Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Abundance of Birthdays

Much has been made of the fact that last week saw two centennial birthdays. Olivier Messiaen was born on December 10, 1908 and died on April 27, 1992. Elliott Carter was born the following day (December 11, 1908) and was in good enough health to attend the concert honoring his birthday at Carnegie Hall. Indeed, at that concert it seemed as if he was the one giving the major present, his most recent composition, "Interventions," in which he broke with the usual concerto form to give "equal time" to the piano soloist (Daniel Barenboim) and the orchestra (the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine). Carter also made a video appearance at a subsequent event at the Barbican in London, where Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a full evening of Carter's music.

Ironically, the day on which the San Francisco Conservatory of Music chose to honor both of these composers was yesterday, which, as all Peanuts readers must know by now, was the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. If Carter knew about this, I suspect he would have been pleased, since, as Anthony Tommasini put it in his review of the Carnegie Hall event, Carter "is a lifelong devotee of Beethoven," which is probably why that concert also included a performance of Beethoven's third piano concerto. The evening then concluded with Levine conducting Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, which a fifteen-year-old Carter had heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform under Pierre Monteux when it was premiered in New York in 1924. (I often wonder to what extent the 1951 recording that Monteux made for RCA differed from this New York premiere. There are stories floating around that Monteux knew the score of Le Sacre better than Stravinsky. I suspect that, as performers became more familiar with the language of this score over the course of those 25 years, Monteux was in a position to explore new approaches to the music when he finally entered the recording studio.)

Personally, I appreciate Levine's wisdom in assembling this "context-based" approach to the presentation of Carter's music and probably would have preferred it to Knussen's selection of a Carter-only program. My guess is that the bean counters would have agreed with me. According to Geoffrey Norris' account for the Telegraph, the Barbican was "half-full rather than half-empty," while the Carnegie Hall event sold out the house. The Conservatory event, on the other hand, was a coupling of Carter with Messiaen in a free concert in the much smaller Recital Hall; but, within those limitations, the event attracted one of the largest audiences I have seen (including, to the best of my ability to observe, the upstairs seats for students).

Carter was represented by two compositions, his 1943 elegy for viola and piano and his second string quartet, completed in 1959. We probably do not have many opportunities to hear Carter's music because of his reputation for complexity; but the elegy is, in many ways, a product of his studies with Nadia Boulanger (who, for better or worse, was a primary force in shaping "American music" for much of the middle of the twentieth century) in the 1930s. Even if the more serious students of music would argue that Carter had not yet found his own voice in this work, it reveals his keen sense of listening, not only in terms of a command of expressive sonorities over a relatively short span of time but also in awareness of the voices he was hearing at the time the work was being composed. Thus, the occasional gestures towards Paul Hindemith cannot, in my opinion, be mere coincidence when we recall that Hindemith not only played the viola but also composed some of his best work for that instrument.

The second quartet is far more representative of the music that the general concert-going public tends to fear more than love, even if they have never heard it performed. The basic structure runs the risk of intimidating even before the performance has begun. There is a core of four movements (with tempo markings that one could easily find in any other string quartet), separated by solo cadenzas and framed with an Introduction and a Conclusion. All of these structural elements are joined together in a seamless unit; and I have to confess that, when I first heard the Julliard Quartet recording of this work in my student days, I found it absolutely impenetrable. (Following it with a score helped me recognize where the structural boundaries were; but even that did not get my ears around the performance, so to speak.) I was thus particularly interested when Robert Mann reflected on his experiences in playing with the Julliard when he coached Conservatory students working on Carter's first quartet last February. Since this was a Master Class event open to the public, Mann felt it necessary to address those of us in the audience before the students started playing for him. Here is what I wrote at the time of that event, in which I tried to synthesize Mann's impressions with those I had formed from the lectures that Carter had given when I was an undergraduate at MIT:

He talked about Carter's reputation for complexity (and how it was justified); but he also talked about how emotional Carter's music could be if properly approached. Later on, in his comments to the students, he revealed that the primary emotion he seemed to have in mind was anger; but I wonder if this was an accurate interpretation, because the one thing I did seem to take away from Carter's visit to MIT was his appreciation of the enormous legacy of music history that confronted him and the frustration of feeling obliged to do something other than tread the same paths of that legacy.

