ON TWO SIDES OF THE ATLANTIC / PART 2
Elliott Carter was born in 1908, and died fairly recently, in 2012. He was one of the few artists (or maybe even the only artist ever) to compose a considerable number of important pieces after turning ninety, or even after turning a hundred. It is enough to remember that, as a young man, he was talked into studying music by Charles Ives (Carter’s father bought an insurance policy from Ives), and that Carter attended the New York premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1924, whilst still remaining our contemporary. A New Yorker, educated first in the USA, and then in Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger (which is not that common for an avant-garde artist), he discovered his individual aesthetics gradually, starting off from the French version of neoclassicism. His career could serve as model for the story of ‘the Cold War in music’. In the USA, due to the lack of a dedicated audience, avant-garde music was protected as ‘the art of the free world’ by incorporating composers into the university system (those who scorned the avant-garde would even dub it ‘PhD music’). Consequently, Carter moved from university to university, including Columbia and Yale, to finally settle down at the Julliard School. But the avant-garde did not have an easy life with Carter who followed his own paths and never took part in any collective style revolutions, trends or ‘-isms’. When the USA was dominated by Milton Babbitt’s brand of serialism, Carter did not compose serially (some theoreticians would ‘identify’ serial arrangements in his scores until they had the misfortune of confronting the composer himself). When serialism gave way to John Cage inspirations, Carter did not really respond and continued to do as he pleased.
An exceptionally determined artist, Carter worked all his life on the foundations of his own music, putting a great effort both into research and into transforming its results into actual pieces. He systematised the possible forms of chord structure and identified the relationships between them, the transformation formulas etc. This enabled him to create his works in a stratified way by attributing sets of chords of different structural rules to different instruments or instrumental groups, whilst provoking a complex play between all these layers within a piece. With equal intensity, he worked on rhythm, metre and tempo. The complex polyrhythm of his works is structured to the highest degree and is governed by identifiable proportions. The same can be said of his use of the metre, especially due to his organised transformations, or in other words, the ‘metric modulations’ that are typical of Carter’s music. It would seem that these explorations, despite being conducted independently, would place Carter within the avant-garde spectrum. This was, indeed, how this music was classified. But there exists a fundamental difference: Carter used this kind of work to perfect his tools, to obtain the knowledge and skills that served the creation of an ideal piece of music which was to manifest as a coherent and convincing whole not to our analytical skills but to our ears. As he shared the avant-gardes’ exploratory zeal, he did not share their major values and was faithful to the traditional category of an artwork. In this respect, it is difficult to find any other comparable works other than those by Witold Lutosławski, hence it is no surprise that Carter’s oeuvre includes a piece called Hommage a Lutosławski. One may wonder if Carter’s location on the map of ‘the Cold War in music’ had been different, would this have affected his art. It might have if he had been unfortunate to compose under the threat of terror. But there is a simple way to test this by asking what changes occurred in Carter’s music after 1990, when the ethical and political obligation of being an avant-garde artist lost its importance. Experts on Carter’s music denote one significant change: by then, the composer was so masterful in operating the rules he had created that, without compromising his works, he could intuitively modify and break them like the rules of any traditional sound system. Thus Carter’s technique and style became fully mature and flexible leading, simultaneously, to effects that became increasingly harder to subject to systemic analyses. But the core nature of his composition technique did not change, and neither did the general aesthetics of his works.
Tigran Mansurian was born over three decades after Carter, in 1939, in Beirut. Shortly after World War II, he settled with his parents in their native, then Soviet, Armenia, where he received his musical education in Yerevan. Mansurian was too young to personally experience the second half of the 1940s that was so detrimental to music in the Soviet Union and included the infamous Congress of Composers, the compiling of ‘black lists’ and the degrading of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. If we were to search for the roots of Mansurian’s work, they should be identified as existing not only in the oeuvres of the masters of Soviet music, namely Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke, or in the legacy of his native Aram Khachaturian, who had a very bitter experience of Stalinism, but also in Armenian traditional music, as well as in film and even popular music. The identity-related significance that Mansurian’s music seems to display to Armenians, at least when it is listened to in Poland, in addition to his strong affiliation with the film industry, do not contradict his still audible links with tradition that were apparently politically enforced upon former Soviet composers. But obviously, Mansurian is not simply a conservative. His music does not lack in modern techniques, often of avant-garde origin, that are fluently merged with traditional elements, and we have become accustomed to associating such combinations with the polystylism and creative aesthetics of Schnittke, as well as the contemporary works of Sofia Gubaidulina.
