Carter's New Classicism

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Some listeners have detected a new classicism in Elliott Carter's recent works or even a revival of the neo-classicism of his early music.1 Unless I am missing something, I do not think they are referring to any of the stylistic allusions to eighteenth-century music which we associate with neo-classicism—Carter's recent works sound as resolutely modernist as ever. And yet the neo-classic episode of musical modernism was but one version of a continuing dialogue between the modern and the classical which underlies much twentieth-century music, including Carter's. The word classic is probably the second most abused term in the vocabulary of musical history and aesthetics (the first being—of course—romantic). Is the term classic still useful as an aesthetic category—or is it just an expression of critical sloth? Is classicism inevitably antagonistic to modernism, or is it an inherent component of the modernist enterprise? Too often the application of these terms to musical aesthetics has been limited to narrow technical considerations of tonality or sonata form or, in the case of modernism, some specific compositional technique which the writer empowers with historical inevitability. In the hope of freshening up this dialogue I will begin by introducing Roland Barthes's notions of the modern text and the classic text. I will first show how well Barthes's definition of the modern text illuminates Carter's particular form of modernism, and then go on to show how Carter's music exposes the limitations of Barthes's interpretation of modernism. Finally, I will discuss how Carter's recent works reformulate the relationship between the modern and the classic.

In S/Z2 Barthes contrasts the classic text with the modern text. The classic text—Barthes speaks here of nineteenth-century realistic fiction—is characterized by authority, mono-directionality, resolution; it is "closed" and its closure ensures the creation of what Barthes terms the "readerly text" in which the reader comfortably assumes that a work of fiction is presenting the world as it actually is. The classic text makes a hidden, coded claim of naturalness, of total, authoritative representation. The modern text by contrast is ambivalent, multi-directional, and "open" or—as Barthes says—"plural." It is bounded not by resolution but by suspension; it makes no claim to naturalness but stresses the arbitrary relations of its signs. Where the classic text creates an illusion of presence, the modern text proclaims its basis in difference. The modern text demands the creation by the active reader of what Barthes calls the "writerly text." Because of its gaps and aporia it requires that the reader be "no longer a consumer but a producer of the text."

Barthes, who liked to use musical metaphors, says that the classic text is the tonal text (p. 30) and he points out that the classic/tonal text is limited by two factors: its claim to reveal truth through resolution and its coordination of action. The classic text is thus spatially—harmonically—tonal, and also temporally—rhythmically—tonal. Reversing the comparison we might say that the classic tonal musical text—by which I mean nineteenth-century tonal music—is mono-directional in two ways: spatially, since all harmonies are defined from the bass up; and temporally, since all pitches are ordered in terms of resolution, fixing them in a linear sequence. Rhythm in this music serves to coordinate these two directional vectors. So far I am just restating the commonplaces of music theory. What Barthes helps us to see, however, is that these limits on plurality are not structures but codes by which the music establishes its claim to the natural—in other words the language of tonal music masks, and at the same time advances, an ideology. If the classic literary text lays claim to a natural presentation of the real world, the classic musical text presents itself as a natural event, an absolute presence, a universal sign derived from physical laws. Forms of musical analysis which privilege the hierarchies and "deep structures" of classic musical texts, and affirm the illusion the music makes of inevitability, do not elucidate the workings of this music but merely propogate its mythology.3

