‘Postmodern Hyperspace’ in Elliott Carter’s String Quartet no. 4

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Società Editrice di Musicologia isbn: 978-88-85780-07-1 UniversItalia isbn: 978-88-3293-264-5


Music, Individuals and Contexts Dialectical Interactions

The volume Music, individuals and contexts: dialectical interactions represents the final step of a long journey that began with the organization of the 1 st Young musicologists and ethnomusicologists international conference, which took place in Rome at the University “Tor Vergata” on 27-28 April 2017. This project was conceived to corroborate our belief that sharing data and ideas is an essential and productive phase of the research process, especially for young scholars. Two features of that conference — and consequently of this volume — were designed to increase the impact of sharing scientific knowledge: first, the internationality of the proposals aimed to enrich the range of methodologies, approaches and topics with which the contributors came in contact. This aspect is expressed here through a multilingual selection of published essays (English, Italian, French and Spanish). Secondly, the combination of perspectives from musicologists and ethnomusicologists was intended to provide the widest variety of points of view on the same research topic: music.

Music, Individuals and Contexts Dialectical Interactions edited by Nadia Amendola Alessandro Cosentino Giacomo Sciommeri

Nadia Amendola got her master’s degree in Musicology and Musical Heritage, and her Ph.D. in Cultural Heritage and Territory (Musicology) in cotutelle agreement at the “Tor Vergata” University of Rome and the Johannes GutenbergUniversität of Mainz. She received her diploma in Piano and her 2nd level diploma in Chamber Music from the “S. Pietro a Majella” Conservatory of Naples. Her main research focus is on Baroque Italian chamber cantata. She published essays about Roman poets of Baroque cantata texts, and she took part as a speaker in national and international conferences. She is music teacher and special educational teacher in Italian secondary schools. Alessandro Cosentino got his master’s degree in Musicology and Musical Heritage, and his Ph.D. in Music History, Sciences and Techniques (Ethnomusicology) at the “Tor Vergata” University of Rome. He is a member of the editorial staff of «Etnografie Sonore / Sound Ethnographies» journal. He took part as a speaker in national and international conferences, and he published papers regarding both guitar song composers from Malawi and Botswana and the liturgical musical practices of the Christian immigrant communities in Rome. He is the author of the book Esengo. Pratiche musicali liturgiche nella chiesa congolese di Roma (2019). He is music teacher in Italian secondary schools. Giacomo Sciommeri got his master’s degree in Musicology and Musical Heritage, his Ph.D. in Cultural Heritage and Territory (Musicology) at the “Tor Vergata” University of Rome, and his 2nd level diploma in Historical, Critical and Analytical Musicology at the “S. Cecilia” Conservatory of Rome. He is a scientific committee member of the “Istituto Italiano per la Storia della Musica” (IISM), the secretary of the “Centro Studi sulla Cantata Italiana”, a coordinator of the “Clori. Archivio della cantata italiana” international project, and a coeditor of «Studi Musicali» journal.



