I recently conducted a particularly thorny piece by Elliott Carter in celebration of his 100th birthday at the Library of Congress - the Double Concerto, for piano and harpsichord soloists with two orchestras. It is a work that Stravinsky referred to as the first American Masterpiece - a pretty strong statement considering it was finished in 1961 with tremendous American music preceding it!
When I first saw this proclamation I was a bit stunned, especially as a student when I looked at this work, mostly because it made no musical sense to me. I could understand its construction, which was based on musical set theory, because I had a background in advanced mathematics. But on an aural level, there was so much going on that it seemed awfully random as a listener - I couldn't digest the music and beyond, it was so spiky that I didn't find it pleasing in any way. How could Stravinsky say something like this with Copland's Third Symphony or Barber Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, et al...?
I have come over time to appreciate this music, but it has taken time. The reason is that it not only takes virtuosic players to perform it, but also virtuosic listeners of the same order to appreciate it, and for me at least, this has only come in the last few years after over 20 years of performing and teaching. Because there is so much information exploding at times in a performance of a work such as the Double Concerto, I had to study it carefully so I could hear all the lines and how they fit together at times, and competed at others. It's like reading Proust - there is amazing beauty in the detail, and pulling it all together takes tremendous effort. I came to realize that the notes themselves in Carter's complex voice, whether frenetic or calm, required great intellectual effort and ultimately emotional investment in order to enjoy the music purely as a listening experience. But this has been a journey.
Is it worth it?
For me the answer is a resounding yes. I say this because of two reasons: the first is that there is a sports-style satisfaction in being able to appreciate music of this complexity. To understand what is going on as a listener feels like an accomplishment. The second reason is purely an appreciation for both the genius of this man's voice and also the inherent beauty of sound he is able to create - something that relates to the life I've lived, the experiences I have had both positive and negative, the joys and sorrows. I hear this in his music and I find it invigorating, cathartic, ecstatic, angry, sad, hopeful, and ultimately alive. It feels like jazz - improvisatory in nature yet wonderfully organized, with a pulse that can move mountains. In other words, it has much of what I find in Beethoven for instance, or in the music of John Coltrane. I can't imagine my life without the music of both of these composers, and I now feel the same way about Elliott Carter.
I remember as a child not liking spinach for the longest time. I simply could not understand how anyone could possibly like something that slippery and yucky! Now that I'm older I love eating fresh spinach whether cooked or in a salad -my tastes changed and I looked at this food with different eyes and taste buds. In a similar way it has taken me a while to get to the point where I both understand and appreciate Carter's amazing musical voice, and I'm grateful for the gift of years that has allowed me this revelation. My hope is that you as a listener might give thorny sounding music several listenings, especially if people you trust rave about the music itself. It may never turn out to be your taste in the end, but I have a feeling that the way it expands how you listen to music in general might deepen your appreciation for sounds of all sorts and how they can move in many ways.