Monday, 14 December 2009

The terrifying prospect of Elliott Carter

A reader sent this interesting clip from the Baltimore Sun about a concert to mark Elliott Carter's birthday last week. The pianist was Joel Fan – famous enough that even I know who he is, and Baltimore is of course home to the Peabody Institute. The Carter piece in question was the fairly early Piano Sonata. Nothing else in the programme was scary (Bolcom, Kirchner) So where was the audience?

In every country the audience dynamic is different but the Baltimore writer knows his city. So what is it that generates an audience of 5 (two employees, one journo, two paid seats ) Tim Smith wonders about it and gives clips of Carter's music to show it isn't so bad.

Long ago I often used to be the sole person in audiences but that was for seriously experimental free improvisation, at places like The London Musicians' Collective, where everyone else wanted to gig and my pal was there to tape things. Maybe my presence was "performance installation". Now though the LMC is well established as part of the scene. But Elliott Carter is infinitely more mainstream even though for many people he's more famous for being 101 than for his music. Last year even the shopkeepers in Aldeburgh were all agog about the 100-year-old composer in town, and some were intrigued enough to actually go hear him.

What does draw audiences? Perhaps there's too much negativity now. Oddly enough the internet may be a factor. Far from providing information it often promotes disinformation. Having an opinion is more important that how that opinion is formed. most people go along with what they hear: that's how things work. If Alex Ross says something then it "must" be right and no one dares demur. And so things perpetuate themselves. S0metimes I wonder if we're entering a new age, where mass opinion counts more than free thinking. Fifty years ago, Darwin was accepted. Now "creationism" is taking over. Maybe most people would like the clock put back 150 years but that doesn't mean it should happen.

The answer isn't that composers should write "for the public". There is a difference between music as consumer product and as art. Almost by definition, an artist is an individual who does original things. Some artists, like Richard Strauss, are good enough to clothe their work so crowds flock in. But he's worlds away from the kind of hack who writes mainly to catch the market. Of course there's plenty of very good popular music and some is art, but art is about integrity, doing what needs to be done whatever the market wants.

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