design: venti caratteruzzi

‘Postmodern Hyperspace’ in Elliott Carter’s String Quartet no. 4 Alastair White

Recent challenges to romanticised interpretations of Elliott Carter’s music have opened up new critical possibilities in our understanding of this unique composer. While Jonathan W. Bernard turns to his «general humanist training»,1 using encounters with literature, dance and film to explain Carter’s compositional rhythmic hallmarks and modernist epiphany, John Link has criticised the Carter myth2 itself for its obstructive influence on his work’s true signification.3 Link notes how the romantic appeal of his image as an autonomous modernist has «led even the most thoughtful critics to disregard the obvious signs of Carter’s engagement with contemporary trends in intellectual history and composition practice»,4 and argues instead that «his recent music is the result of an ongoing re-evaluation of the expressive potential of post-war Modernism in a decidedly post-Modern age».5 Whereas Link historicises Carter’s relationship with postmodernism as «a response to the practical constraints of institutional change and advancing age»,6 it will be shown that the postmodern aesthetic of Carter’s technique, which finds its quintessential expression in String Quartet no. 4 (1986), is the result of a contradiction arising from the interaction between modernism’s utopian teleology, whereby the artist’s dialogue with society was dynamic and fundamentally useful in advancing progress, and that society’s now antithetically postmodern logic as theorised in Frederic Jameson’s definition of the term as 1] Jonathan W. Bernard, Elliott Carter and the modern meaning of time, «The Musical Quarterly», 79, 1995, n. 4, pp. 644-682: 645-646. 2] The story of String Quartet no. 1, written in the Arizona desert as a dramatic departure from the composer’s early neoclassicism, has become one of the great legendary tales of modern music. 3] See John Link, Elliott Carter’s late music, in Elliott Carter studies, ed. by Marguerite Boland and John Link, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 33-54: 40-41. 4] Ibidem. 5] Ivi, p. 34. 6] Ivi, p. 45. > 343

the cultural expression of late capitalism.7 Although all Marxist criticism such as this emphasises the connection of the cultural superstructure to its economic base, the relationship between this composer and his social context is of specific value: in both Carter’s writings as a critic and methodology as a composer there is unmistakeable evidence as to his music’s teleological concerns and of its being conceived as part of a dialogue with its intended society. Even in recounting his desert conversion, Carter cites the popular medium of film as inspiration for his new stylistic approach;8 indeed, for Carter, the isolation of the artist that his supposed autonomy symbolises was itself paradoxically an act of aesthetic social commitment: the inner criticism [...] of a composer becomes a demonstration of his relationship with his society, embodying [...] his courtesy to his listener and performers, by first inducing him to find visions [...] which seem important to communicate, and then communicating them in a way that can eventually lead to understanding.9

Carter also wrote extensively on the relationship between art music and criticism, jazz, recording technology and film, dance and even its socio-economic roots:10 critics who subscribe to the narrative of the artist as a lonely hero would do well to remember Carter’s warning as to the damaging effects of the public image of the composer supplanting the music «as the real item of consumption».11 For Carter, the world clearly mattered, and therefore a historicised reading of this composer is not only justified but necessary. This is similarly evident in his music: a close reading of String Quartet no. 4 shows a methodology that is concerned with the effect produced upon the listener rather than its own systematic logic. Carter has written about his dislike of arbitrary Pythagoreanism which concentrates on abstract, inaudible systems as opposed to the listener’s direct experience;12 Dörte Schmidt interprets this standpoint as an «outright phenomenological counter-position to the structuralist thinking of both European and American serialists [...] Perception of the audible surface becomes the yard-stick of compositional decision-making, and

7] See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991. 8] See Elliott Carter, The writings of Elliott Carter, ed. by Else Stone and Kurt Stone, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1977, p. 276. 9] Ivi, p. 317. 10] See Ivi, pp. 160-310. Also Elliott Carter, Collected essays and lectures, ed. by Jonathan W. Bernard, Rochester N.Y., University of Rochester Press, 1997, pp. 299-331. 11] Carter, The writings, p. 285. 12] See Ivi, pp. 118-121. 344 > white

