It is impossible to become jaded about the breadth and depth of American music. Within a few days of each other we recently lost as unlikely a pair as can be imagined, Ted Curson and Elliott Carter.
Curson will always be associated with one of the peaks of jazz, the Charles Mingus group with Eric Dolphy and Dannie Richmond in 1960. Live at Antibes is a sensational document with Booker Ervin and a guest appearance by Bud Powell. The studio session Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus is even better, a stone classic that should automatically be in the collection of anyone with an interest in American music.
Perhaps Curson is not who comes to mind first when thinking of Presents Charles Mingus. The yowling duo of Dolphy and Mingus over the rattling traps of Richmond is what makes this record essential -- not to mention the literal yowling, Mingus and Richmond carousing about racist senator Orville Faubus on “Fables of Faubus.”
Still, it is only a quartet, so Curson has a lot of responsibility. When I heard about his passing, I set out to transcribe Curson’s splendid blues choruses on “Folk Forms, No. 1” but Dave Fink (AKA Jazz Capacitor) beat me to it. He even took down Mingus and Dolphy, too. Check it out.
One of the things Curson has is time: jazz time, that most elusive of magical musical properties. Curson is holding the rest of the band together in places. Dolphy’s time is powerful too, and this track shows how strong horns can lay it down for a comparatively undisciplined rhythm section.
Curson doesn’t need to be verbose lick-spinner next to the rhapsodic Dolphy, he just needs to play good blues trumpet. Dolphy clearly respects Curson, and lays in a nice simple blues backing for Curson when needed. They are a great combination. Again, the powerful groove of this track emanates from the horns, especially since the rhythm section (which already has a wild and woolly beat during the most conventional of moments) stops and starts, doubles up, triples up, backs off, trades, and generally creates as much mayhem as possible.
I suspect that this mayhem, which is almost “serialized” in its diversity, was a kind of serve to Gunther Schuller’s then-rampant idea of Third Stream, the combining of jazz with modernist classical music. Along with John Lewis, Dolphy and to a lesser extent Ornette Coleman, Mingus is considered one of the canonical black Third Stream artists. None of the black cats fit the Third Stream label as well as their white contemporaries, though. Lewis never bought atonality, Coleman just played his beauty next to whatever happened alongside him, and Dolphy died just as he began writing twelve-tone music. (Still, one might argue that Out to Lunch is the apotheosis of classic Third Stream.)
Although the Schuller-produced Mingus tracks are some of that genre’s best, Mingus never really bought atonality, either. More importantly, Mingus only flirted with the European model of writing out hard charts that were disconnected to the blues. He mostly sang his parts to the band and only hired musicians that could also play in a black R ‘n B juke joint. (Even if some of those musicians were white, they could have made that juke joint gig.) His longest big-band experiments were communal, player-specific events that have little in common with anything by Schuller or another classical composer.
The title of “Folk Forms, No. 1” is loaded. Remember folk music! Fine, we need to grow, so Dannie and I will break it up in ways that’ll spin your head and I’ll give ya that dumbass pretentious “abstract” numbering in the title, but: Remember folk music.
Across the galaxy, another cherished LP is from just about the same vintage as “Folk Forms, No. 1”: Beveridge Webster’s Modern American Piano Music. Webster (Wikipedia) was never a big name but he was serious virtuoso who did more than most of his contemporaries for new music. This stunning recital has the first recording of the Carter Piano Sonata. If you’ve never heard Carter, this early piece is a good place to start. (YouTube.) It takes the “Americana” harmony pioneered by Copland (represented on the Webster disc by his best piano piece, the Piano Variations) and puts it through a kaleidoscope of rhythmic discontinuity and instrumental virtuosity.
The first movement of the Sonata has bar lines but no time signatures, a rarity at the time of composition, 1946. Rhythm would go on to be perhaps Carter’s most noted innovation. His mature works often have exceptionally complicated polyrhythms in the background, like 25:21 in the song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell. However, the listener (or performer) can’t perceive those polyrhythms in action, the flow is too discontinuous. One of the few places the “big” rhythm becomes a bit more obvious is in the late piano piece “90+,” written when the composer was 90, featuring 90 half-staccato, half-held “plunks” marking a slow steady beat in the midst of his normal broken-up keyboard texture. (The night after Carter passed, I imitated the plunks of “90+” during the intro to “Guilty” with The Bad Plus at Duc du Lombards in Paris. After the set, an audience member came up and said, “Were you thinking of Elliott Carter in the solo piano section?” Thank you!)
