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Monday, February 6, 2017

Music On Monday: Elliott Carter And The Hazards of Democracy

Photo by Justin Ormant

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music. 

Today, we're going to venture into the realm of the musical avant-garde. Don't be afraid!

Elliott Carter was an American composer who died only a few years ago, and of all of the modernist, non-tonal music that came about in the 20th century, his is the stuff I like best. Yes, I actually listen to it. It's an acquired taste, but the more you learn about it, the more you get it. You just have to change your expectations. This is not soothing music.


For today's Music On Monday selection, I chose Carter's composition A Symphony For Three Orchestras. In a great article published by Matthew Guerrieri in the Boston Globe shortly after Carter's death, Guerrieri connects Carter's vision of America with his music, and that view is strongly reflected in the political chaos of the moment.


Carter's musical output can be seen as always straddling the line between "faction and unity." Guerrieri quotes James Madison: “The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.” The dangerous vice he refers to is "the violence of faction." Consider the riots and protests we've seen so far in only two weeks of President Trump's administration. We are alarmed for the character and fate of our government. Carter made that concern musically his own: As Guerrieri says, "faction and unity would become the latitude and longitude of his musical map."

If you listen to Carter with this in mind, you can hear the very individual character of each instrument going its own way, even when many instruments are caught up in a sweep that heads in a similar direction. Each instrument is it's own, yet it also works in concert with the others.

As we watch the federal court rulings fly in response to President Trump's travel ban, we are watching our three branches of government in action, exercising the checks and balances designed by our country's founders. The piece I'm showcasing today, A Symphony for Three Orchestras, was composed in honor of the American Bicentennial in 1976. It divides the musical forces into three separate, contentious groups. Coincidence? Maybe not.

How to listen to this? First of all, don't bring romantic expectations to the table. This is not music to soothe or to suggest beautiful, pastoral scenes. It's intellectual and visceral. Don't expect melodic or rhythmic patterns that will stick with you (although you might discover a few if you listen very closely). Keep your mind open and let the music tell you what it will. Listen for jagged vs. smooth, coordinated vs. uncoordinated, bright vs. dark, hurried vs. not hurried. Can you hear the individual trajectories of the individual instruments? Can you hear the three separate groups? This is music as ideology, not music as emotion. It may spark emotion in you, and that's a valid experience, but if it's a completely intellectual experience, that's okay, too. 

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