also for the understanding of a work. It forms the basis of the central focus on the listener».13 This position is conspicuous in the intervallic technique of String Quartet no. 4, where each instrument is limited to three intervals as a means of characterisation;14 Carter only departs from this system either to fashion our perception of phrases or on such occasions as the interval would prove imperceptible. For example, in the Appassionato, after the opening 5 bars of expository material, the first violin takes a prominent, audible role in accordance with its dramatic characterisation, with the line constructed entirely from its three characteristic intervals of major seconds, tritones, and major sixths. The only exception to this occurs at b. 111 where it makes a leap across more than two octaves between D and B-flat. The establishment of the first violin’s lead character is not affected here because of the surrounding fortissimo dynamics of the ensemble and the width of the leap: the necessity of the notes to form a twelve-tone aggregate is deemed of greater importance to the music’s effect as the inaudibility of the interval makes it negligible. The abstract intervallic scheme is thus overridden in favour of audible effect, showing that Carter is more concerned with the teleological purpose than the intactness of his system. Similarly, characteristic chords are often permitted to move by non-characteristic intervals: the second violin in b. 68 and b. 70 plays dyads of its characteristic minor third, but, in b. 68, the voices move by a major second and, in b. 70, by a perfect fifth. Here the surrounding texture is sparse and the dynamics of the ensemble (certainly, at least, in b. 68) do not obscure audibility. However, as the listener primarily registers the interval of the dyads rather than the movement of the voices, the exposition of the second violin’s intervallic character is not weakened by this departure from the system. Finally, Carter uses this approach to organise how the listener hears phrases: non-characteristic intervals appear in the instruments when the space functions to partition a beginning and an end, or when the space between the notes is too great to be audible: the indefiniteness of such a measurement is an idea Carter often plays with, as demonstrated in the first violin line of the Appassionato (bb. 22-27) which is often characterised by long spaces between the notes,15 but which we can assume, due to the use of intervallic technique and dynamic prominence, that we are meant to hear as a continuous line. Conversely, in b. 27, the second violin plays a major second in moving from A to G; these notes 13] Dörte Schmidt, “I try to write music that will appeal to an intelligent listener’s ear”. On Elliott Carter’s String Quartets, trans. by Maria Schoenhammer and John McCaughey, in Elliott Carter studies, pp. 168-189: 171. 14] See David Schiff, The music of Elliott Carter, London, Faber, 1998, p. 88. 15] See Ivi, p. 89. ‘postmodern hyperspace’ in elliott carter’s string quartet no. 4 > 345

should be understood as the close and opening of two separate phrases respectively in their separation by, firstly, the forte interruption of the first violin’s C/D dyad in the upper register which serves to reset the perceptibility of the second of those notes, and, secondly, the emphasis of this idea by the hauptstimme delineation. This is typical of how Carter sees intervallic technique as a practical resource for shaping the way we perceive an instrument’s character rather than as an abstract formula with which to justify a work. It is vital to understand this particular concern as one of social engagement rather than post-structuralist play: Carter intends his pieces to be read as ‘works’, the objective meaning of which is to be uncovered through creative effort, rather than through postmodern ideas of the ‘text’, especially as realised through the aleatory experiments of his contemporaries.16 Understood in this way, Carter’s technique can be seen to be neither ingratiatingly populist nor autonomously aloof from its social context. Indeed, the complexity of this position in many ways resembles a non-Marxist figuration of Adornian autonomy, with the composer’s teleological concerns inspiring an anti-culture industry complexity that attempts to realise certain utopian projects as to the elevation of communication. Schmidt confirms this, recounting Carter’s quoting of Adorno on the «regression of listening ability» when he «compared the situation of composers in the early 1980’s writing music in line with the dictates of the market to that of populist music under fascist dictatorships»,17 proving that, for Carter, «communication remains the crucial issue in terms of politics as well as aesthetics. By aesthetically repositioning himself Carter tries to develop an alternative relationship with a listener who is to become an active participant in an artistic exchange».18 This is why Jameson’s interpretation of postmodernism is so relevant in historicising this particular composer: his Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism is in many ways a development of ideas set forth in Adorno’s The philosophy of new music.19 If we understand the exile of the second Viennese School and consequent Adornian philosophy as being at least somewhat instrumental in the formation of Carter’s modernism,20 then Carter’s involvement with many cultural practices that Adorno so vehemently decried, and which then came to be theorised by Jameson as having developed

16] See Carter, The writings, p. 355. 17] Schmidt, I try to write, p. 170. 18] Elliott Carter, Conversation with Robert Johnston, Michael Century, Robert Rosen, and Don Stein (1984) in Elliott Carter: a centennial portrait in letters and documents, ed. by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Schreffler, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2008, pp. 252-258: 253. 19] See Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 16. 20] See Schmidt, I try to write, p. 171. 346 > white

into a whole cultural dominant, can be seen as a fascinating product of the contradiction inherent in his socially orientated brand of modernism and its development in dialectic with the postmodern world. To understand this it is necessary to briefly summarise Jameson’s argument and then use it to read Jonathan D. Kramer’s The time of music to appropriate specific musical concepts into our critical framework. Jameson understands postmodernism as a concept of materialist periodisation:21 the shift forward from modernism is argued to be the superstructural effect of a technological revolution within the capitalist modes of production and cultural expression of the consequent American military and economic hegemony.22 Central to Jameson’s analysis is the idea developed from Adorno of the transitional shift from temporal to spatial experience.23 This is achieved thus: firstly, poststructuralist thought generates a culture of what Jameson terms ‘Lacanian schizophrenia’ in that the end of syntactic direction, a consequence of the breakdown of the sentence due to the implications of Saussurean structuralism, compromises the subject’s ability to structure temporal bearing.24 Furthermore, the decentring of the subject, from separate monadic entity to an open point within a larger intertextuality, creates a breakdown in our private and historical temporalities;25 this intertextuality is explained as an omnipresent cultural pastiche within which everything is transformed into the mere reproduction of images.26 Jameson argues that these postmodern trends are constituents of a new technological sublime, an impossibly large ‘hyperspace’ that our subjectivity still struggles to comprehend.27 To understand the musical significance of this cultural dominant we must first enlist Kramer’s concepts of processive temporality and holistic being: Linearity and nonlinearity are the two fundamental means by which time structures music. Nonlinearity is not merely the absence of linearity but is itself a structural force [...] linearity [is] the determination of some characteristic(s) of music in accordance with implications that arise from earlier events of the piece. Thus linearity is processive. Nonlinearity, on the other hand, is nonprocessive. Nonlinearity is the determination of some characteristic(s) of music in accordance with implications that arise from principles or tendencies governing an entire section.28

21] See Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 47. 22] See Ivi, pp. 5 and 36. 23] See Ivi, pp. 16-17, 25, 49. 24] See Ivi, pp. 25-27. 25] See Ivi, pp. 14-15. 26] See Ivi, pp. 15-18. 27] See Ivi, pp. 6, 37-39, 44, 48-49. 28] Jonathan D. Kramer, The time of music, New York, Schirmer Books, 1988, p. 20. ‘postmodern hyperspace’ in elliott carter’s string quartet no. 4 > 347

This in itself is not particularly groundbreaking, but here Kramer contributes significantly to the study of musical time in his attempt to historicise their interactions with one another throughout the twentieth century. Though his decision to «forgo traditional logic» makes many of his conclusions ultimately unsatisfactory,29 the effectiveness of these terms can instead be realised by substituting Kramer’s critical miscellany for Jameson and Adorno’s work on the spatialisation of experience: if we rather understand the increase in instances of nonlinearity as a cultural effect of the postmodern sublime’s spatialisation of our experience of reality and then linearity as the temporal ordering of experience that corresponds to our ability to organise historical progress, then, reading them in this way, we can argue for linearity as a code of modernism and nonlinearity as its postmodern successor, thus articulating the move from a temporal to a spatial ordering of experience in musical terminology, and, through this, allowing us to challenge Kramer’s commonly held assumption as to Carter’s «exclusively linear thinking».30 The most striking realisation of Carter’s nonlinear postmodernism can be seen in his creation of polyrhythm through distinctively characterised individuation. Jameson argues that: the postmodernist viewer [...] is called upon to do the impossible, namely, to see all the screens at once,31 in their radical and random difference; such a viewer is asked...to rise somehow to a level at which the vivid perception of radical difference is in and of itself a new mode of grasping what used to be called relationship: something for which the word collage is still only a very feeble name.32

