The crux of the matter in grasping Elliott Carter’s difficult and satisfying music lies not in conquering its inherent and unavoidable technical issues. What’s crucial is finding the broader context in which those challenges can be seen not as obstacles to successful performance, but rather as essential musical materials that upon close investigation reveal important information about the nature of Carter’s music itself, its structure, aesthetic, and intent.
The Smile Sessions—a total of 144 tracks (in its most complete available form) from the 80 sessions recorded by The Beach Boys between 1966 and 1967 for the never-issued LP SMiLE—contains some of the most provocative musical ideas of the last half-century in any genre of music. But it has taken nearly 45 years for it to be officially released.
Today, local enterprising young musicians inhabit a musical world almost totally free of the boundaries previously posed by genres and traditions, a world where contentious issues—formal attire, “alt-classical”—aren’t even issues anymore. They have sidestepped whole entire philosophical debates and simply decided to do what they wanted to do, which, of course, is what people in the Bay Area have been doing for a long time.
In the West, the environment of concert music is one of transcendence. We use our music to transport our listeners from the concert hall to another private world, created by the interaction of the listener’s imagination and the music. While transcendence is also the aim of Indian classical music, it is weighed against the equally vital component of audience involvement.
A thought experiment: you’re a performer, opening a score for the first time. On the first page of music, in small print, just under the title, a phrase catches your eye: “To Milton Babbitt.” Really? “Oooh,” you might think, or, “Yikes!” But deeper reactions follow. “What’s the story here?” you wonder.
In just three years, the fledgling Chicago-based EveryPeople Workshop has asked this question about the jazz quartet, the big band, The Nutcracker, and the string quartet, and there is more to come. The EveryPeople Workshop is a collective arts organization formed by Mikel Avery with the assistance of Nick Gajewski, and Nick Mazzarella to produce the original artistic work of its members and to build community through creativity.
There are few opportunities these days to hear live performances of the deeply felt, sonorously shaped music of the New England composer Walter Piston. His colleague Aaron Copland called Piston “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast,” which has become a standard assessment. It has also boxed him in. While intended as a compliment, this appraisal suggests Piston to be something of a technocrat, a musician of the mind rather than the heart. This impression is far from the case.
Imagine the question from a friend when asking what you have on your device and unabashedly answering something to the effect of “everything that’s ever been recorded.” Although not impossible, the shame of having it “all” but at a quality unworthy of the potential our ears have to hear it would be hardly worth it.
I want to thank Noah Weber for his thoughtful comments on Emily Howell’s music. Beneath a lot of what Weber says about Emily Howell rests this notion of humans versus machines. I find it confusing that when we use computers for bookkeeping, Internet shopping, email, and so forth, it’s called a tool. But when some people use computers for creative work, computers suddenly become beings in their own right, apparently operating as something far greater than tools.