Recent Reading

Though some deadlines kept me working very hard over the holidays,  I still found some time to read. My recent reading has included:

  • David Schiff’s new book on Carter. This is a welcome update to Schiff’s earlier books on the composer, insightful and well-written, but rather different in character from the earlier books, delving less into technical matters. There are no musical examples, save for a curious page with a few signature musical motifs Carter has often employed. Who would read a book about Elliott Carter yet be put off by the presence of score notation?  The book is not the full biography that Carter deserves, something like Howard Pollock’s book on Copland – for that, someone will have to, as Schiff notes, go through the 10,000 letters in the Carter files at the Sacher Foundation, as well as do much more. Sometimes the book reads like a series of uncommonly elegant program notes, but it is hard to fault Schiff for not digging deeper; Carter was unbelievably productive in his late years and there is a huge amount of material to discuss. I suppose a book that went into detail about every single piece would become unreadable, more like an encyclopedia or catalog. I was a bit taken aback by how strongly Schiff dislikes the libretto for Carter’s opera What’s Next? – I need to go back and listen to the piece again with his comments in mind.
  • I finally finished Proust’s À la recherche, over 30 years after purchasing the three volume set at Bookforum on Broadway, near Columbia, during my student days. I know it’s a cliché to say “one is never finished reading Proust”, but I do feel that if I returned to Swann’s Way now, it would be with much greater appreciation and understanding. On the other hand, I could certainly use a break. Derwent May’s short volume on Proust increased my enjoyment of the novel, and I recommend it.
  • I loved Everyone at This Party Has Two Names by Brad Aaron Modlin, a volume of poems that made me wince in recognition, smile at its wry humor, and pause thoughtfully over its poignant insights. There’s a text in this volume I want to set before too long, it’s that kind of book.

Elliott on Your Coffee Table

UnknownA coffee table book about Elliott Carter? Well, not exactly. But Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler is a relatively large format book of over 360 pages, filled with photographs, reproductions of musical sketches, transcriptions of letters, previously unpublished lectures and more. A publication of the Paul Sacher Foundation, the remarkable archive of so many significant 20th/21st century composers, the varied material here gathered has been meticulously annotated in great detail. I enjoyed it for its insights into Carter as a person and as an artist and for its glimpses of the history of 20th century music from Carter’s vantage point. There are some surprises as well. Did you know Carter considered writing a prequel to What’s Next?, his late-in-life first opera? Or that he planned a two-piano sonata in the mid-fifties?

Near this big book on the library shelf I found a volume much more modest in size, yet still of interest. Elliott Carter: A Centennial Celebration, edited by Marc Ponthus and Susan Tang, includes contributions from Pierre Boulez, Fred Lerdahl, Alvin Curran, Louis Karchin, Charles Rosen, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Wilson, John Ashberry, and Walter Zimmerman. These are mostly fairly brief, but there is a more substantive piece by Paul Griffiths. His discussion of Carter’s choices for text setting, plus an analysis of a song from Of Challenge and of Love, is tightly packed with meaning. Karchin deftly combines reminiscence with analysis of the first song from A Mirror on Which to Dwell. Rosen comments on Carter’s use of sustained melodic lines, drawing examples from the piano works for which he was an exemplary advocate.

Both these books did what writing about music should always do: they made me want to listen to the music.

Here’s a video with young singers from Songfest (the current edition of this remarkable event is in progress at the Colburn School in L. A.), each performing a song from Of Challenge and of Love. An excellent article on singing Carter by the extraordinary soprano Tony Arnold is here.

Carter on Salesmanship

“Indeed, from what I have noticed, most of us composers, at least as far as our own works are concerned, still live back in that old-fashioned era when it was assumed that quality would eventually win recognition, and that to promote one’s wares too intensively might very well bring one under the suspicion that one was not too sure of their intrinsic merit, that too much was being sacrificed for advertising and too little devoted to improving the product”

-Elliott Carter, from a 1953 talk on “The Need for New Choral Music”, reprinted in Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents.

A quote to ponder in an age where artists are constantly being told they must be entrepreneurs. And here I am quoting it on my website, which is essentially a big advertisement for my music…

Update: On the other hand, being deceased has not prevented Elliott from having his own quite handsome website.

Walker, Messiaen, Rosen

I’ve been concentrating on getting the score of Sacred Songs and Meditations ready for the recording sessions and concert in July at the National Cathedral. (The concert isn’t showing up on their schedule of events just yet – it is set for Monday, July 8.) But you can’t copy edit all day, (well, you can, but the deadline isn’t quite here yet) so I have been doing a little reading.

I picked up George Walker’s memoirs, on the advice of Do the Math, and I agree with Ethan Iverson that the book is fascinating. Few artists of any kind are sufficiently valued, and the appreciation gap is especially large for composers. With an African-American composer like Walker you begin with that baseline lack of appreciation, but you have to add on the racism of America in general and that of the world of American classical music in particular. Walker has a right to be a good deal more angry than his courtly, measured prose conveys. The catalog of slights is endless – unsupportive teachers, performers who don’t follow up –  but there is no full-fledged rage here. On the other hand, he is quick to be critical, even dismissive of big names, startlingly so at times – Iverson speaks of the “forest of barbs”.

There are times when the book reminded me of George Rochberg’s memoir, because in neither book is there much discussion of peers or influences, but in the interview on Do the Math, Walker does cite a number of pieces that he finds attractive. There are no surprises here, but also no unqualified enthusiasms. As Walker says in the interview in reference to a list of famous pianists, “I am not a devotee of any of them.”

