A Matter of Taste

A Matter of Taste

After the news of Elliott Carter’s passing earlier this week, I was quite moved by the outpouring of tributes to the composer that I encountered through social media. Obviously my window to the world through social media is skewed toward new music nerds, but even so, I have to admit I was slightly surprised at the extent of the outpouring. Among many of my new music friends, Carter was a figure who was more begrudgingly admired than universally adored, though this seemed to be changing in recent years. It says something about Carter’s musical imagination that even those who professed to dislike his work had a favorite piece by him.

It also got me thinking about the limits of what we can do as composers to advocate for our own music. When our music is poorly or (worse) indifferently received, we may perceive it as a failure of presentation, contextualization, education, or marketing. The audience just didn’t have the right frame of reference. Or, maybe we think the problem is the music itself. Maybe it was too intricate, too subtle, too esoteric. Maybe it was flawed, or just plain bad.

Most of the discussion around what to do about the state of new music today seems to vacillate between these two proposals. Change the music, or change the stuff around the music. I should say that I’m an advocate of both of these plans in certain situations. But I also wonder if there is a natural limit to what these changes are capable of. Maybe it doesn’t come down to intelligence or education. Maybe it comes down to aesthetics, or to put it more bluntly, maybe it’s a matter of taste.

For example, lots of people like spicy food, including me. But I wouldn’t call someone misinformed for not liking spicy food, and just because that person dislikes a particular spicy dish, doesn’t mean that it’s not well-made. Dissonance in music is similar–some like it mild, others want a jar of hot sauce on hand at all times. Maybe this seems obvious, but the difference is that dissonance still offends people in ways that spicy food doesn’t. No one insists that chefs should stop making spicy food, or that spicy food has ruined gourmet cuisine forever.

The idea that some music is an “acquired taste” is not exactly new, but I hope we can learn to avoid those annoyingly classist mistaken assumptions that often ride along with other acquired tastes. Not everyone will like Carter’s music, or mine, or yours, and that’s okay.

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One thought on “A Matter of Taste

  1. Elaine Fine

    It’s important to remember that Carter, though he might have felt himself alone in his particular kind of musical creativity, was living and working during a time of serious experimentation. There were a healthy handful of really interesting people in the new music community, and they all admired him and his work.

    I confess that my admiration for Carter comes from his early music: Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, and the Woodwind Quintet, in particularly. I appreciate his ingenuity (his solo music for timpani is quite ingenius), but I can’t claim to actually follow the train of musical thought that he engaged in during much of the later 20th century. I do, however, enjoy his 21st century music. The most important thing is that his music was all about his particular train of musical thought. He didn’t bow to trends or try to adjust his ideas to the times. He didn’t need to.

    Carter was in a financial position and in a social position not to have to worry about what people thought about his music. He seemed to be propelled creatively from within, and seemed to live an ideal musical life. He had tremendous talent, intellect, and ability, great teachers, wealth, personal stability, and respect of a musical establishment that accepted his work as music of value, even if they didn’t really understand it.

    Whether we live for 103 years, like Carter, or 31 like Schubert, the process of writing music is at its most pure when it is done for the pleasure of doing it. Whether we live a long life or a short one, what we leave behind becomes our contribution to the world. When it is music, the collaboration between performing musicians, composing musicians, and audiences goes on. I think it is always best to be true to yourself, because everything you drop on the trail as you go onward in life, whether it is celebrated during your lifetime by many, like Carter, or celebrated and enjoyed after your lifetime, like Schubert, is a bit of your personal humanity–your take on life, musical and otherwise.

    Perhaps the example we can all take from Carter is to be true to yourself. I don’t know about you, but try as I might to change the music I write to fit what I think an audience’s expectations might be, it is as impossible as changing my face, my voice, or even my height.


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