Elliott Carter and American Music – A Response

November 12, 2012

“Art music in America has been like a plant, transplanted in a new place that provides a very different environment from the one in which it originally developed. In this new situation, hitherto unrealized challenges inherent in its nature began to appear, and the special challenge of trying to live and develop under new circumstances may produce a considerable mutation. The plant is sturdy, the environment strange to it, the desire for adaptation great, and the process of adaptation filled with difficulties which at times seem insurmountable and threatening to the life of the plant, yet its wish to develop is very strong.”

Jennifer Borkowski – Elliott Carter and American Music

Jennifer,

In your last post you asked me, and the readers, a number of questions surrounding American art music. Because these questions were raised in the context of Elliott Carter’s passing, I’m assuming that you’re using the term “art music” to mean music that’s made in the classical tradition and “American” as something more than a tautology. Arnold Schoenberg, for example, was an American citizen for the last decade or so of his life but I would never call his late works “American music” although I might argue that they were authentically of Los Angeles. So if I understand you correctly, I think that what you’re saying is this: that the particular modality in which Carter worked is really a European style of music but, at the same time, Carter really does come across, at least to the initiated, as a distinctly American composer. If this is your premise, then I think that what you are asking is why this is the case and how does this American character express itself. What are the American qualities of his composition? Where do they reside?

Well, I’m by no means an expert on Carter’s music and I’m not about to embark on a large research project, but I do think that at least part of the answer can be found in the particular vision and experience of America that Carter’s compositional process projects.

Because Carter was somewhat older when his career took off in earnest people often forget that he is almost exactly the same age as John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow. This is important, because Carter’s approach to writing music shares a great deal with both of these composers even if, on the surface, the style and character of Carter’s music seems to be an ill-fit.

Carter’s music, according to Paul Griffith’s obituary, centers on the “self-allotted task of increasing Western music’s rhythmic variety and freeing its form.” While that task may have been self-allotted, it certainly wasn’t unique to Carter and could equally well describe Cage or Nancarrow each of whom, like Carter, was heavily influenced by the rhythmic theories presented in Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources. Cowell –  compositional prodigy if ever there was one – was himself only about ten years older than Carter, Cage, and Nacarrow.

So in one sense, Carter’s music is American because it deals with issues and techniques that were of concern to American composers at a time when non-American composers were concerned with other issues and techniques. In another way, however, I think that the music of our homegrown Modernists is also American not only for what they wrote, but for the manner in which they wrote it. Like their  counterparts in the Second Viennese School, they used pre-compositional systems to help generate material and guide the compositional process but always with the attitude that these systems were tentative, conditional, open to revision and reinterpretation, and at all times were a solely means that were subordinate to the ultimate end of the individual work at hand. (Cage’s Music of Changes radically problematizes this assessment, but it certainly holds valid for earlier masterpieces such as the First Construction). As majestic an achievement as Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra is, for example, it really seem to be more about demonstrating the power of the twelve-tone system rather than using the twelve-tone system to write a powerful piece. In Cage, Nancarrow, and Carter, systems are made to help aid and guide the composition of a piece and are then disposed of when the piece is done. Aspects of those systems may be returned to in the future, but there is rarely a sense that a piece exists solely to provide repertoire for a compositional method.

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2 Responses to “Elliott Carter and American Music – A Response”

  1. Jennifer Borkowski Says:

    A short clarification about the premise of Carter’s music being European and then transplanted in America – those were his words, not mine. Part of my questioning leans towards composers becoming, or having long been, globalized. Carter himself had global influences, along with his American and European contemporaries, he was also influenced by Balinese and Indian music which informed his reworking of rhythm and metric modulation.

    I think what he meant by this quote was more about music’s survival in an environment that doesn’t support it – and I wonder if we are even aware of how much our culture influences what we chose to perform, program or compose.

  2. Rose Says:

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