Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Sampling of Spirit - Sharing Messiaen & Carter

For most of us, we never get closer to composers than listening to the music they compose. Most of them, after all, have been dead, some for a longer period of time than others. The chance to meet a live composer is a rare opportunity and often brings with it different insights to the music we may hear, before or afterward.

On Monday, when I was posting about how amazing that two of the most significant composers of the 20th Century were born a century ago one day apart, a former student of mine whom I’d not been in touch with since the mid-70s until earlier this year and who has resurfaced as a friend on Facebook, mentioned he had been lucky enough to have had masterclasses with both of them and attended a cocktail party with one of them. Immediately, I asked him to write up something for my blog, something about the experience and his thoughts on what he learned from meeting these two incredible composers, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter.

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by Steve Gregoropoulos

For a brief period of my life, when I was about 20, I left the world to join what we call a "University" which is a place I've long regarded as "where the powers-that-be reverse-winnow the gene pool". In other words, it's a place where any threatening ideas are given somewhere to germinate, in order to prevent them from infecting everyone else. Kinda like smallpox in the museum.

However, while I was there, my particular university, which was called the Oberlin Conservatory, and was better than most, substituting geographical isolation for the intellectual isolation preferred by the rest of college-world, managed to attract a couple of composers who had thicker skin than the rest of their lot to be "composers-in-residence". By whom I mean two gentlemen who have spent their entire lives outside of the frathouse circuit.

Anyone who doubts that there is such a thing as a world spirit and a collective unconscious should ponder the fact that Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen were born a day apart. Together they have cast long shadows, with Elliott's increasing daily, that have somewhat dominated the last century and the existant portion of this one. It would not be putting too fine a point on it to compare them to the coexistence of Beethoven and Schubert in the century prior.

I was amazingly lucky in that they both came to my school and I was able to attend master classes with each of them.

A master class can be as dismal as a book signing or as enlightening as an ashram; with these dudes at the helm I can sincerely say that I walked out with more than I walked in with, and that it wouldn't have happened anyplace else.

To start with Messiaen: it sounds almost surreal after so many years to say that I sat in a room with him and listened to his hands bring sounds out of a Steinway piano. But this is the case. And that is the essence of what he taught me. Olivier didn't appear to speak a word of English and sort of went on in French about his journey through the aether, taking questions from Oberlin students along the unbeaten path.

But he illustrated all his points on the piano, and did so with the offhand muscular vigor of a rocker banging out Belle & Sebastian in the common area of a dormitory. What I learned is that a real composer writes music that is natural to him. When Messiaen ran two-handed scales across his color modes, I did not see any colors, but I did hear how complete absorption of a particular modal language is a precondition of fluency.

Almost no interpreters of his music (the chief offender being Peter Serkin) had, in my experience to that point, presented his work as robust and natural. It was always precious and orientalist. But that wasn't how Messiaen himself experienced it - or his wife either. When I heard Yvonne Loriod play his Vingt Regards from memory, banging intervals like F#-G#-A# with the knuckles of a clenched fist, I felt about like I imagine the people who heard Clara Wieck play must have felt.

He taught me about knowing your own music - not the way a professor knows Goedel, but the way a kid knows Of Montreal or Devendra Banhardt. Not so much meticulously but vibrantly.

Which brings us to Elliott Carter, the second delectable mountain.

Elliott didn't seem to want to talk about music at all. I've always felt that Carter was sort of like Prokofiev: a composer not susceptible to any kind of collegiate analysis, either of the CalArts John Cage/Lou Harrison sort or the Princetonian Second Viennese sort. And like Prokofiev, he is the last man standing, figuratively in terms of being more and more frequently represented on programmes and literally at 100 years of age.

Speaking of programs.... Carter gave a lecture, frequently punctuated by his almost cubist stutter, about how virtually all of his music is programmatic. He sees all the voices as having characteristics, and he lets them have little conversations with one another. Some form into groups while others wander off on their own. You see, what Elliott really likes is the English language. Go back and read some of his liner notes and see what he's thinking about.

His instruments are characters at a cocktail party or a comedy of manners. So it was somewhat fitting that, at the end of his residency, I actually attended a cocktail party with Elliott. We huddled in the corner by a fishtank together, and for a while talked about Samuel Johnson; about Rasselas and the Journey to the Western Islands. And here is the remarkable part. With a glass in hand, and talking about the language he loves, he did not stutter once.

What I learned from Carter was the importance of respecting the wholeness of musical entities. I had previously lived in a vague compositional sea, where voices popped in and out of existence and the harmonic and melodic functions of notes were perpetually triangulating with one another. To Elliott, they had personalities, and even if you didn't see where they were ultimately going, they were going there.

Many years have passed, but the sound of a dozen little electric pipe organs variously rehearsing Messiaen's pieces is still in my ears, and concert goers still hear the orientalism, missing the fact that he's probably the only composer ever to try to make serialism audible. Meanwhile Carter, while suffering the scorn of critics and teachers who can't own him, is nonetheless making is way into the standard repertoire during his own lifetime. Living a hundred years helps, but so does letting your music live. He may build a landscape out of atoms, but at the end of the day he sits back and watches a coyote run up the side of a mountain.


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To describe Steve as “a student of mine” is not entirely accurate: when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut (UConn), there were two seniors at the Storrs High School next door to the Fine Arts Building who had gone beyond anything the high school could challenge them with, especially in music, so somehow they asked me if I could come over and... well, I’m not sure do what, because I really had no idea how to challenge them, not that I could hope to offer them anything equal to the challenges they deserved. So it’s no surprise, running into Steve some thirty years later, to discover there is still much of that mistrust of “traditional education” with its bell-curve focus toward the median range, given how stodgy it has always been in the face of those who are so far beyond it, they would otherwise be lost by the wayside. Steve’s insights, being in the presence of two minds like Messiaen’s and Carter’s, capture something about both these composers any number of renowned musicologists or theorists might not notice.

And this week, the world observes the Centennial of both of those composers, one of whom is celebrating his 100th Birthday today by attending a concert at Carnegie Hall tonight in his honor. It seemed a fine excuse to go back and relive some memories – thanks, Steve, for taking the time to write them down!

- Dr. Dick

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