Yesterday's NY Times featured an article by Charles Rosen about his friend Elliott Carter, whose 99th birthday is tomorrow – the same day as my wife's 28th, I'm inexplicably tickled to discover. Rosen writes very sympathetically about Carter's life and music. Although I've never been a big Carterhead, I appreciate some of his early works like the cello and piano sonatas, and find that his music is becoming ever more appealing as he approaches his centenary. However, it's not so much Rosen's tributes to Carter's music that caught my attention as his mild slam of an unnamed piece in a contrasting aesthetic. He relates the story of his first meeting with Carter at an ISCM concert in 1956:
"One generally went to the society’s concerts to see friends; only a small amount of the music played there was attractive, since most contemporary music, like most of the music of any other period of history, is of little interest."
Hmm, whatever. But go on...
"On this occasion, if I remember correctly, one work was a single note on a solo violin to be sustained for 1 hour 20 minutes (but the performance was abbreviated to 40 minutes)."
Ack! Shock!! Horror!!! A piece that only employs a single pitch! For a very long time! What a laughable, ridiculous idea! Seriously, though, how does one write a credible criticism of a piece, even a pithy one, by citing a work's very means of articulation as a pejorative? Rosen's comment proceeds from the offhand, a priori assumption that the very concept of this piece is unworthy of consideration. Nothing else is revealed about it, no other factors taken into account. What was the nameless composer trying to achieve with the piece, and was he/she successful? Was it performed by a sympathetic musician, or did the violinist treat the piece with contempt and play it badly? Was the piece well programmed, or did the other works on the concert not leave it enough space to be received in a favorable light? These and many other questions could be asked before dismissing a piece, but its use a single pitch (a trick that, I might add, is deployed to great effect by Carter himself in Four Études and a Fantasy) and long duration seem to be grounds enough to treat it as inconsequential. If it's not even worth asking these questions, why comment about said piece at all, except to score cheap points for your side of a largely no-longer-relevant aesthetic debate?
This post once again reveals my tendency to blow tiny comments way out of proportion, but I think Rosen's flippant attitude toward this mystery piece is indicative of a larger contempt held by certain proponents of mid-century modernism for any piece that does not aspire to their particular brand of complexity and ambition, and is therefore by its very nature flawed. But to criticize a piece based solely on its means of construction is no criticism at all, really. A similar thing happened to a colleague of mine last spring. She had composed a piece for the Finnish Radio Symphony, a ballsy, uncompromisingly repetitive work that sounded like Morton Feldman's Coptic Light on steroids. It was a very risky thing to do for her first big orchestra commission. I thought it was incredible: beautiful, powerful and stirring. I ended up being one of a tiny minority of people who liked it. It was, as I recall, vocally disliked by many, and even booed by a few. The review that appeared a day or two later, though, based its criticism on the fact that the percussion section carried most of the musical argument in the early stages of the piece, as if writing extensively for percussion in an orchestra piece is in and of itself a bad thing. No further comment necessary.
It's okay to make choices as an artist. I generally think that holding to strong beliefs about the "rightness" of one's aesthetic choices creates art that speaks urgently and convincingly in most cases, and that the idea that everyone should like everything is somewhat naïve. But one can and should remain open to meeting the composer halfway. A good critic, professional or armchair, knows how to check their expectations at the door and be receptive to what an artist is trying to accomplish, and evaluate a work on the success or failure of its particular project. Perhaps the piece Rosen is so dismissive of was indeed a failure. But the way he comments about it implies that such an idea is destined to be a failure from its very inception, and should be given no further consideration. Good criticism – of one's own work and that of others – needs to be based on more than knee-jerk positions, taking into account myriad factors that go into the creation and presentation of an artwork. Simply pushing it aside in this way diminishes the discourse and the critic both.