Elliott Carter’s music at first sounds sparse, every note seeming irreversible; then each tight bar reveals a chain reaction of meanings, and though the whole satisfies, no single solution prevails. Or doesn’t art deal in solutions?
Literal repetition he shunned like the plague. It would make a neat balance to say that his art is hypertypically American, like – like whose? like the Wallace Stevens he so often quotes? – by embodying certain traits; but I too am American, so find it harder to objectify such traits. Surely Carter’s music is intellectual as well as intelligent. Yet if words like sensual and nostalgic don’t quickly come to mind, neither do verbatim versions of mankind or angels or the songs of the wild. His music doesn’t purport to represent anything beyond itself, his narrative translates only as metaphor – as events happening to instruments, not to humans. Carter projects necessity. Not the diffuse necessity of didactic wisdom but the clean-cut urgency of an epileptic fit. Art is never random, and Carter’s glory dwells in the knack for inscribing productive tantrums with such accuracy that after the third or the nineteenth hearing the notes fall as logically as the arrangement of animals in The Peaceable Kingdom.
Physically, this forbidding master housed a marvelously mannered little boy with the vast cultural scope one usually finds in only continental thoroughbreds. Although his was incapable of small talk, humor nonetheless lay behind that sly Burgess Meredith glance. By extension humor must be tangled somewhere within the Gordian knot of his tones, though I’ve never located it – assuming that such a thing can be pinned down in music.