From our earliest encounters with music, we are told tales of extraordinary accomplishment by musicians: stories so magnificent that no musicologist could hope to put them into context. It is absurd to think of Mozart applying for graduate school, but we scarcely question a cinematic portrayal of him dictating the Requiem from his deathbed.
At any given time there are many inspired and imposing figures who, despite their ambitions, jealousies, and rivalries, themselves never worried about any top ten or top fifty rankings. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century (if there were indeed to be a contender for the status of the “greatest” 20th-century composer) the honor, as a matter of public perception both in the general public and among professional musicians, would most likely have fallen on Igor Stravinsky.
As a child I spent hours banging on the piano while holding down the sustain pedal, played with the sounds my voice could make, and, when I eventually took up the cello, spent more time experimenting with it than learning proper technique. It wasn’t until I went to college—where I learned about the many composers creating works using sounds not traditionally considered by the mainstream to be “music”—that I learned I wasn’t completely crazy.
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.