On the death of Elliott Carter


In truly expressive and great music, the gestures of the textures relate to the order of the notes in a way which creates the strong impression of energy going from note to note; also in quiet episodes, the notes relate to each other to form a network of connections, creating a ‘virtual space’ within the musical work, which defines its own context. In such music, all notes relate to a central tone, present or hinted at, like the lines in a figurative painting refer to the vanishing point of the perspective system, similarly creating a ‘virtual space’. The perspective created on a flat surface of a painting is something we can see ‘into’ the surface; we see with imagination, recognizing the signals as given by the artist’s imagination. In the same way, we hear ‘into’ the material surface of pure sound the tonal perspective of the inner space of music.

In the work of people like Carter, Boulez, Xenakis et al, in spite of occasional tone groupings where the notes suggest, for an isolated moment, a slight relation to each other, the composer has done everything to avoid the appearance of this inner, tonal space, through over-complexity, irregular rhythms and metrum, extremes of sound and colour, absence of narrative and closure, etc. etc. and especially the avoidance of audible relations between notes. What remains is the material surface of sound, and however ingenious this surface may be organized, a whole dimension is absent. But only in this dimension of inner space, the experience of ‘expression’ – in a musical sense – is possible. Any ‘expression’ mentioned in relation to Carter’s work, stops at the flat surface of sound. Mere gestures on the sonic level are different from the intrinsic quality of musical expression, and it is this what audiences, developed on music with an inner  space, miss in this atonal music. The capacity to create an inner space which is part of the listening experience, i.e. which is directly audible, is the fundament of Western music, present from its earliest beginnings. It can be argued that music, which does not want to create this inner space, is another art form altogether: sonic art. This art form requires a fundamentally different listening attitude (one should not expect musical expression) and a different cultural context (one should relate sonic art to the imagery of 20C utopia).

Audiences’ incomprehension of music like Carter’s and Boulez’ can thus be interpreted as not being ‘conservative’ but as an objection to the intrusion by another art form into the context of a music performance. For anybody with some intelligence and musical experience this should be obvious.

Gestures with unrelated notes are comparable to the gestures of throwing confetti at weddings….  They are imitations of musical gestures which are related to the inner connections of the intervals. Carter – who wanted to celebrate what he considered ‘modern life’ (Manhattan at rush hour?) – belonged to postwar utopian ideology, when sonic art was born. Let it not be confused with musical culture.

John Borstlap / 2013

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