When the comments are more interesting than the blog
Tom Service's "On Classical" blog for England's Guardian newspaper continued its "contemporary music guide" series yesterday with a brief consideration of eminent American composer Elliott Carter (pictured above). Still active in his 104th (!) year, Carter has, in the last six decades or so, composed some of the mostly intelligently-designed, carefully-plotted and, to many, utterly incomprehensible music ever. He has many devoted followers among musicians and critics, numerous detractors, and to judge from what I deal with below, some folks who'd like to like his and other modernist music, but need help. Kudos then to the Guardian, whatever you think of the rest of the paper, for devoting so much space to classical music, and kudos to Service for his systematic, if sometimes simplistic (like I should criticize!), examination of the complex, contentious world of modern classical.
How contentious? Just read the comments to the Carter blog. First off, "Xavier52" delivers this shot:
I (find) almost no beauty, mystery, nobility, spirituality or elegance within his music. It also seems to me that many people in our cultural climate pretend to an enthusiasm in his music that they don’t actually feel.
Not so, says "domfloyd":
Just because you don't like something, doesn't mean that everyone else who does is just pretending.
Fortunately, it's not all attack and counterattack. The sensible "WillDuff," for instance, nicely articulates the dilemma many listeners face with Carter and other ultra-complex musical modernism:
I hear your pain. I've tried, tried, been utterly bewildered, tried some more and ultimately failed too (I'm talking about Carter and others like Carter).
However, I think some people - not many, it's true - actually like this stuff, find it rewarding and want to share it. They've somehow found a way into it. What's the trick, Tom (and please don't say that we just need to listen more and listen better)? How do we listen to music that dispenses with all the things which western music takes for granted and listeners use to orientate themselves?
To which our friend "WillDuff" later adds this extremely salient point:
I've been to Carter premieres (UK premieres) and it's certainly the case that, as with most modernist music, the live experience is vastly better than trying to grasp this stuff on record. There's something about the visceral immediacy of being close to the poor players struggling with this new and difficult music that makes it exciting and the time pass faster.
But the 'open my mind' point is exactly the problem: it doesn't work with all people, and surely highly complex music should not be encountered with a blank brain but with one which is trying to make sense of it. Otherwise it's simply an aural experience, not a musical one.
The discussion then goes on (and may still be going on as you read) to touch on tonality, teleology, and the theory of relativity, and to name-check a cast of cultural icons ranging from Samuel Beckett to Smokey Robinson. Not a bad discussion as these things go; besides, a contentious debate over an art form is a good sign of the art form's relevance. But let's get back to the three commenters I quoted above. They strike me both as archetypes of the classical music style wars, and as avatars of eternal, internally-warring aspects of all of us culture mavens. I mean, haven't you sometimes been a "Xavier52," totally rejecting some kind of art form, and questioning the sincerity of those who espouse it? I know I have. Then, hasn't the shoe been on the other foot, and you've gotten all "domfloyd" when someone disparages something you like? Me too. Finally, isn't there a lot of "WillDuff" in all of us, as we search ceaselessly for the skeleton key to unlock the pleasures of something we sense could be really cool — if only we gave it one more try? Sounds to me like exactly the thing that makes our lifelong explorations of music and the other arts so much fun.