If we accept Barthes's claim that the classic text limits its plurality by making space and time appear unified and continuous, the strategies of Carter's music can be seen as means of exploding these illusions. From the Second Quartet onward Carter has fractured musical space through a rigorous stratification of harmonic, rhythmic, and expressive elements. This fundamental dissociation turns the musical text into an open, unanswerable question. Carter's mature music is atonal, which is to say that its harmonies are based on non-sequential relationships of difference rather than on the temporally related typologies of dissonance and consonance. Carter's practice assumes that harmonic units maintain their identity when inverted and are thus both spatially and temporally polydirectional. (I speak here of the equivalency of inverted—upside-down—harmonic structures in Carter's music, not of the equivalency of interval inversion, as in serial practice, or the traditional notions of chordal inversion, both of which he rejects. Carter treats major and minor triads in vol29id652 position as equivalent but distinguishes them absolutely from their vol29id652 and vol29id652 positions.) Similarly Carter's polyphony emphasizes difference rather than connection or sequence. There is never any imitative counterpoint—except when it is essentially inaudible or when such a texture is warped by the differences between elements (as in the Andante espressivo of the Second Quartet). Carter fractures his music temporally by the systematic non-coincidence of pulses, both at the fast end of the tempo spectrum and at the very slow end. His method inverts the coordinating system of tonal music where fast values are made to conform to larger and larger patterns of rhythmic control, each level comfortably nested within the next. Carter renders musical continuity "plural" through disjunction and blurring. He has said that he wants his music to appear at once motivated and unmotivated—the better to expose the conventions of both organic and architectonic models of musical continuity. The music at times jumps from one idea to another, at others it obscures the boundaries of different events. The clearest example of both strategies is the Third Quartet, which superimposes two disjunct sequences to create a paradoxically discontinuous continuity. Carter rids each work's temporal boundaries of their classic narrative functions: pieces do not begin with a privileged thematic statement, and generally end with either a fading dissolution or an implied return to the opening—never a resolution.

An examination of Carter's sketches reveals that he has honed these techniques of modernist disjunction through exhaustive calculation. All musical materials are subjected to a ruthless analysis and are splintered through acts of calculated imaginative violence. He reveals in these procedures an adherence to the constructivist legacy of Henry Cowell and Joseph Schillinger,4 but the rational deployment of materials is more than a personal quirk—it is fundamental to the modernist enterprise. Musical materials cannot be rendered "open" unless they are themselves laid bare surgically. Carter's avoidance of electronics may give an impression of technological conservatism, but the constructivist manipulation of materials creates a technological ambience which ably defines the poetic realm of his music. The expressive result of this objectification of materials is paradoxical, for the rationality of treatment permits the music to create the illusion of free flight—a gesture that occurs throughout Carter's music in its frequent scorrevole and volando passages. Ever since the futurists, mechanical flight has been the central metaphor of modernism—just as organicism and evolution were the central metaphors of nineteenth-century music.5 Mechanical flight is at once rational and miraculous, defying nature by exploiting its laws. The organic conceit of nineteenth-century music demanded a connection between all elements, leading to the Dionysian model of musical experience wherein the listener and the music fuse. Modernism, by contrast, has created a sense of exhilarating speed and liberating distance by an alienation between creator and material which is mirrored in a critical distance between listener and music. The modern text demands a reader, or listener, as fully conscious and analytically ruthless as its creator—hence Barthes's "writerly" reader.

The modernist tactics of spatial, temporal, and formal differentiation are fundamental to Carter's style—they appear in every piece and produce the ambivalences and instabilities of the modern text as Barthes defines it. Barthes's typology of the modern helps to demonstrate the essential similarity of Carter's musical aesthetic to that of other modernists such as Berio and Stockhausen—whose techniques, media, and personal styles appear so very different—and also helps in locating aesthetic, rather than merely technical, differences. Carter's approach to modernity is distinctive in being at once abstract and figurative, avoiding stylistic quotation and literalism. Unlike Ives, Berg, and Stravinsky—Carter's closest musical forbears—Carter manifests difference abstractly rather than by contrasting familiar musical styles; he is notorious for his opposition to musical quotations. And yet the stylistic Babel of Putnam's Camp, Oedipus Rex, and Lulu leaves its trace in Carter's music in the form of expressive characters, for every note in a Carter composition is part of an expressive gesture—agitato, appassionato, ruvido.

Though his treatment of sonority is both original and refined, Carter shows little interest in "pure sound" and would probably deny the existence of any such thing. Music is not "sound" but signs made out of sounds; musical abstraction does not abolish connotation, but destabilizes and restructures the codes and forms which habitually order musical expression. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the word abstract has two antithetical meanings: the first denotes a drawing out from a source and thus derivation and extraction, while the second denotes a separation and removal. Thus for some, abstraction in music or art is equivalent to a total break with expression or representation in the direction of pure sound or pure form. Such an idealistic notion of abstraction—advocated in the visual arts by Clement Greenberg,6 in music by both Cage and Babbit7—often collapses into literalism: a beep still sounds like a beep, pure sound as mere sound. Carter, however, derives abstraction from the vernacular of Western music: he places the expressive signs of this language in the stratified hall of mirrors of his polyphony, where they are at once liberated and subverted. As Barthes says in his Essais critiques, the modernist task is not to express the unexpressible but "to unexpress the expressible," by rendering familiar meanings problematic.8

In his approach to abstraction Carter parts company with other composers by creating the plurality of his modern text figuratively rather than literally. The music presents musical images of discontinuity, not the raw data of literal randomness. Richard Hennessy, criticizing Frank Stella's black paintings, writes that "flatness cannot be produced by the simpleminded expedient of using flat forms. Flatness has to be depicted."9 Carter's music seems open because it depicts openness, not because it provides actual escape hatches, or do-it-yourself alternatives for the performers, simpleminded expedients which in no way guarantee an openness of the resultant musical text. Carter's gestural language is not just a stylistic mannerism—for literalism implies a state of presence or naturalness that Carter denies by his insistence that all music is artificial, arbitrary gesture. A "pure sound" is a conventional sign for the idea of a pure sound, a "random event" will only sound so if it corresponds to our convention of what randomness should sound like. Indeed Carter goes further—and in a way that brings him very close to Wallace Stevens. Reacting to a Dutch television program which bracketed him with John Cage under the rubric of disorder, Carter told me that it was meaningless to talk of disorder, because if disorder truly existed we would not recognize it, since the mind would transform it into some version of order.

So far Barthes's idea of the modern text seems to correspond nearly with Carter's practice, but there are tensions between the two. If we take a step back from Barthes's categories, they may look like a pair of loaded dice—indeed Barthes's original distinction was part of a polemical attack, in Writing Degree Zero (1953), on both the classical literary establishment and the Marxist anti-modernism of Sartre.10 The classic text seems to have tyrannical powers over its reader, while the modern text is, it sometimes seems, infinitely plural, a polymorphous utopia. And yet, as Jonathan Culler has pointed out, Barthes's dazzling reading of Balzac reveals the plurality of the very text which he uses to typify the classical. The style of Barthes's writing, moreover, with its broken continuity and scientific terminology, is almost a parody of modernism. The models for his "writerly texts" are the actual texts of literary modernism since Mallarm√©, yet these works are generalized and declawed by the idea of an infinite plural. Barthes's notion of the modern is perhaps best seen as a way of catching up with modernism; because his "writerly text" mimics the modern text it cannot be used to explicate it (indeed Barthes seems most at home discussing Balzac or Schumann). For if the plurality of a text is already explicit there is no need to expose it (except, perhaps to those who reject the very notion of plurality). The classic text is far more open than Barthes seems to want it to be, and the modern text is more specific—and more interesting—than he is willing to admit. As writerly readers of Barthes's criticism we are obliged to fill in the gap between his polar categories.