I had not been aware of Walker’s stature as a pianist, that Serkin took him on as a student, for example. Here are two passages I’ve been quoting to my students:

In my first meeting with Serkin at Curtis, he asked me to prepare for my lesson the following week the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Les Adieux Sonata of Beethoven, and three Chopin études: C-sharp minor, op. 10, F minor; and D-flat major, op. 25.


I had memorized all of the assigned work for my first lesson.

Now, it is unlikely that this music was totally new to Walker, but still, that’s a pretty good week’s work.

I need to get to know Walker’s music better. My sense in reading through the piano sonatas is, unsurprisingly, that this is the work of someone who really knows his way around the piano. I was struck, in the 4th Sonata, at how Walker carefully deploys contrasting registers of the piano, sometimes using octave doublings, sometimes what you might call “inexact doublings”, a term associated with the sevenths and ninths that dominate some of Messiaen’s birdsong textures, though in Walker’s piece the dissonances are part of a more orchestral type of piano texture.

Speaking of Messiaen, also on my current reading list is Messiaen’s Final Works by Christopher Dingle. I certainly know a good bit more about Messiaen’s harmony than I did before opening this book. Previously, my superficial understanding was simply that it was in some undefined way derived from the composer’s “modes of limited transposition”, but there are specific chords that recur much more than I realized. Much of the book is devoted to an analysis of Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Dela. It is odd to read about the premiere of this piece as an historical event, given that I was present for the premiere in November, 1992 with the New York Philharmonic. But I guess I have become an historical event myself…

I have also been recently re-reading parts of The Classical Style in honor of its recently deceased author, Charles Rosen. Could such a book be published in this way today, packed with specially prepared and nicely engraved musical examples throughout? That is the case with the Dingle book, but consider from several years ago the ineptly engraved examples for the second edition of David Schiff’s book on Carter*, or compare Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations, where the musical examples have been hidden in the back of the book, along with the notes – I shouldn’t have to use three bookmarks to get around a book. Supposedly the score excerpts are off-putting to the non-scholarly reader, though why you can’t just skip over them is inexplicable to me. I also wonder, with so much technical discussion, could The Classical Style win a National Book Award today?

Okay, enough, I better get back to work, especially since I plan to go to NYC for the Albany Symphony this coming Tuesday. Will report on that later this week.

* This is an odd case – Schiff’s actual writing is a tremendous contribution, but not only are some of the musical examples badly engraved, there are in some copies photographs mentioned on the dust jacket as being included in the book that are missing, and the headings over the descriptions of individual works are inconsistently edited. Was the book rushed into print for Carter’s 90th birthday?

Big Polyrhythm in the Background

I put a chunk of my response to Ethan Iverson’s Carter post on his current Forumesque comments. I was troubled by his reply:

@James: Thanks for your comment. I’m sure many other smart classical musicians agree with you. I will let the matter rest there except to note that the “big polyrhythm” lurking in the background of any of my comparisons between jazz and classical is race.

Which I take to mean that smart jazz musicians would not agree with me. But agree or disagree about what? I am not sure what part of my comment he is referring to. My guess is that the thing that smart jazz musicians would disagree with is the question of whether some classical musicians – a tiny minority – might also have professional level jazz abilities – whether they have any grasp of what Iverson refers to as the “folk music” aspect of jazz practice.  Maybe the problem is what “professional” means – that what I am thinking of as sufficiently competent to be called professional is far from professional in the judgement of a smart jazz musician. But I still think at least some musicians today are able to engage with a variety of musical practices competently, whether their primary practice is classical or jazz. I haven’t heard Iverson play classical solo piano, but I expect he does a great job.

Although I did not bring up the issue of racism in my comment, I certainly didn’t mean to deny its importance either. Iverson’s point about unequal institutional support for classical and jazz musicians is quite correct.

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!”

Stephen Hough and the piano quintet

Stephen Hough writes here about some interesting programs he has devised for a Wigmore Hall series – the pattern of piano solo, string quartet, piano quintet is simple and brilliant, and I was pleased to see the diversity of the American program he has planned – Feldman, Carter, Lieberman. I tried and failed to comment on the post, but couldn’t get it to work, despite registering a Telegraph account. So I will say here what I planned to say there – that Americans have served the genre of the piano quintet well, with significant pieces by Wuorinen, Rochberg and Harbison, in addition to pieces by two of the composers already on Hough’s program – Carter and Feldman. (It’s a crime that the recording of the Rochberg by the Concord and Alan Marks is out of print.) It’s a genre dear to my heart, having had a wonderful time playing the Brahms with the Cassatt Quartet a few years ago, as well as playing and recording my own quintet with the Cavani and later, at Alice Tully, with the Miami.

Tony Arnold on Carter

Soprano Tony Arnold has an exceptionally thoughtful piece on Elliott Carter’s vocal music at New Music Box. Her main points – a questioning of the real meaning of “idiomatic” writing; and an invitation to consider the role of timbre in performing this music – are important both for composers and performers.

I couldn’t find anything on YouTube with Tony singing Carter; instead, here she is with Crumb’s first book of Madrigals:

All Saint’s Day Miscellany

– Network for New Music’s season opener is this coming Sunday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 pm at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Program includes music by Ingrid Arauco, Joseph Hallman, Louis Karchin, Thomas Kraines, Andrew Rudin, Arne Running, and Robert Schultz.

– John Harbison talks about his 2nd Symphony here.

– the Library of Congress lets you see Elliott Carter’s sketches for his Piano Sonata, among other pieces,  here.

– visit The Crooked Line to read how extraordinary a place Boston’s Emmanuel Church is, and why it is not a bad idea to have an artistic director who is also a gifted tenor. I have plans for a new Emmanuel motet, too early to let on about details.

– I have just about finished setting this poem for voice and piano, again, more details later.