Composer Elliott Carter is much admired but not easy to love

Elliot Carter
Elliot Carter is considered by many to be America's greatest living composer. His music is being celebrated this week in the first Contemporary Composers Festival.
Photo copyright by MereSeuer

On first hearing, Elliott Carter's music sounds chaotic. It doesn't fit into preconceived notions of what "classical" music should sound like. There's no single, steady rhythmic pulse or recurring melodic themes to grab onto.

Pianist Ursula Oppens suggests listeners think of a lively dinner party.

"First everyone is in one conversation, and then they split off into two conversations," Oppens explains. "You hear a little bit of the other conversations through your own, and then it gets quieter for a minute. Once someone becomes attuned to this, then Carter's music becomes very exciting and beautiful."

SPCO musicians Timothy Paradise, clarinet, and Julia Bogorad-Kogan on flute discuss Elliott Carter's "Esprit rude/Esprit doux."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Oppens has been playing Carter's music for 40 years, and she'll be performing several of Carter's chamber and solo piano works over the six-day Elliott Carter festival.

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Carter was born in 1908. His early mentor was the iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives, who was known for mixing up themes in conflicting keys and meters.

Although exposed to experimental music early in his career, Carter first wrote in a style not too different from the neo-classical sounds created by Aaron Copland and other American composers. It wasn't until Carter was in his 40s that he fully broke free with his own unique approach to music.

Julia Bogorad-Kogan, principal flute of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, joins SPCO clarinetist Timothy Paradise on Saturday afternoon for a 1985 Elliott Carter flute and clarinet duet, "Esprit rude/Esprit doux." She says she's been working on her part for nearly 10 months.

Michael Cherlin
University of Minnesota professor Michael Cherlin is the curator of the 2006 Contemporary Composers Festival.
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

"This is really cutting-edge music. It's very difficult. But I think I figured out that Elliott Carter was trying to write a piece where the two parts never really fit together," says Bogorad-Kogan. "When I have a downbeat, Tim has a gesture going over the downbeat. When I have groups of seven, he has groups of eight. Or when I have fives, he has sevens at a very fast tempo. And that's something that's very hard to hear."

The difficulty of Elliott Carter's music has led to criticism that it can be appreciated and understood only by academics and intellectuals. Michael Cherlin disagrees. He's the curator of the Carter festival and teaches music theory at the University of Minnesota.

As he was becoming one of those academics, Cherlin worked as an undergraduate trying to understand Carter's music through analysis. At the same time his wife, who has no musical training, was listening along with him.

"She came to love it almost at the same pace that I did, and still loves it to this day," Cherlin says. "So that disproves the idea that it's only for intellectual music theorists who want to sit down and number crunch or something like that. It's for anybody who can hang in there for the ride and let the music speak to them."

Cellist Noah Rogoff
University of Minnesota student Noah Rogoff performs Elliott Carter's "Figment No. 1" for solo cello.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

SPCO clarinetist Timothy Paradise also loves Carter's music, yet he believes its time may be passing.

"The generation that come up with this kind of music was unique," Paradise explains. "I think people will look back at it as a style of music like impressionism or romanticism. Carter's music is probably the end of it. I don't know of anybody that is really writing like him."

Paradise says listeners don't need to understand the technical aspects of Carter's music to enjoy it.

University of Minnesota student Noah Rogoff advises them to have patience and take from it what they can. Rogoff is playing a pair of Carter compositions for solo cello during the festival. He suggests that there may come a time when Carter's music will sound as familiar as that of Bach.

"If we had been listening to Bach in 1725 or 1750, we might very well have not enjoyed it one little bit," Rogoff says. "It's different coming to it now, when we've had these centuries of appreciation lavished upon the music. Hopefully Carter will be in that position one day."

Elliott Carter himself argues much the same thing in the documentary film, "A Labyrinth of Time," which began the festival Tuesday night. He says that as society becomes more complicated, "people will have to become much cleverer and much sharper. Then," he adds with a chuckle, "they will like my music."

Carter is scheduled to arrive in the Twin Cities on Thursday. The University of Minnesota will present him with an honorary degree during an evening performance at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. The festival runs through Sunday.