Last night one of the students (the violist) followed Mann's lead with some introductory remarks that also invoked the idea of an underlying anger; but, in my efforts to be a good student of listening (the title of the post in which I wrote about Mann was "Learning to Listen to Elliott Carter"), I find myself returning more to the theme of frustration. In my own search for an orienting framework, I started to think of a Platonic dialogue involving four characters, all of whom were as assertive as Socrates, each trying to hold forth with a distinct perspective (without the nature of the topic itself being particularly relevant). Thus, while in Plato any character who is not Socrates never gets much further than an odd interjection, in this setting all the characters are in the spotlight (as it were), frequently interrupting each other and often speaking at the same time with only peripheral awareness of each other. Needless to say, this is a far more frustrating experience than the far more orderly voice-of-the-master conduct that takes place in Plato's texts!

However, the second quartet is not only "about" (to the extent that it is about anything) frustration. If anything, it is "about" the sort of arguments that I used to have with colleagues back when we were trying to figure out what to do with the "knowledge management movement." Even though it has nothing to do with music, let me reproduce what I once wrote about these arguments:

Back when I was active in the debates over knowledge management, trying to tease out fundamental questions of what it should be and how it should be implemented, many of my colleagues liked to talk about the goal of "shared understanding." This usually meant agreement over such matters as how we see the world, how we collect data from the world, and how we interpret those data. However, "understanding" and "agreement" are not necessarily synonymous nouns; and, in my own effort to avoid the confusion of that synonymy, I tried to change my own language. Rather than echoing that phrase "shared understanding," I start to speak of "negotiated understanding." The point I tried to make was that we could still strive to agree about how to act, even if we disagreed passionately over what things mean. In Kantian terms our actions are grounded in "pure reason," "practical reason," and "judgment;" and, particularly when we are in critical decision-making situations, we cannot afford to short-change any of those foundations.

My point is that, to the extent to which frustration figures in the second quartet, Carter still brings it to resolution; and that resolution is best understood in terms of that negotiated understanding that is distinct from shared understanding. It's a bit like the way in which Plato's "Theaetetus" is resolved. It begins with the quest for a definition of knowledge. Each time Theaetetus proposes a definition, Socrates elegantly unravels it. Thus, in the final paragraphs of the dialogue Socrates as much as says that, while they did not achieve their goal, the journey towards that goal was still worth making. Whatever the challenges to logic, grammar, and rhetoric in Carter's second quartet may have been, the Conservatory students were able to impose their own logic, grammar, and rhetoric of performance on it in such a way that the journey was not only worth making but also a true pleasure to make.

If this journey through Carter's music was ultimately guided by logic, grammar, and rhetoric, then, as I have previously argued, a journey through Messiaen's music is best served when both composition and performance can be "properly examined through faith-based lenses." Indeed, I first introduced this proposition after attending a Master Class in which Anthony Marwood coached two of the movements from the Quartet for the End of Time; so I very much appreciated the opportunity to hear what these students would do with the work in its entirety. As I observed at the time, the very title of this work may be misconceived; but, if one accepts the faith-based foundation, such an error of logic should not detract from the spirit of either the music itself or how it is performed. (Some of Martha Graham's best choreography grew out of her own misconceptions of classic Greek drama!) As is the case with his monumental piano suite, Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus, Messiaen prefaces the score with texts for each of the movements of the Quartet; and each text is a combination of descriptive language and mystical meditation. At this performance the introductory remarks were given by the pianist, who had probably made the decision to attach a copy of an English translation (probably from the Wikipedia entry for this composition) of this preface to the program. He suggested that we, as listeners, could benefit from keeping these remarks in mind while listening to the individual movements; and I think this was an excellent decision on his part.

As I suggested in writing about the Master Class, I tend to feel that the best way to honor Messiaen in performance is to follow his instructions to the letter (what I have called the "stare decisis approach to performance"). This approach frees the listener to "give in" to the sounds that Messiaen has summoned, guided by the "visions" invoked by his texts. One does not have to accept the New Testament to do this; indeed, if one's faith has already fixed a particular impression of the Apocalypse, that impression could well obscure Messiaen's. Thus, the primary virtue of last night's performance was its accuracy and its willingness to leave all else to the mind of the listener, a mind that was best guided by cortical regions quite different from those stimulated by Carter's quartet.

Taken as a whole, then, the evening was more than the sum of its parts. It involved more than Carter's Socratic logic and Messiaen's faith. The relationship between Carter and Messiaen may be better appreciated through the complementarity of the Yin-Yang philosophy introduced by Tsou Yen around 265 B.C.E. It is less a matter of synthesis from dialectical opposition as it is one of the balance of equally opposing forces, each with roots in the other (Carter with his roots in American poetry; Messiaen with his roots in the discipline of serial techniques). Last night's event was the only one I have encountered in the arts news I have read in which the yin and the yang of these two "birthday forces" were brought together in a single program. The result was as exciting as it was informative, and my only regret is that these two momentous centennials were not similarly celebrated elsewhere.

No comments: