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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Standoff (II)
Richard Taruskin

Tempo modulation, often called “metrical modulation” (a misnomer coined by Goldman in his article of 1951), is Carter's trademark innovation, although (as he has pointed out to more than one interviewer)

there is nothing new about [it] but the name. To limit brief mention of its derivations to notated Western music: it is implicit in the rhythmic procedures of late fourteenth-century French music, as it is in music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that uses hemiola and other ways of alternating meters, especially duple and triple. From then on, since early sets of variations like those of Byrd and Bull started a tradition of establishing tempo relationships between movements, tempo modulation began to relate movements of one piece together, as can be seen in many works of Beethoven, not only in the variations of Op. 111, but in many places where doppio movimento and other terms are used to delineate [exact] tempo relationships. In fact, at that very time, the metronome was invented, which establishes relationships between all tempi. In our time, Stravinsky, following Satie, perhaps, wrote a few works around 1920 whose movements were closely linked by a very narrow range of tempo relationships, and much later Webern did the same.13

Carter has also listed various non-Western traditions—Indian, Arabic, Balinese, and West African—as sources of his rhythmic techniques, as well as “jazz of the thirties and forties that combined free improvisation with strict time.” The sheer cited range calls for comment, not so much because it flaunts erudition, but because it suggests an important difference between mid-twentieth-century composers and those who lived before the widespread dissemination of sound recordings. Thanks to records, which Carter explicitly acknowledged as the source of his knowledge of African music, but which were probably also a gateway to early Western music (just then being commercially recorded on an unprecedented scale), a composer could live, as Henry Cowell once put it, “in the whole world of music” in a way that could never previously have been imagined.

Like Carter, many composers with this sort of access to such a diversity of musics began to think newly of themselves as universalists or omnibus synthesizers. It gave them a much more immediate contact with exotic musics of all kinds, and a newly immediate sense of themselves as living in history, not only as direct recipients of a particular tradition, but as heirs to the sum total of musical culture. For some, that realization brought with it a vastly magnified consciousness of heritage and obligation. It gave Carter a sense of responsibility toward music and its development, and a new sense of purpose. Or that, at least, is the way he has described his development to Allen Edwards, a sort of Boswell who interviewed him at length and fashioned a widely-read book, Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds, out of Carter's responses. Carter's account of his shift in musical interests has an important bearing on the social and historical issues that this chapter and the previous one jointly address.

Carter has dated the change to the year 1944, which, coincidentally or not, was the year in which his Holiday Overture, his most overtly “populist” composition, was rejected for performance by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, despite Copland's enthusiastic sponsorship. In that year, he told his interlocutor,

I suddenly realized that, at least in my own education, people had always been concerned only with this or that peculiar local rhythmic combination or sound-texture or novel harmony and had forgotten that the really interesting thing about music is the time of it—the way it all goes along. Moreover, it struck me that, despite the newness and variety of the post-tonal musical vocabulary, most modern pieces generally “went along” in an all-too-uniform way on their higher architectonic levels. That is, it seemed to me that, while we had heard every imaginable kind of harmonic and timbral combination, and while there had been a degree of rhythmic innovation on the local level in the music of Stravinsky, Bartók, Varèse, and Ives particularly, nonetheless the way all this went together at the next higher and succeeding higher rhythmic levels remained in the orbit of what had begun to seem to me the rather limited rhythmic routine of previous Western music. This fact began to bother me enough so that I tried to think in larger-scale time-continuities of a kind that would be still convincing and yet at the same time new in a way commensurate with, and appropriate to, the richness of the modern musical vocabulary.14

“What contemporary music needs,” he went on,

is not just raw materials of every kind but a way of relating these—of having them evolve during the course of a work in a sharply meaningful way; that is, what is needed is never just a string of “interesting passages,” but works whose central interest is constituted by the way everything that happens in them happens as and when it does in relation to everything else. I feel very strongly about this, just because ever since 1944 I have realized that ultimately the matter of musical time is vastly more important than the particulars or the novelty of the musical vocabulary, and that the morphological elements of any music owe their musical effect almost entirely to their specific “placing” in the musical time-continuity.15

One could hardly express a fuller commitment to the idea of research and development as the composer's primary task. One's entire responsibility as an artist, as Carter here envisions it, is to maintain the pace of technical innovation set by one's predecessors, to make sure that it applies equally to all musical parameters, and direct its course toward the most productive possible historical evolution. Above all, one must “prioritize” one's goals. Carter is very critical of the work of many if not most of his contemporaries:

It seems to me that many of the works of the Darmstadt school of composers have suffered greatly from the attempt to apply certain mistaken “philosophic conceptions” of time to music itself, though it is clear that the attractiveness of these conceptions about, say, the “interchangeability of musical moments” [a reference to Stockhausen] has its roots in the kind of visually- and spatially-derived mechanistic thinking that originally produced total serialism [a reference to Boulez, and, possibly, to Babbitt as well] and was unconcerned from the outset with the problem of time-continuity and of producing feelings of tension and release and therefore of musical motion in the listener, but dealt rather with unusualness of aural effect, thus reducing music to mere physical sound.16

But he shares their commitment to innovation as a primary obligation mandated by history, whatever the consequences may be in terms of the popularity or comprehensibility of the result outside (or even inside) the boundaries of the profession. Carter outlined his own “philosophic conceptions” in an essay called “Music and the Time Screen,” which he delivered as a lecture at the University of Texas in 1971 and later published. The discussion recalls somewhat the second lecture in Stravinsky's Poetics of Music, with its little dissertation—borrowed from Pierre Souvtchinsky, who had borrowed it from Henri Bergson—on the distinction between ontological (or objective) time, ticked off by a clock, and psychological (or subjective) time, meaning time as we humanly perceive it.