Missing from Barthes's account are the ideas of order which actual modernist text—literary or musical—create out of their very plurality. Ulysses and Lulu epitomize the modernist enterprise because they counterbalance a pervasive fragmentation with an obsessive demand for organization. Carter's music when looked at more closely demonstrates the interconnection of plurality and order. The music is stratified and yet harmonic—the vertical relations between separate strata are not accidental but articulate coherent relationships. Similarly the apparent non-coincidence of the rhythms is in fact the result of an elaborate pattern of coincidence which places events in different strata in a far more precise temporal grid than is found in tonal music. Carter's forms, whatever the appearance they may give of disorder, are in fact far more rigorous than those of much tonal music, since every note is both thematic and harmonic. The disruption of monodirectional musical time and musical space does not lead in Carter's music to an anarchic indifference to the materials (Cage), or a reduction of "time" to interchangeable "moments" (Stockhausen), or a posture of aesthetic negation (Adorno), but instead permits the imaginative re-ordering of both dimensions. Carter's most widely admired achievement, in what he has termed "the emancipation of musical discourse," has been in re-imagining the musical representation of time. At first the music seems temporally disjunct, yet in each work a complex temporal order underlies the apparent disarray—and by complex temporal order I mean not just the structural polyrhythms of Carter's recent works but their entire repertory of structuration. For Carter every difference is also a connection; every disjunction creates a new continuity. Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) is a novel whose meaning is obvious but whose plot is ingeniously hidden—the reverse of the classic novel. I would propose that the proper hermeneutics of the modern text—whether literary or musical—must discover the very order which the text appears to deny, for only then will the specific strategies of its apparent disorder become clear. And it is within this idea of order that the classic—the "supreme fiction" in which synthesis transcends analysis—may be said to reside.

Let us turn now to the four large instrumental works Carter has composed in the 1980s: Triple Duo, Penthode, String Quartet No.4, and the Oboe Concerto. Each of these works explores the relationship between the givens of the modern text and an imagined transcendence of the conditions of modernism in the direction of what might be termed a post-modern classicism—if, and only if, we mean a classicism which has absorbed modernism, not an anti-modern restoration. All four works are concerned with what Carter terms states of connectedness, but they all present disjunct configurations which are maintained with utter rigor. In each work the music is divided into strata: two in the Oboe Concerto, three in Triple Duo, four in the Fourth Quartet, and five in Penthode. The strata are defined by a division of harmonic materials and also by a rhythmic differentiation generated by structural polyrhythms; and there is a pronounced contrast of dramatic characters. All four compositions are about twenty minutes long and are played without interruption, yet they are very different in their formal strategies—in their plots, if you will—and it is here that the unique idea of order for each work may be found.

Two of the works can be heard as intentional correctives to Carter's earlier music: the Fourth Quartet restates the format of the Second Quartet while the Oboe Concerto recalls the dialectical design of the Piano Concerto. These returns are significant, for the Second Quartet established the disjunct textural premise for all Carter's later music, and the first movement of the Piano Concerto was Carter's first use of double collage continuity—the simultaneous unfolding of two distinct formal patterns. So in returning to these pieces Carter is testing—and revising—his archetypes. In most of the works that followed the Second Quartet, the new stratified texture was used to heighten the alienation of protagonists, the sense that they were playing different pieces at the same time without mediation. This disconnected state often implied a Beckett-like comic despair or a tragic opposition, particularly in the Piano Concerto. Paradoxically, however, the moments of fusion in these works are violent—I am thinking of the cataclysmic collisions of the Second Quartet, Piano Concerto, Third Quartet, the Duo for Violin and Piano, and most dramatically of all, the conclusion of A Symphony of Three Orchestras—where the sounding together of the three orchestras appears as a series of thunderclaps followed by a vision of mechanized brutality. In these works, then, disjunction was not only presented, it was privileged; the diversity of elements became an emblem of freedom while their convergence appeared as a form of tyranny.

