Doing Carter’s Math

I was happy to see Ethan Iverson writing about Elliott Carter in a recent post, and I heartily agree with the comment on the depth and breadth of American music with which he frames the post, but I wonder about a few of his assertions and conclusions:

“Time” is really the issue, I believe. For all his intellectual “games” with rhythm, nothing Carter ever wrote really “has game.” The older jazz cat’s schadenfreude surely stems from the knowledge that many of the greatest American musicians, frequently coming from the literal ghetto, have traditionally been consigned to the figurative ghetto by the intellectual elite — even though swing is a much more profound rhythmic discipline than 21:25 or 216:175.

The last phrase of this is a confusion of categories – swing is an extremely subtle and sophisticated performance practice; Carter’s large-scale polyrhythms are background structures that have to do with how the piece is made more than with how it is heard or played.

Ted Curson mastered the jazz beat, you can hear it on “Folk Forms, No. 1.” Nobody who has ever played Carter professionally could jump in there with Mingus  — either improvising or reading that transcription — and sound anything but anemic.

The obvious but pointless rejoinder is to wonder if anyone in Mingus’s band could have played Carter correctly, pointless because these are simply different musical practices and it is foolish to expect profound mastery of such different skill sets among all musicians. On the other hand, I must say I am tired of the ancient canard that classical musicians inherently can’t swing. No, I don’t think there are many classical musicians who have a degree of mastery of jazz that they deserve to get on the bandstand with someone like Mingus – after all, how many jazz musicians function on that level? But the ability to function simply on a professional level as a jazz musician – not as a major contributor to the field, but simply as a professional – is more common among those who are primarily classical musicians than one might think. I bet you could draw a professional level jazz quintet from most major American symphony orchestras – not one ready for the Vanguard or for a recording studio, but professional – capable of swinging and knowledgeable about some portion of jazz’s multiple repertoires.

From the other point of view, I imagine that, fifty years on from Live at Antibes, there are more jazz musicians that can play Carter’s 90+ than there used to be. I am not saying that means they are “better” musicians! Just that the boundaries of who has what skill set are somewhat more permeable – especially today – than we sometimes think.

But Haydn, Schumann, and Carter are not in the same tradition! Haydn and Schumann are open to the public, Carter is a hermetically-sealed world.


Please don’t compare him to Haydn, compare him to the thorniest James Joyce.

I can’t exactly disagree with what Iverson is saying here, but a couple of thoughts come to mind:

– I feel like Haydn, Schumann and Carter are in the same tradition in a way that, say, Haydn, Schumann and Feldman are not. Carter is still a “pre-post-classical” composer.

– Joyce is certainly thorny, but there is plenty of “folk music” in Joyce as well; Ulysses is full of the demotic.

– Haydn is certainly open-hearted, but there is plenty of subtlety in Haydn that is “hermetically-sealed” from “the public”.

Carter was a closed book to me until I heard a bunch of rehearsals of his Elizabeth Bishop song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell at Yale’s Norfolk program in 1981. I could latch onto the vocal line to provide a thread of continuity that I could never find in, say, the Concerto for Orchestra. The frozen registers of the pitches in the first song of that cycle (each pitch sounds in one octave and one octave only through the whole song) also provided a degree of coherence that I couldn’t find elsewhere in Carter’s music – of course, it’s tough to build a big body of work on a stunt of that kind, important as that strategy might be in passages in Webern and Lutoslawski. Once I found my way into Mirror, I started to be able to follow the discourse in other Carter pieces. Furthermore, as has often been noted, in Carter’s late-late period that thread of continuity is more apparent than earlier. Still, except for moments, the harmony in Carter doesn’t make total sense to me. (Nobody should be fooled into thinking the analyze-ibility of Carter’s harmony insures that it is meaningful.) I have to say though that there are plenty of historically important jazz improvisers – past and present – who created music where not every pitch is meaningful. Harmony is significant to a different degree in different musics. I enjoy some Carter in the way I enjoy some freer types of jazz.

Two last thoughts – I have more than once heard passing mention of Carter’s appreciation of bebop – I doubt that his knowledge of it went very deep, but I wish I knew more about his relationship with that music. (The connection between jazz and 20th century American concert music – I mean beyond Third Stream or Copland’s pseudo-jazz of the ’20s – was more widespread than is commonly realized.) And, with regard to folk music, Milton Babbitt is supposed to have once remarked, “But Schoenberg is my folk music!”

3 thoughts on “Doing Carter’s Math

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