The impossible act of simultaneous differentiation amidst an exhaustive multiplicity of information finds a model expression in String Quartet no. 4’s demands on its listeners in the way that Carter layers rhythms onto one another to create a polyrhythm of 8:6:5:7 which must then be heard with and against the individual parts.33 This is established by: firstly, the definition of individual characters through intervallic, rhythmic and expressive definitions;34 and, secondly, the combination of these individuated elements to produce an amal-

29] Ivi, p. 2. 30] Ivi, pp. 204-207. 31] This point is made in reference to The man who fell to earth and the work of the artist Nam June Paik. 32] Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 31. 33] See Schiff, The music, p. 88. 34] See Ibidem. 348 > white

gam.35 This creates a series of sound objects that must be simultaneously perceived as both individual and constituent, essentially issuing the same challenge to the listener as Jameson finds in his analysis. This layering of simultaneous streams of information occurs similarly at a formal level. The uneasy question of String Quartet no. 4’s overlay of a classical form from a composer who so decidedly shunned his early neoclassicism can be better understood in the context of a culture that delights in dehistoricised reproductions of the past, and, therefore, as an invocation of «the spatial logic of the simulacrum» rather than an unmediated communion with past forms.36 The classical structure’s complex relation to the work’s meaning is emphasised by its specific inaudibility: all of the sections (b. 118, b. 214 and b. 388) begin mid-note, making it impossible for the listener to tell their precise parameters. The perception of linearity that is fundamental to developmental classicism is thus undermined by Carter’s making its immediate processive function inaudible and therefore negligible to meaning in this regard. A final layer is found in the figuration of the work as a rewriting of String Quartet no. 2 through many instances of selfreferential play.37 The situating of the quartet within these personal and traditional canons gives a paradoxically nonlinear appropriation of classical form and subjective history, which become silhouetted simulacra that we hear separately and simultaneously alongside the music’s unique formal structure, in a fashion similar to how we approach the polyrhythmic structure of the work. Such instances of Jamesonian ‘radical difference’ are further developed through Carter’s engagement with aesthetic developments from the popular medium of film. In arguing the cinematic nature of the work, Schiff highlights a particular block of material that appears in each movement «where the instruments form eight-note harmonies out of their constituent intervals» functioning as a force for interruption as statement of basic materials;38 if we understand that the different effects of this material are produced by its contextualisation within the various dramatic juxtapositions that Carter creates, we can understand how Carter uses cinematic block form to play with the relationship between form and audibility. For instance, this material’s appearance in the Lento (bb. 244-246) appears to function, at least audibly, as developmental material as the Lento, too, operates through a similar reduction of the instruments to their basic harmonic characterisation;39 however, Carter’s 35] See Bernard, Elliott Carter, p. 667. 36] Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 18. 37] See Schiff, The music, p. 88. 38] See Ivi, p. 90. 39] See Ivi, p. 89. ‘postmodern hyperspace’ in elliott carter’s string quartet no. 4 > 349

arrangement of this particular juxtaposition of the block figures it as a possible consequent to the preceding harmonic statement in bb. 238-242, thus creating a strong feeling of linear development up to the metric modulation at b. 247. The function of the material is clearly not an interruption, and yet, as Schiff maintains, it is created by the same formal process as its predecessor in the previous section (bb. 159-165), where it cuts the viola’s melody off in a disorientating scene change (b. 158).40 By understanding that Carter intends meaning at the work’s audible surface, we can see this as an undermining of processive linearity by his problematising the interpretation of temporal progression through the spatial juxtaposition of elements; if it is context alone that determines the developmental nature of a musical object, then the object itself cannot be said to be essentially developmental as its true meaning can only be understood through a nonlinear approximation of the work as a whole. Thus Carter uses the spatial, cinematic ordering of material to emphasise essential nonlinearity, which, through Jameson, we can understand as contributory to a wider aesthetic of postmodern spatialisation. In Carter, this is used to unify the work into something more than mere ruptured difference in that the aesthetic of interruption through spatialised arrangement of material serves to unify the work’s global and local hierarchic levels. Just as formal blocks are juxtaposed, often interrupting and retarding one another’s developmental progression in favour of contextual meaning, correspondingly, the instruments interrupt one another to fulfil a similar function at the level of phrasing; this breaks the expression of melodic statements or twelve-tone aggregates and replaces characteristic musical phrasing with a composite object of the interrupted elements. Like the breaks in the sentence that poststructuralism engenders and the subsequent disorientation of temporal direction, these breaks in the musical discourse function to disorientate the work and contribute to the spatial aesthetic.41 For example, following the climax at the opening of the Presto, the music is cut off abruptly by a moment of silence (bb. 319-320), before the ensemble is presented to us as two separate groups. The second violin and viola begin a joint statement, with G-flat, E-flat, C, B, G-sharp and D in the second violin and B-flat, F, A, C-sharp and F-sharp in the viola (b. 320); they are subsequently interrupted by the cello and first violin’s statement just before they are able to complete an aggregate (b. 320); this group manage another statement of eleven pitches, with F, G-sharp, B, A and D-sharp in the first violin and C, E, A, F, G-flat, B-flat and D in the cello