Probably the main interpretive problem in Carter is deciding what to do with his insanely complicated rhythm. Every few years I look at Night Fantasies again, and just recently compared recordings Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen. The big polyrhythm in Night Fantasies is a real show-stopper, 216:175! As far as I can tell, Aimard and Oppens nail the rhythms like the metronome is beating right next to them. Rosen doesn’t.
But Rosen -- to me at this moment, anyway -- is the most satisfying. The “older,” non-metronomic rhythm gives this most recondite of piano works a shade more atmosphere and a grainer feel. After all, Carter name-checks the fantastical Robert Schumann in the introductory notes...
...Look at that, I just did something which I find intellectually lazy, comparing mature Carter to Schumann. Even worse were the obits that said Carter was “humorous” like Haydn. But Haydn, Schumann, and Carter are not in the same tradition! Haydn and Schumann are open to the public, Carter is a hermetically-sealed world. Of course, as long as they’ve been around, a composer’s job has been to transmute folk music into more internal realms. But Schumann and especially Haydn were completely obvious about their folk influences. Carter is as close to the denial of folk music as you can find.
A few years ago, the ever-honest Kyle Gann posted in detail about Carter.
...All through college and grad school I avidly followed every new Carter premiere, bought his scores and recordings, listened dozens of times, analyzed what I could. Then, one day in the early 1980s, I was listening to the Double Concerto with the score again for what was at least my 50th time. And the thought popped into my head: “I’ve studied this piece and studied it for over ten years, and I don’t give a damn if I ever hear it again.” I closed the score, and never listened to the piece closely again until I wrote my American music book in 1995. In a way, what drove me away from the music was its unmemorability. There’s a tremendous pleasure in becoming familiar with something as mammoth, dense, and complex as the “Concord” Sonata, and learning to love every skewed little harmonic implication. But while I had the general overall plan of the Double Concerto in my head, and could anticipate the climaxes and piano and harpsichord cadenzas, the vast majority of the pitch complexes just never imprinted themselves on my memory... Though by then fond of Ives, Stravinsky, Cage, Stockhausen, and even Babbitt’s wonderful Philomel, I had failed to develop the slightest affection for the Carter Double Concerto after dozens, maybe hundreds of listenings. And it wasn’t just listening. In the ’70s every young composer analyzed Carter’s Second String Quartet, and I was no exception. I started with loads of enthusiasm, but increasingly found the ideas unmusical: especially that the tritones were all in the viola, the perfect fifths all in the second violin (or whatever – I disremember the details), which isn’t something one can hear in a polyphonic texture. It’s a stupid idea, really. And as fanatical as I am about tempo contrasts, Carter’s seemed mechanical and musically unmotivated. I came to think that Carter had invested a lot of time in overly literal aspects of music that didn’t appeal to the ear. As I’m always reminding my students, art isn’t about reality, it’s about appearances. And yet, I never turned against all of Carter’s music. I’ve always been fond of his Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (which I plan to analyze for class in my next Advanced Analysis Seminar at Bard), and also like his First String Quartet, Piano Sonata, and Cello Sonata. These transitional works he wrote between 1948 and 1952 seem poised exquisitely between his neoclassic period and complex atonalism, and for a few years there I thought he perfectly cross-hatched the near-tonality of his Boulanger years with the intervallic precision of serialist technique. But then he visited Darmstadt and started one-upping the Europeans, apparently, and from the orchestral Variations of 1955 on I find his music lacking in personality. So it’s true I don’t like most of Carter’s music because it isn’t memorable, but simplicity is not the only key to memorability. The F,O,C,&H Quartet is not necessarily simpler than the Carter Piano Concerto, but its pitch choices seem much more meaningful, not nearly so bland and randomly scattered.
I can’t completely agree with Gann here, I will keep being inspired by mature Carter. But there’s no point in pretending that Carter isn't essentially unlistenable to most. He’s the apotheosis of intellect over communication. Please don’t compare him to Haydn, compare him to the thorniest James Joyce. And even Joyce will have more popular understanding than Carter ever will: almost everyone can read, but hardly anyone can analyze a musical score.
That’s not to say that some of Carter’s work doesn’t have an obvious impact. Like Gann, Harrison Birtwistle name-checks the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord with Two Chamber Orchestras, although, unlike Gann, he loves it. I’m with Birtwistle, this a work which anyone can tell instantly is a restless and surreal journey. “That bloody harpsichord!” Birtwistle says. (YouTube has a recording with Jacobs and Rosen that was in every serious 70‘s-era classical record collection.) Stravinsky loved this piece, too.