The recent works reverse this relationship of disjunction and order by making the possibility of connection both explicit and desirable—if never entirely attainable. Triple Duo (1983) seems at first to be an extended version of the Third Quartet, which was a double duo. But the mood of the piece is unexpectedly giddy—it begins with Carter's broadest joke (similar to the opening of Prokofiev's 1921 ballet, Chout), and its formal design seems to shift abruptly about three quarters of the way through from a rapidly shifting collage of episodes to an extended sustained continuity. At first the three duos are sharply contrasted—almost to the point of caricature. The winds gurgle and shriek, the strings scratch and pluck, the piano and percussion go bang bang bang. The music unfolds as a chain of brief episodes, but while each duo maintains its thematic unity with absolute rigor the music does not superimpose their contrasts without mediation in a three-tiered montage; rather each episode appears as a singular conjunction in which the material of one of the duos is amplified, inflected, or ignored by the others. Although the episodic structure of the piece at first seems anarchic, repeated hearings reveal an unexpected classical design which possibly orders the fragments. The piece begins with a rapid toccata dominated by the piano, a texture which recurs in shorter and shorter bursts throughout the first half. Opposed to the toccata is a sustained slow movement, which reappears throughout the first three-fourths of the piece in winds and strings. Winds and strings also have scherzando material—the strings in the first half of the piece, the winds in the second. These three fractured movement types—toccata, adagio, scherzando—bring to the fore the shaping elements of texture, harmony, and rhythm, respectively. Passionate melody is proposed early in the piece by the violin, but is only fully elaborated in the last quarter of the work, a seamless finale in which all six players create a continuous melodic line in the manner of Schoenberg's obbligato recitative. The main formal strategy of the music, therefore, is its suppression—and then release—of lyricism, and this delayed melodic outburst brings with it the consummate gesture of connection between the three duos and also completes a four-movement classical design—Toccata, Adagio, Scherzando, Finale—in which the first three have been modernistically scrambled. This design is not a restoration of the classical norm, but a meditation on the possibility of an order that will transcend difference. This "classic form" is not a form but a mirage, an emblem standing in its place, calling attention to its absence. Even the final gesture of the piece raises this ambiguity; the structural polyrhythm leads to a convergence of all three duos on a grand cadential chord, but the music continues beyond the point of convergence to a typical Carterian dissolution, thereby placing the cadence in quotation marks.

Penthode for five groups of four instruments (1985) begins where Triple Duo ended—with the unfolding of a continuous melodic line which moves from one instrument to another—but the mood is different, the music calm, almost motionless, and the sequence of instrumental voices seems as oddly arbitrary as the makeup of the five quarters into which the ensemble has been dismantled. The music sounds unpredictable and at times chaotic, particularly in the middle of the piece which cross-cuts two sequences of episodes, one for the five "artificial" quartets, the other for the four quintets of "natural" instrumental families. But instead of generating an infinite expansion of disorder, the music clearly articulates a three-part structure and the third part is a variant of the first. Out of all its apparent fragmentation the music evokes the most classical of classical forms, the aria da capo. This formal archetype "explains" the melodic emphasis of the entire work and supports its extraordinary cadential gesture, a parody of an operatic cadenza which runs from the lowest notes of the contrabass clarinet to the highest of the piccolo. The broken consort thus fuses in a single voice—at once triumphantly and ironically—for the "voice" itself is still broken and the gesture is deliberately incongruous. At every point the music creates paradoxical and reversible relations of the modern and the classic.

