Carter and the Things You Want

I’ll admit it. I’m in a foul mood today. For me there are three kinds of foul:

1) “Irritable” foul: where everything just peeves me, from the wait in line at Starbucks to the cheery hello of my doorman.
2) “Overwhelmed” foul: when the volume of unopened mail and unattended crap gets all metaphysical on me, and makes me feel panicky.
3) “Seriously” foul: where something deep has shifted, and part of me has yet to adjust.

Today’s foul is a bit of 2, mixed with a lot of 3. It’s funny: I’m cheering myself up just a bit, even enumerating these foulnesses. Ironic that my foul day should be the longest day of the year. (Bitter laugh)

What does all this have to do with music, you ask? Well what I’m suffering from is a fascinating medical condition known as the Post-Festival Blues, COMBINED with a little bit of Pre-Festival Panic (since I am simply between festivals). Post-Festival blues is like the melancholy of the last day of summer camp… all of us overgrown classical-music-children, going to camp every summer, making friends and enemies, not writing home as much as we should, and then it’s over… This one is particularly bad, for reasons that are hard to pin down, irrational reasons; it feels as though something were given to me, and then taken away. And I want it, even though I’m not precisely sure what “it” is.

As it is impossible for me to deal with any personal issues in my life without sublimating them into music first (just kidding, kind of) it got me to thinking about musical passages where this sort of thing happens: and it seems to me that this giving and taking away is not a bad thing in music, but an essential part of its meaning… I’ve often enjoyed the quality of certain music where only a few notes are made to suffice (not TOO many notes, because that would ruin it, overwhelm it): one of the great virtues of modernism. Late Romanticism: a giant surplus of notes, of “explained” meanings, of overblown programs, of chromatic complexity. Modernism converts

O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver’s loom,
Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow–
See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,
Round as the round moon shines in heaven above … [etc.]


O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.

Less is often more; the single word (the single note) connotes more, is free, open-ended. (For example, the fabulous

I played the Elliott Carter Piano Sonata this last Saturday, and while I was practicing it I kept playing over the final section; it seemed at once elusive, impossible (because of its spareness) and also to hold, behind its reserve, the most profound and beautiful thoughts. The piece continually plays with the giving and taking away of harmonic information, the expansion of one or two notes into an complex harmony, and then back again, until you are made to find satisfaction in fewer notes, to find resolution in absence. It is so beautiful to trace his thinking in this manner in the last bars of the piece: he carefully delineates which notes should be retained with the pedal, and when precisely should they be made to vanish: a constant game of resolving to “too few notes,” then adding some other notes which raise new questions, which necessitate further resolutions, which keep the piece alive. Just when there is too little, he adds something new (which is “too much,” which needs to be dealt with in some way, just like I need today to deal with my unresolved, undirected wants)…

Each time I played it, I couldn’t get over the beauty of the final bars, of the piece’s “answer.” Let me be analytical for a second: here Carter summarizes and merges two main themes of the piece, this melodic cell:


and this rhythmic motive:


Both of these are “protagonists” of the piece; we have heard them millions of times (seemingly). But not like this, their merging moment:


F# (high), F# (low), C# (top note of chord)… that would seem to be it, one more recap of the “tune,” BUT as you slowly release the pedal, the B emerges from beneath its cloud of notes, a lonely, uninflected, uncluttered tonic. This note, on the “weak beat,” the unaccented syllable of the sentence, a rhythmic aftershock … turns out to be the strong foundation, the center, the fundament from which the other notes have radiated. Carter does not want it to be played so much as revealed. Instead of overtones coming off of a played note, Carter here allows the “undertone” to come from its overtones, allows cause to follow effect.

And there it is: just that B. You hold it until it fades away. The other notes, beautiful B major notes like A#, F#, C# linger in the memory more faintly (vanished overtones). And why do I find this so affecting? When I start to hear just the B, there is at first a rush of pleasure: it is so pure, perfect, so resolving; then I begin to feel its relation backwards, its threads of connection… I want to go back and play the whole piece again, to hear his flights of fancy, racing through fifths and fourths from B up and down the keyboard… those amazing scorrevole passages from the first movement, the giant jazz fugue in the second. But no, it is over. The B is a relinquishing of all the other notes, not at all a triumphant arrival, but a removal…

Right now, in my foulness, in my apartment with laundry and dry cleaning to do and millions of unopened bills and pieces to practice, I would love to go back also, perhaps to the last festival, and argue about Schumann with quirky musicians in the sports bars of suburban Detroit; but today, there is only the B and the thought of what notes might come of the B–entirely hypothetical musings, speculations. I am awaiting the return of my overtones.

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  1. Erin
    Posted June 21, 2005 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Another lovely entry!

    I am in an “overwhelmed” foul mood myself, so I sympathize. I am waiting for the dang Staples deliveryman to come with my new file cabinets, as new office supplies are the panacea I crave when I get this way. “If only I had a new SYSTEM,” I say to myself …

  2. Margo
    Posted June 21, 2005 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Wow, what a coincidence! I’m having a bit of a meltdown myself today, most closely relating to your #3, Jeremy. Hope you feel better soon! 🙂 And you too, Erin.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted June 21, 2005 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    For me, it’s better to be depressed because you’ve got way too many things to do than because you can’t think of anything useful to do and/or have no clue what you’re supposed to be doing. Or something like that. Great! This sounds retarded. Oh, why can’t I sound half as decent as Denk?? Oh well, one more thing to be depressed about…
    Bye for now

  4. Anonymous
    Posted June 22, 2005 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jeremy, if you’re capable of musing this penetrating even while suffering the foul mood, there’s hope for all of us. And of course it’s charming that you’re still thinking back to Pound–highly gratifying!


  5. Bryant Manning
    Posted June 27, 2005 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    I hope you will cut and paste more musical samples like this Carter post. That is outstanding and the blogosphere needs more of it!

    Bryant Manning

  6. Bettie
    Posted June 29, 2005 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    How did you get those scores onto the blog — scanner??

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