But the bulk of mature Carter is for fellow scientists. Birtwistle himself is a good example of how you can write recondite music with easily perceivable rage, theatre and event. Carter is an arctic wind compared to Birtwistle. Hell, for me, even Babbitt and Boulez are warmer than Carter.
And I think there’s much food for thought in Robert Strizich’s not entirely complimentary essay about the Double Concerto.
There is little doubt that Elliott Carter's inventiveness, integrity and discipline are impressive, and that his musical concepts are strong, provocative, and rich in possibilities. His compositional realization of these concepts is highly elaborate, and his notation is exacting, meticulous and even painstaking.
Yet it is precisely the great intricacy of the realization that paradoxically tends to obscure the clear projection of much of the work's musical thought. The implosive force of the notational and compositional detail not only weighs the piece down, but also strains the abilities of both player and listener alike.
Thus, while the Double Concerto opens new vistas and explores exciting musical territory, it at the same time raises serious questions regarding the realization, notation, projection and comprehension of highly complex musical ideas.
A few years ago I was astonished to receive an email from a famous jazz musician forwarded from an even more famous and older jazz musician. The email contained the following news story:
From the Associated Press
NEW YORK --- American composer Elliott Carter, an exemplar of the atonalist style of modernism and according to admirers the greatest living practitioner of his craft, apologized to music lovers around the world today for what he called "a half century of wasted time." "What was I thinking?" the venerable Mr. Carter, 98, said at his home in Manhattan. "Nobody likes this stuff. Why have I wasted my life?"
Carter said he "went wrong" back in the 1940s and spent the next 60 years pursuing the musical dead-end of atonality.
In the past seven decades, he has produced five string quartets, a half dozen song cycles, works for orchestra, solo concertos and innumerable chamber works for various combinations of instruments --- all in an advanced, complex style he now dismisses as "noise." Despite consistent encouragement of many mainstream musicians such as Boston Symphony Music Director James Levine, for Chicago Symphony conductor Daniel Barenboim, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Carter said his many admirers were "delusional." "The critics who said they were just congratulating themselves for being smarter than everybody else were right all along," he said. "We should all go back and get our heads on straight."
Carter said he blamed his late wife, Helen, for turning him into an unrepentant modernist. "She liked this stuff, and I could never say no to her," he said.
Even though this hoax was dated April 1, the older cat thought this story was serious. He was delighted, saying, “About motherfucking time this happened.”
“Time” is really the issue, I believe. For all his intellectual “games” with rhythm, nothing Carter ever wrote really "has game.” The older jazz cat’s schadenfreude surely stems from the knowledge that many of the greatest American musicians, frequently coming from the literal ghetto, have traditionally been consigned to the figurative ghetto by the intellectual elite -- even though swing is a much more profound rhythmic discipline than 21:25 or 216:175.
Ted Curson mastered the jazz beat, you can hear it on “Folk Forms, No. 1.” Nobody who has ever played Carter professionally could jump in there with Mingus -- either improvising or reading that transcription -- and sound anything but anemic.
Enough of this comparison! Even though I think Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus will last as long as anything Carter ever wrote, I’m not going to argue that Curson was as important as Carter.
Carter, who died at 103, wrote vital music for the longest span of any composer in history. He seemed to get even better after he was 80 or so; at some point I need to catch up on the last two decades of Carter more intensively. One of my great live experiences was seeing Pierre-Laurent Aimard give the premiere of the unusually (for Carter) toccata-like “Caténaires” in New York with the composer in the audience. After a sensational performance, Aimard came out and chatted with Carter, then went back up to the piano and played it again! He could have played it a dozen times in a row as far as I was concerned, there was so much to listen to in that short piece.
Curson was a great player who -- for whatever reason -- frankly didn’t manage to sustain a truly interesting or relevant career after the 1960’s. The one time I saw him live it wasn’t a good experience. But perhaps if Curson had been supported by the establishment with .00001 of the juice they’ve always given Carter, that story would have turned out differently.
On a more positive note, let me say again: It is impossible to become jaded about the breadth and depth of American music.
A few years ago, Soho the Dog AKA Matthew Guerrieri took on the responsiblity of listening to and reporting on a ton of live Carter with aplomb. Magna Carter is in eight parts, any one of which link to the other seven. Here's part one, "Punctuality."