines or even differentiated types of music, but individuating each musician as a “character” in a musical play is Carter’s mature conception of instrumental differentiation that will present itself repeatedly throughout his music from the 1960s forward. The obvious predecessor in this regard is the comical character “Rollo” in Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 2. But a key difference from Ives’s approach is Carter’s wariness of slapstick humor in music; Carter feels that it’s too facile and too easy to bring off.

Finally, the simultaneous presentation of stylistically differentiated movements extends the idea of stylistically differentiated individual parts. This strategy is first clearly and comprehensively articulated in the Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Carter then radically rethinks the spatial and formal architecture of the string quartet with his String Quartet No. 3 (1971), where different musics interpenetrate and move through each other at different speeds, styles, and densities. Carter recommends spatial separation of the two duos in performance of this quartet to further articulate the different musical streams. The superposition of different kinds of music (slow and fast) had already been heard in the String Quartet No. 1, but No. 3 applies this as a principle for structuring the entire piece. A precedent for this superposition of different musics is found in the music of Charles Ives, in such works as Central Park in the Dark and the Symphony No. 4.

What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations.

Having surveyed Carter’s technical innovations, I must emphasize that his reputation derives not just from these innovations. After all, 20th century art was inundated with technical experiments of every kind. What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations, which are all girdled by a commitment to compositional rigor and extreme exploration of technical possibilities. As Carter himself observed, creating one’s own language is a special prerogative of the 20th century composer. But that composer must then communicate clearly using the language that s/he created. Carter’s mature set of technical concerns clearly identifies him as a 20th century modernist. But he did not jump on every modernist bandwagon. Key 20th century musical research areas that Carter completely avoided include electronic music, aleatoric music, and microtonal music. And despite a constant concern for multiplicity, Carter studiously avoided the pastiche approach of post-modernism. Carter even more studiously avoided the fixed tempi and mechanical repetitions of minimalism. It may have taken 50 years for Carter to discover and integrate his core compositional concerns, but from that point forward, for the next 53 years, Carter could not be budged from his compositional edifice. He continued to write Elliott Carter’s music twelve years into the 21st century, a period in which the dominant compositional trends seem to be at odds with Carter’s compositional ethos.

Elliott Carter in the 21st Century

Elliott Carter sitting in the audience.

Elliott Carter at a rehearsal for Two Controversies and a Conversation during the NY Philharmonic’s Contact Series in June 2012. (Photo by Ed Yim.)

Yet Carter’s music is alive and well five years after his death in November 2012. Just in 2017, Carter’s two major publishers, Boosey & Hawkes and Associated Music, reported 52 performances of Carter’s music, 10 of them orchestral performances, including multiple performances of Carter’s 1998 opera What Next? This record of performances would be an impressive showing for a living composer. For a deceased composer, it is a serious vote of confidence in the continued relevance of the music. Many more performances are scheduled for 2018. Looking at reported performances of orchestral music from 2012-2018, there is further evidence of a sustained presence for Carter’s music, with a combined report of 127 performances of works for full orchestra. (Those performance do not include works such as Sound Fields and the Clarinet Concerto, which are for smaller forces.)

These statistics on Carter’s posthumous orchestral presence are great news of course. At the same time, I have some reservations, based on my own assessment and categorization of Carter’s orchestral music. Following our earlier discussion of Carter’s technical progress as a composer, I categorize the orchestral music up through the Minotaur Suite (1947) as Carter’s populist period. The Variations for Orchestra (1955) is a transitional work, not a populist work, but also not yet possessed of the orchestral maturity on display in the Piano Concerto completed one decade after. The period from 1964 to 1976 contains, in my view, the pinnacle of Carter’s writing for full orchestra, comprising the Piano Concerto, The Concerto for Orchestra, and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. The period from 1986 forward, starting with the Oboe Concerto, is what I consider Carter’s post-pinnacle orchestral period. While “post-pinnacle” might sound pejorative, for a composer of Carter’s rank, a descent from his pinnacle still leaves the work in a state of excellence. And to be clear, this view is restricted to the orchestral music. The main distinction I want to make here is that the three works of Carter’s orchestral pinnacle all represent “crisis” pieces, struggling to extend Carter’s language, and then express himself musically with the greatest force possible. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras were composed within the sweet spot of Carter’s initial and most rigorous development of his primary rhythmic, formal, and harmonic innovations, especially in the superposition of multiple movements articulated by harmony, speed, and musical character. The Piano Concerto is an even more special piece, perhaps unique among Carter’s work, where he seems almost not himself, given the darkness, violence, and political despair articulated in the piece. Each of these pinnacle works would require its own essay to begin to unpack the technical and expressive force of the works; for now, I simply assert their primacy, and allow the reader to either agree with my assessment or not.

