Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hermetic exercises ...

... Too Complicated for Words. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I once spent three weeks listening again and again to Elliott Carter's complete string quartets (he has since, I think, written some more). I wanted to give a fair and thorough hearing. I will never bother listening to them again. I think they are utterly sterile. On the other hand, I love Bartok's quartets, some of which on first hearing sound difficult, but in a relatively short time become quite clear.


  1. It's an interesting theory, but it falls into the same category of speculation as saying that love can be tracked in the brain. It can't. This remains a theory—and worse, a theory very much based on taste, with cognitive theories used to bolster the argument, but without much oomph. Not very convincing.

    I don't know Carter's string quartets that well, but compared to the dryness of ultra-serialist Milton Babbitt, I find Carter generally quite lyrical and even emotive at times.

    Boulez runs the gamut. His "total serial" pieces such as the Second Piano Sonata end up sounding totally random—which IS an ironic perceptual effect that does give some credence to this argument about complexity. But Boulez' other works, such as "Rituel," are incredibly emotive and powerful while still being quite experimental and difficult in technical form and execution.

    In some ways, this is just the same old argument about Modernist art that has been around for a century or more, by now. Each generation, if they grow up being used to some aspects of "difficult" artwork, don't find them difficult at all. It's the same cognitive theory of familiarity that describes how kids that grow up with cellphones and computers have no difficulty with them, while their parents sometimes do. (I went through something similar with my own Dad, when he bought his first computer at age 72.)

  2. Well, Art, you are definitely right about Babbitt. And I feel much the same as you about Boulez as well, His setting of Rene Char's "Lament of an Amorous Lizard" I rather like, though it has always struck me as being Debussy if Debussy were all harmony and no melody. I really don;t think Boulez has enough heart to be a really great composer. Difficulty itself usually doesn't bother me. Ruggles is difficult, but well worth getting to know.