If you’ve been reading my stuff on NewMusicBox for a while, you already know that there are a few performers and ensembles that I think can do no wrong. The Pacifica Quartet, whose interpretation of Beethoven’s Op. 130 I raved about some time ago, is one such group. So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that they’d be here in London playing all five of Elliott Carter’s string quartets. Although I had to skip out on quartets four and five due to a weird allergic reaction to Wigmore Hall, I did catch the first three. I also saw their excellent “opening act” Viviane Hagner, who presented Carter’s Lauds for solo violin. Hagner gave a really terrific, graceful performance; the Pacifica, who can always be relied upon to shred not only the piece but also your heart, delivered in the manner I knew they would. My only regret is that I had to leave early. Now get ready for a controversial statement.
The first Carter quartet is a lengthy piece dating from 1951 that shows the composer at a transitional stage: He’s still scraping away the rhetorical predilections that characterized his neoclassical music, from time to time falling back on the proportionality of his beloved classical antiquity to find a textural and gestural mise-en-scene for his newfound harmonic vocabulary. There are a lot of reasons why someone reading NewMusicBox, someone who is presumably well-versed in contemporary music and has the requisite analytical and aesthetic apparatus, might not like the piece: Too much unnecessary symmetry, too much faux-Hellenic frescoing over the solos and duos, the instruments’ repertoires of playing techniques taken too much for granted. Fair enough. But if you can sit through the Pacifica Quartet’s rendition of the first Carter string quartet and dislike the piece because it is uncreative, or inexpressive, or emotionally constipated, you are stupid.
The following night, I witnessed another real gem, this time a piano recital delivered by British pianist and scholar Ian Pace. Pace is one of those performers whose records rocked my world when I was just starting to study contemporary music; the UMBC library was well-stocked with his industry-standard recordings of pieces that had a profound influence on my development. This was the first time I’d seen him play in the flesh. He had prepared a collection of pieces from the ’50s German avant-garde to accompany a lecture on the “period of collective amnesia” that followed the Second World War. Appropriately, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X was on the program. Like the Carter quartet I mentioned above, there are things about the piece that may not have worked: You have to take a bit of a leap of faith pretty early on, for instance. But if Ian Pace’s reading of Klavierstück X strikes you as sterile, flat, or fusty, you’re stupid.
“Stupid” may be too narrow a word. At any rate, there is something about creativity, expression, or emotion, or conversely sterility, flatness, or fustiness, that you don’t get. As a concert-goer who is, more than every so often, insensitive to these dimensions of the human condition—in other words, stupid—this is a malady that I am eminently qualified to diagnose. I have listened to music in a stupid way with some regularity for my whole life. And as my capacity to understand that stupidity and the petty, half-baked ideological reasons why I might suffer from it has grown, I’m increasingly (although, as I said, not yet completely) able to tell when the piece is the problem and when I am the problem. This is a valuable revelation: If I’m the problem, I can work on that. I can hit the books, try to get a grip on what was happening in the composer’s world that drove him or her to make such a thing, maybe look at a score, maybe search for superior performances. As long as I want to like it, I can usually find a way to get there. And what’s even better is that I invariably discover that a few stupid pieces—pieces that were the problem—aren’t that stupid after all, which is a nice collateral bonus. But this distinction is hard to find in the absence of great performances like Pace’s and the Pacifica Quartet’s. I think that’s the fundamental reason I get so effusive about such awesome musicians: They make us smart. And for some of us, that’s a tall order.