Of 127 reported orchestral performances, 21 were of Carter’s populist music, 7 of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 of “pinnacle” music, and 97 of “post-pinnacle” music.

According to the above categorization, of the 127 reported orchestral performances, there were 21 performances of Carter’s populist music, 7 performances of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 performances of pinnacle music (one each of the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras), and 97 performances of post-pinnacle music. Given that the post-pinnacle period comprises 26 years, and given that Carter’s productivity markedly increased in that period, and finally given that there is usually more interest in a composer’s more recent music, it is not surprising that the majority of performances are in the post-pinnacle period. And again, I must stress that there is wonderful orchestral music in what I am calling the post-pinnacle period. Instances (2012) has great wit, some fine and original gestures, some obsessive intensity toward the end, and a very lovely coda, with the piano speaking in single tones against the ensemble, in what might be an echo of the Woody Woodpecker-like piano notes of the Piano Concerto. But Instances is not as soul-crushing as the Piano Concerto, or as ambitiously world-building as the Concerto for Orchestra or A Symphony of Three Orchestras. Instances is a fine and elegant vehicle—a bicycle. The pinnacle orchestral works are Sherman tanks.

Those readers who share my assessment of the pinnacle orchestral works will also share my disappointment that they represent a mere two out of 127 Carter orchestral performances discussed here. In addition to the number of performances, there is an interesting story in the location of the performances. A total of 31 of the orchestral performances took place in the USA. Ten of these performances were from the populist period, four were of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, one was of the pinnacle work Concerto for Orchestra, the remaining 16 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Five of those were of Instances, all clustered in 2013, the year after the composition of the work.

The music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA.

By contrast, 76 orchestral performances took place in Europe (including the UK), with the remaining performances taking place in South America, Australia, and Canada. Nine of the European performances were of Carter’s populist orchestral music. One pinnacle work, A Symphony of Three Orchestras, was performed, two performances of Variations for Orchestra were given, and the remaining 64 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Thus, in the six-year period starting from 2012, Carter’s final year, the music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA. Music from Carter’s populist period comprises approximately 32 percent of the USA performances, and approximately nine percent of the European performances. These statistics speak to the well-known conservatism and risk-aversion of American orchestral programming, compared to that of Europe. Given the spirit of boldness and innovation in American musical cultural production that has given us John Cage, Steve Reich, The Sonic Arts Union, computer music, disco, and of course Elliott Carter, the general timidity of the American orchestra is a regrettable lacuna. At the same time, we should single out the 2013 Concerto for Orchestra performance given by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Leon Botstein. The American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein cannot be praised highly enough for bringing challenging, seldom performed music to the public, but their project remains the exception that proves the rule in American orchestral programming.

Helen Carter, NYC Mayor Ed Koch, Elliott Carter (at podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC's commissioner of cultural affairs at City Hall in 1978.

Although there have been considerably more performances of Elliott Carter’s music in Europe than in the United States, Carter is one of the few composers to be officially honored by our government. In addition to being feted at the White House by Ronald Reagan as one of the first 12 recipients of National Medal of Arts in 1985, Carter was also honored in 1978 at New York City’s City Hall by then Mayor Edward I. Koch (left of Carter who is at the podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC’s then commissioner of cultural affairs (far right). Carter’s wife Helen (1927-1998) is standing to the left of Koch.

Carter’s Legacy

Having demonstrated the viability of Carter’s orchestral music, which is by far the most difficult instrumental medium in which a composer can achieve lasting success, there is a much more vital performance environment for Carter’s chamber and solo music, which is performed at a considerably higher rate than the orchestral music. Within this repertory, certain focal points may be predicted. For example, the five string quartets seem to be on track for canonical status, having been championed by both top generalist string quartets like the Juilliard Quartet and Pacifica Quartet, and by new music specialist quartets such as the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet. Within that corpus, I would further highlight the first and third quartets as the two “crisis” pieces—the standouts in the collection that take an experimental technique to its outer limit. String Quartet No. 1 delves deeply into the problem of metric modulation as a basis for large-scale formal organization and String Quartet No. 3 attacks the problem of simultaneous unfolding of different movements, taking its textures closer to the edge of chaos than any of his music with the possible exception of the finale to the Double Concerto. Carter’s solo piano piece Caténaires has established itself as a showpiece for competitions, as beautifully demonstrated in this performance by Sean Chen. (Multiple performances of this work are easily found on YouTube.) Many other fine “musical selfies” of Carter’s solo pieces adorn YouTube, such as this dramatic reading of Figment III, performed by James Oesi.

Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students.

Another aspect of Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students. I will next consider the music of one of Carter’s most prominent students, Jeffrey Mumford, since Mumford openly and gratefully acknowledges Carter’s influence. Jeffrey Mumford first became enamored of Elliott Carter’s music during his college years, and studied privately with Carter during 1980-83. Mumford’s music shares the following general concerns with Carter’s music: multiplicity, stratification and conversations between instruments or groups of instruments, and temporal variety. One readily hears in Mumford’s instrumental writing a long-line approach to melodic invention that is distinctly “Carterian.” One also hears a fondness for simultaneous unfolding of materials at disparate tempi, along with a general avoidance of motoric rhythms (though with a bit more openness to regular rhythms than Carter). Mumford’s music exemplifies how some important elements of Carter’s compositional practice can be adopted, while others are left on the table and other non-Carterian elements enter the compositional project. Mumford intriguingly acknowledges both jazz ballads and the rich harmonies of disco as important influences. In Mumford’s cello concerto of fields unfolding . .  echoing depths of resonant light from 2015, written for Carter in memoriam, all of these elements are on display. The long, flowing, directional cello lines interspersed with double-stops and harmonics for emphasis are very Carterian. But the lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Five of the more well-known composers who studied with Elliott Carter (pictured from left to right): Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Despite shared musical concerns, and some similarities in musical language between Carter and Mumford, there is a dramatic element in Carter’s ethos that often leads to sudden outbursts of explosive violence in his music, which is decidedly not a part of Mumford’s musical personality. Mumford instead invests more heavily in lyricism, beauty, and lushness, resulting in a more personal, private sensibility than that of Carter’s music. I consider this private sensibility to be a quality of particular importance for 21st century classical music, and for that reason, in addition to its general excellence, I highly commend Mumford’s music to the attention of the reader.

Mumford’s lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

The legacy of a composition teacher is not just in knowledge and technique imparted, but also in more intangible conveyances. Jeffrey Mumford shared the following statement regarding Elliott Carter, “His class and elegance are a gift to us all, and the legacy of the depth and intelligence of his music will live on far into the future, as successive generations discover it. Words cannot express the gift he has given me in my focus and journey as an artist. Words also cannot express how much I miss him.”

Moving Forward the 21st Century

Elliott Carter standing in front of a bookcase (1982).

Elliott Carter in 1982 in front of one of the many bookcases in his New York apartment

While Carter’s reputation is unassailable, we now live in a musical world in which Carter’s music is of the recent past, not the present, somewhat analogous to the position of Johannes Brahms’s music in the early 20th century. Fundamental aspects of new music culture are changing, where recognition as a “great composer” may take on new meanings. A few factors to consider:

1. The increasing prominence of composer/performers

The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize materiality with little room for the abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

The composer/performer model has been a norm throughout much of classical music history. In the 20th century, a tendency toward specialization led to the non-performer/composer, and alternative hybrid models emerged, such as composer/teachers and composer/theorists, who do not perform music, or at least do not devote much focus to performance. Carter, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Brian Ferneyhough are prominent exemplars of the non-performer/composer. A shift in emphasis towards performer/composers in the early 21st century has emerged, featuring musicians whose roots are as performers who then gravitated towards composition. As composers, their music seems, for lack of a better word, performative in emphasis, since they are composing for instruments on which they regularly perform. Theo Bleckmann, Todd Reynolds, Jane Rigler, Pamela Z, and Michael Lowenstern are notable exemplars. Notable 20th century precursors to this model include Robert Dick, Diamanda Galas and Joan LaBarbara. On being awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Caroline Shaw famously remarked, “I don’t really call myself a composer.” Instead, Shaw is a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocalist who also composes music. And her music is written for performers with a directness that is in contradistinction to the modernist approach to instrumental writing. Shaw’s compositional practice is a far cry from that of Arnold Schoenberg who, when told by a prominent violinist regarding his new Violin Concerto that he would have to wait for a violinist born with six fingers, Schoenberg replied, “I can wait.” The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize the materiality of performance and sound in a directly experienced and expressed manner, with little room for the notation-based abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

2. Radical proximity

It would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter.

On the internet, any music that can be uploaded as a recording is just a click away. There is a profound overload of available music, coupled with a pervasive awareness of this overload. In such a diverse, densely populated musical world, the revolutionary impact of music from the early 20th century, such as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire seems impossible today. Classical pieces that come to prominence today seem to do so for a very short period, before disappearing from the public ear. These works do not have the subversive impact of the radical early 20th century pieces discussed above, or even radical mid-century interventions like John Cage’s 4’33”. Given that the disruptive and interventionist aspect of those early modernist works was so essential to stimulating the young Elliott Carter’s imagination, it would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter. Instead of those massive early 20th century cultural impacts, we now have interstitial reverberations, quiet and difficult to trace, with long tails.

3. Erosion of the high art/low art distinction

A distinction between high art music and vernacular music was a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did.

Carter’s concern for high culture doesn’t seem very possible in the early 21st century. Instead, this is an era of hybridity. Jeffery Mumford’s shared influences of Carter’s music and disco is emblematic of 21st century classical music. The composer who also has a band (even if that band is a new music ensemble) is more the rule than the exception today. This is a cultural world that is aligned with composers such as Nick Didkovsky, Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, Annie Gosfield, and Elliott Sharp. The enforcement of a distinction between high art music and vernacular music, which was essentially a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did, no longer holds much credibility. Although Carter’s ideas can continue to propagate in the internet space of hybridity, the space for single-strain incubation of high-art projects is severely diminished, compared to that of the 20th century.

Concluding Thoughts

Carter seems to have sensed some of these 21st century cultural issues surprisingly early. In a 1990 interview with Jonathan W. Bernard, discussing his state of mind in the late 1960s during the composition of Concerto for Orchestra, Carter stated, “The whole question of the time we are living in, and whether it’s the end of a period, is something that has hung over us all, I think, for a long time, and this is a very meaningful thing to me in that piece…You see, I lived through that particular period of modernism that has now somehow become either classic or God knows what, but it still is very vivid to me. The whole question of what high culture is is something that remains profoundly disturbing and perplexing.”

Carter’s magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

The beautiful thing about music is that there’s always room for new voices. We don’t have a limited amount of storage space to house statues of our musical gods, where after it fills up we need to toss out some gods to make room for new ones. Carter has earned his place in the pantheon, and will surely remain there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we have definitively moved beyond his period of modernism, and are now in a very different cultural place. We living composers can admire and learn from Carter’s work, but the task before us now is to develop a musical culture that would seem increasingly weird, alien, disturbing, and perplexing to Carter. His magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.