40] See Ivi, p. 90. 41] See Jameson, Postmodernism, pp. 26-27. 350 > white

before they, too are interrupted by the second violin and viola who only manage to repeat notes that have previously been played, and it is not until the instruments all join together at the end of b. 321. that the first violin sounds a G, completing the total chromatic at the very moment the ensemble is made once again complete. Thus at these microcosms of the piece’s melodic and harmonic development, the cinematic stylistic conceit of interruption is used to disrupt and create breaks in the musical fabric that bring about new compositional opportunities. Such an approach can be understood as a Stravinskian appropriation of Eisenstein,42 where «the work is realised not through development but rather by virtue of rifts that furrow through it».43 Adorno’s ‘rifts’, as Jameson realised, would go on to form the cultural dominant that Carter here engages. Carter’s ultimate realisation of this reordering of experience from temporal progression into spatialised nonlinearity comes at the end of the piece, where, in a remarkable coup de theatre, the quartet’s grand finale turns out not to be an affirmation of democratic cooperation (as the program note might suggest) but rather an almost Varesian unravelling of any sense of linear progression whatsoever in a satirisation of modernist progressivism. At b. 430, the Presto, having gathered itself up into true developmental linearity, is abruptly cut off and replaced with alternating blocks of material that the music switches between, bluntly alienated from one another, separated by silence, and with an unnerving sense of regularity that is then further undermined by a final humorous cadence (b. 464).44 Thus, the goal of any linearity that was in the piece’s development of its characters is ultimately liquidated by this technological, spatial dead end that serves to humorously problematise the notion of meaningful temporal progression altogether. Despite this, Carter’s music is almost always perceived as being processive and developmental, and as being related to the past through the composer’s carefully historicised understanding of musical tradition and his place within it.45 However, by seeing Carter’s music as being conscious of its environment and mindful of its reception, we can see how in String Quartet no. 4 his interaction with a late capitalist context produces a fascinating postmodern style

42] See Bernard, Elliott Carter, p. 661. 43] Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of new music, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, p. 138. 44] See Schiff, The music, p. 90; Link, pp. 50-51. 45] See Kramer, The time, pp. 204-207; William E. Brandt, The music of Elliott Carter: simultaneity and complexity, «Music Educators Journal», 60, 1974, n. 9, pp. 24-32: 25; Arnold Whittall, 1909 and after: high modernism and “new music”, «The Musical Times», 150.1906, Spring, 2009, pp. 5-18: 17. ‘postmodern hyperspace’ in elliott carter’s string quartet no. 4 > 351

of composition where there is a lot more at work than such attitudes would suggest. In using Jameson to map this cultural dominant and by figuring his analysis as a development of the same Adornian philosophy that was arguably influential in Carter’s artistic development, we can understand how that spatialisation of both music and experience, all so repugnant to Adorno, was appropriated by Carter into a complex, challenging aesthetic that managed to overcome such pessimism and dynamically engage with his contemporary American society.

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