If there are any remnants of the Soviet music tradition in Mansurian’s music it is not social realism or a strong attachment to the perception of music not as an autonomous structure but as a medium of interpersonal communication. This type of music is consciously involved in literary and visual contexts, in the complex structure of ethnic, national and state identities, and most of all, in a multitude of relationships with other than musical systems of symbols, i.e. literature, film and religion. When authors sometimes write that composers from the former Soviet Bloc display a certain type of new or recovered spirituality, they are making a simplification by allowing an easy to understand slogan to conceal the great effort of identifying the position of music among the other articulations of human thought – an effort that the revisiting of religion simply does not fully encompass. This is a different form of creative discipline than Carter’s: in his works, Mansurian’s focus is not on the conscious control of structural relationships, but rather, on the equally hard to achieve control over emotion and meaning. One may say that this is a contrast between perceiving music as a beautiful structure and perceiving it as a complex symbol. It is a paradox, from the perspective of ‘the Cold War in music’, that the expressive and communicative approach to music attributed to Soviet social realism, is used by Mansurian to express a view of the world that is, to a great extent, quite the opposite.
What lesson can we learn tonight from listening to the juxtaposed works of Tigran Mansurian and Elliott Carter? It is not my intention to suggest what the audience should think, but I can tell you about the lesson I have learnt. The conflict between thinking about music as a pure structure and as a means of communication predates the Cold War. Nonetheless, it is not ageless, and such a juxtaposition would not have been made by Bach or even Beethoven. It did, indeed, emerge in the sixteenth century, in polemics about musica antica and musica moderna, but was not fully expressed until the nineteenth century. Since then, it has made an impact on everything we say and write about music. Not really adequate in relation to nineteenth-century music (is anyone capable of drawing a division line between expression and form in, for instance, the works of Brahms?), it has served to articulate artistic stances in the twentieth century. This was when it was appropriated by Cold War politics. One can say that the Cold War radicalised and stiffened the positions that developed initially in the real dispute about art, and that it transformed them into political items. The Cold War, at least in art, seems to be a thing of the past, but the opposing aesthetics continue. What is more, they are dragging behind them a political baggage and meanings from several decades ago, as well as long-standing conflict, from which they are slowly beginning to recover. Despite what the juxtaposing of the Armenian and American composers might suggest, the division line between them has long ago ceased to be tantamount to the Iron Curtain, and obviously, a different choice of composers could have been made to exemplify how the structural approach to music still thrives in the former Eastern Bloc (where it never really disappeared), and how the symbolic approach is doing in the West (where it has always been guarded by composers like Messiaen). It may be that we will finally retrieve the aesthetical and artistic sense of the conflict which, in the meantime, has been obscured by political involvement, and which continues to appear to us as a real problem. Contemporary musicology is still involved in this dispute and has split into two conflicting positions: an autonomist one and one which emphasises the issues of meaning in music. Contemporary art theory, branded with the new, at some point, issue of art and authority, cannot escape this vicious circle and far too often continues to reduce the dispute about art into a dispute about politics. We may only hope that the incapacity displayed by art theory does not signify the incapacity of art itself.
To Elliott Carter fans listening tonight to Tigran Mansurian and to Mansurian fans listening to Carter I can only dedicate a well-known phrase from popular music: ‘listen without prejudice’.
Read part 1: Krzysztof Moraczewski: On Two Sides of the Atlantic