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Magna Carter | The Nation

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Magna Carter

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As US military involvement in Vietnam waned, the academic job market collapsed—and I decided that if I was going to be unemployed anyway, I might as well be a musician. So, in 1973, I enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. I saw Carter in passing at the premieres of his Third String Quartet, Brass Quintet, and Duo for Violin and Piano, and I purchased recordings and scores of his work as they became available. My big compositional project at the time, titled Cross-Currents, was conspicuously Carterian, with a few touches of the equally arcane Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Because the strings and percussion proceeded at different speeds in many places, the piece was scored for a large string orchestra, ten percussionists and two conductors. I was studying with John Corigliano, who was a very helpful mentor in many ways, but Cross-Currents was far from his own style and sympathies. I decided to ask Carter if he might have the time to look at it. Six weeks later, my phone rang at 7 am. It was Helen, the composer’s wife, calling to tell me that “Elliott” could see me that afternoon at 2. 

About the Author

David Schiff
David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College, is the composer of the opera Gimpel the Fool and author of books on...

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The building on West Twelfth Street felt neither grand nor, despite its Village location, bohemian; the other tenants were successful musicians and university professors. Each floor had just two apartments. The Carters lived in the west apartment on the eighth floor; its layout seemed awkward, with the living room at one end facing to the south (giving Carter an all-too-vivid view of the events of 9/11) and the dining room and kitchen at the other, with a pair of bedrooms in the middle. But the arrangement was perfect for a composer: Carter’s studio adjoined the living room, so his wife, who functioned as his live-in manager and gatekeeper, could work in the dining room without disturbing him. Except for a few pieces of art—Helen had been a sculptor—the apartment had the genteel shabbiness of academic digs.

Carter greeted me at the door and led me to his studio. He began to study my score, seated at the piano but without playing a note, and while still on the first page he said, “You can’t do that.” I would hear the same rebuke countless times during my three years of study with him at Juilliard, where he had been teaching since 1966. As a teacher, he unleashed his inner bulldog. Cross-Currents began with all of the violins playing their open G string. As Carter had done (or so I thought) in his Concerto for Orchestra, I blended this sound with percussion, beginning with a snare drum roll that I had indicated should be played softly. “You can’t do that,” Carter said, pointing to the snare drum part. “A drum roll is not just soft; it has a shape, a beginning, middle and ending. Do you want a crescendo? A swell? Every note has life in it, and as a composer you must imagine that life precisely.” In a flash, Carter had revealed me as a rank amateur, but also emphasized how I needed to listen and think to be a genuine composer. He spent the next two hours pinpointing, with uncushioned directness, all the other rough and approximate ideas in my piece that required much greater care and precision if they were to have their intended effect. By the end of the lesson, I felt (as I would after all my future lessons) like I had been pummeled by a champion prizefighter. Somehow, though, I also was exhilarated, sensing that I had found the teacher I needed. As I walked back uptown, my head was full of a surprising and un-Carterian melody, the duet between Pinkerton and Sharpless in the first act of Madama Butterfly—a celebration, fraught with irony, of male bonding and intimations of “You can’t do that.”

* * *

“Every note has life in it.” Many years later, I came to understand that Carter’s advice was a rejoinder to John Cage’s insistence that sounds were just that and nothing more. Life, Cage said ad nauseam, was a quality we mistakenly assigned to meaningless occurrences in a world that remained utterly indifferent to us. For Carter, Cage’s position was sentimental: it made life—and art—too easy. That was also his view of serialism, the twelve-tone method of Arnold Schoenberg as redefined by the postwar European avant-garde, which interpreted the compositional technique in quasi-Marxist terms as a decisive move in the dialectic of history. In a series of polemical articles written in the late 1940s, Boulez promulgated a radical serial aesthetics and lashed out at the unseemly compromises of his elders, including his teacher at the Paris Conservatory, Olivier Messiaen, Carter’s exact contemporary. Boulez proclaimed that any musician who did not understand the historical necessity of serialism was “useless.”

In the 1950s, the techniques of serialism and systematic indeterminacy seemed to reflect a fundamental change in human consciousness in the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. These events appeared to negate humanism, and many avant composers, including Cage, Boulez, Xenakis and Stockhausen, reacted to them by dehumanizing their music, composing by algorithm or chance operations. In his Music of Changes of 1951, Cage used divination methods from the Chinese I Ching to select notes rather than rely on his own taste or instincts; in the first book of Structures, written the same year, Boulez assigned an equally depersonalizing role to the twelve-tone row itself. Similar tactics, employed most powerfully in Xenakis’s Pithoprakta and in the harrowing cantata Il Canto Sospeso by Luigi Nono, treated the historical force underlying modern atrocities as somehow statistical, the product of manic, absurd mechanisms, as if humans had not planned and executed them.

Carter’s music sprang from the same history but recoiled from the absurd. Although he had closely studied the music of the Schoenberg school and the later European vanguard, Carter never composed a serial piece. He derived his atonal techniques from the music of American “ultramodernists” like Ives, Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford—composers Boulez either did not yet know or had dismissed as barely deserving of mention in the same breath as the lowly Henze. Boulez’s close encounter in the early 1950s with American ultramodernism in the person of John Cage had turned what was a close friendship into a mutual disengagement, as their published correspondence revealed.

Two decades later, during that memorable week in Cleveland, Boulez was respectful and cool toward Carter. Fluent in French from early childhood, Carter had known Boulez since the 1950s and was present at the premiere of his colleague’s most famous piece, Le marteau sans maître. Yet at a dinner with Carter in Cleveland to which I had been invited, Boulez seemed preoccupied and distant. During rehearsals, I never heard him praise Carter’s music either to the composer or, more important, to the orchestra. No one ever accused Boulez of being overly effusive, but I think his reserve was political (or at least pseudo-political), not personal. Carter’s music did not conform to Boulez’s historical scheme. But then Carter, and his music, rose above scheming. No matter how complicated they might appear, his notes always had life, sentient and with the potential for pathos and humor, resistance and survival. Yes, it turns out you can do that.

Classical music in the age of recording is the subject of Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bachreviewed here recently by Michael O’Donnell (Jan. 21).

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