The Fourth Quartet (1986) goes even further in its play with classical archetypes, for it is the only one of Carter's quartets that presents the four classical movements without the strategy of a counterform—such as the three-part design of the First Quartet, or the interpolated cadenzas of the Second. Although the four movements are played without a break, their boundaries are clearly marked and the blurring of boundaries by overlap—a common occurrence in the other quartets—now appears as a kind of comic insistence, as when the first violin tries to prolong the first movement into the second by clinging to its final chord. As in the Second Quartet, however, the four instrumental parts are presented as four distinct characters (dramatic, giocoso, cantabile, capriccioso). Their separation is defined with even greater rigor, however, for no new thematic ideas are introduced as the work progresses and a four-part structural polyrhythm coordinates rhythmic contrast and also defines the work's length. Thus poised between an evident willingness to entertain classical structure and a persistently, even fanatically modernist disjunction of the four players, the quartet explores a series of possible textural connections—and in doing so recapitulates "abstractly" the evolution of the classical quartet. The first movement alludes to the early classical quartet, for here the first violin is the principal voice, giving out a long florid oration to which the other instruments defer. The repression of the "accompanists" is made explicit when they burst through the violin's rhetorical silences with their own material. In the scherzando that follows the texture changes to freely imitative counterpoint, like high classical Haydn, except that the players cannot escape their own vocabularies of intervals and rhythms. The motives proposed by the viola are thus subjected to a distorted echo chamber which reconfirms and denies the original. In the slow movement Carter returns to the late-Beethoven-like stillness of the First Quartet's Adagio, again with a double-duo texture, but here the pairings constantly change, implying a weaving together of differences rather than an impasse. The four finally converge on an eight-note cluster, emblem of simultaneous resolution and tension. The music then explodes into a Presto which moves from the obbligato recitative gesture of Triple Duo and Penthode to a climactic duet for first violin and cello with a passionate accompaniment in second violin and viola—an almost Schubertian texture—and then suddenly breaks off. There follows a mysterious coda which alternates aggressively jabbing chords with sustained tranquil harmonies, the two polar gestures separated by long silences. This extravagant gesture places the everchanging relationships of the quartet in a new light. As discord and concord are contrasted with an encroaching silence, their differences diminish; in the presence of their negation both are music.

In the Oboe Concerto (1987) Carter returns to the format of the Piano Concerto. Again there are two ensembles—the oboe is guarded by a quartet of violas and a percussionist—each with its own material. But while the Piano Concerto was a tragic work where the sensitive individual was nearly extinguished by the violence of the orchestral mob, the Oboe Concerto inverts the relationship; the soloist is not a victim but a blithe spirit, bringer of hope. The contrast is made clear from the very opening where the orchestra begins with the muffled sounds of a slow dirge, and the oboe descends from a high A in a peaceful, long-phrased song. Throughout the work the oboe is the spirit of lightness—mercurial, playful, thoughtful, and precise—while the orchestra is the bearer of heaviness: somber, agitated, and anxious. Carter has pointed out the following text from Calvino which he discovered after the work was composed, but which he feels expresses its spirit: "Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millenium I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving, and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for old cars."11 In the Oboe Concerto the soloist inspires the mass to rise from its auto-graveyard of heaviness; the music of the large orchestra slowly evolves from a pesante opening to a jazzy scherzando. The freedom the soloist represents is the imaginative freedom of modernism; its power to transform reality derives from the form-creating impulse which I would term "classic."


1Andrew Clements, "The Year of the Symphony Rather Than the Soloist," Financial Times, 7 January 1988.

2Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York, 1974). For an excellent introduction to Barthes's ideas, see Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes (New York, 1983).

3Patrick McCreless's attempt to harness Barthes to Schenker (In Theory Only 10: 1-29) neatly (if unintentionally) illustrates their incompatibility. Schenkerian theory depends on notions of hierarchy extending from the chosen canon to the analytic techniques used to authorize that canon, but these are fundamentally rejected by Barthes. As Barthes shows in S/Z, the whole notion of "depth" (on which Schenkerian theory is premised) is a typical code of the classic text. The use of this notion to validate the authority of the text by revealing its "deep structures" is thus tautalogical, since the concept of depth itself is the source of the claim.

4See Elliott Carter, "Fallacy of the Mechanistic Approach," Modern Music 23:3 (Summer 1946); and Allen Edwards, Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: a Conversation with Elliott Carter (New York, 1971), 91.

5Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 242-47.

6Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston, 1962).

7Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World (New York, 1984), 523, 530.

8Culler, Barthes, 57.

9Richard Hennessy, "The Man Who Forgot How to Paint," Art in America (Summer 1984).

10Culler, Barthes, 30.

11Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 12.

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