The difference is that where Stravinsky had been content to present the pair as a bald and (for music) value-laden contrast, ontological correlating with “classic” (good) and psychological with “romantic” (bad) musical habits, Carter sees music as deriving its value from its capacity to mediate between the two aspects of time. He adopts as his model a celebrated philosophical discussion of music in Susanne Langer's esthetic treatise Feeling and Form (1953). Time is, on the one hand, the experience of passage, and, on the other, the experience of change. Passage is measured by change, which in turn (here Carter quotes Langer; the ellipses are his):

is measured by contrasting two states of an instrument, whether that instrument be the sun in various positions, or the hand on a dial at successive locations, or a parade of monotonous similar events like ticks or clashes, “counted,” i.e. differentiated, by being correlated with a series of distinct numbers …. “Change” is not itself something represented; it is implicitly given through the contrast of different “states” themselves unchanging.

The time concept which emerges from such mensuration is something far removed from time as we know it in direct experience, which is essentially passage, or the sense of transience …. But the experience of time is anything but simple. It involves more properties than “length,” or interval between selected moments; for its passages have also what I can only call, metaphorically, volume. Subjectively, a unit of time may be great or small as well as long or short. It is this voluminousness of the direct experience of passage, that makes it … indivisible. But even its volume is not simple; for it is filled with its own characteristic forms, otherwise it could not be observed and appreciated …. The primary image of music is the sonorous image of passage, abstracted from actuality to become free and plastic and entirely perceptible.17

The deliberate representation of that sonorous image of existence as temporal, Carter asserted, was what the task of all music should be, and what the task of his music, uniquely, actually was. By analogy with Langer's “contrasting states,” Carter sought ways of combining and contrasting aspects of time—of “passage” or unfolding—within a single texture. For example: the first movement of Carter's Cello Sonata (written last) combines what in his essay he calls “chronometric” time (that is, regular isochrony or equal pulses) in the piano against “chrono-ametric” time (irregular mixtures of values producing a rubato effect) in the cello (Ex. 6-6).

Theory: The Time ScreenTheory: The Time Screen

ex. 6-6 Elliott Carter, Cello Sonata, I, opening

To illustrate “metric modulation” in “Music and the Time Screen,” Carter selected the passage from “Canaries” for timpani given in Ex. 6-5, and commented that “to the listener, this passage should sound as if the left hand keeps up a steady beat throughout the passage, not participating in the modulations.”18 In this way, he said, he sought to incorporate elements of both kinds of time experience, as Stravinsky had dichotomized them: “pure duration” as against the distortions of our time sense wrought by “expectation, anxiety, sorrow, suffering, fear, contemplation, pleasure, all of which could not be grasped if there were not a primary sensation of ‘real’ or ‘ontological’ time.”19 As Carter developed these ideas in his music of the 1950s and 1960s, “the primary questions” he sought to answer in his work as a composer were these: “How are events presented, carried on, and accompanied? What kind of changes can previously presented events undergo while maintaining some element of identity? and, How can all this be used to express compelling aspects of experience to the listener?”20 His attempts to answer them led him to what he called

a special dimension of time, that of “multiple perspective” in which various contrasting characters are presented simultaneously—as was occasionally done in opera, for example, in the ballroom scene from Don Giovanni, or in the finale of Aïda. Double and sometimes manifold character simultaneities, of course, present, as our human experience often does, certain emotionally charged events as seen in the context of others, producing often a kind of irony, which I am particularly interested in. In doing this so frequently, and by leading into and away from such moments in what seemed to me telling ways, I have, I think, been trying to make moments of music as rich in reference as I could and to do something that can be done only in music and yet that has rarely been achieved except in opera.21

Eventually, Carter began to experiment with ways of allowing the components of his multiple perspectives to develop independently rather than present statically contrasting characters. This made for situations—simultaneous accelerandos and ritardandos combined with regular beating, for example, as found in the Double Concert—that were almost impossible to notate exactly, giving the music the exceedingly forbidding visual appearance that can mislead score-readers even as it conveys essential information to performers. That begins to hint at some of the problems that Carter's music, despite its “minimal” materials and its ingenuous expressive aims, has created not only for listeners but even for professional analysts, and to suggest why his music, like the total serialism he despises, has acquired a reputation for intellectual abstraction and perceptual opacity. The interesting, historically significant point is that such a reputation did nothing to hinder, and much to facilitate, Carter's belated but inexorable progress to eminence, and even preeminence, among the composers of his generation.


(13) Allen Edwards, Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversation with Elliott Carter (New York: Norton, 1971), pp. 91–92n.

(14) Ibid. pp. 90–91.

(15) Ibid. p. 92.

(16) Ibid. pp. 93–94.

(17) Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (1953); quoted in Carter, “Music and the Time Screen,” p. 66.

(18) Carter, “Music and the Time Screen,” p. 70.

(19) Ibid. p. 68.

(20) Ibid. pp. 73–74.

(21) Ibid. p. 77.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Standoff (II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Standoff (II)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-006003.xml