Get Carter! Part II

Jan 10, 2013

I hadn’t seen Marcel Proost in a very long time. There were rumors along Buckshot Creek Road that he was doing time at Vacaville for unpaid parking tickets or check kiting, but when I spied a unneutered dog go running down the road yesterday morning, I figured he must be back living down in the ravine. So I ventured down the steep grade of his driveway, through dense redwoods, ferns and overgrown huckleberry bushes, past the hulk of an abandoned Dodge Ram, and sure enough, through the gloom I could see a light on inside the trailer and hear his generator humming.

Marcel, looking the same as ever, greeted me effusively and offered a bottle of Geezer Surprise IPA. He was sitting in his one-piece “union suit” at the formica table he’d scavenged at the local dump, and I could see I’d interrupted his rolling a cigarette. The trailer smelled an unpleasant mixture of wet socks, tobacco and too many dogs. I noticed that on the wall where he always had pin up photo of his latest crush—first Nastassja Kinsky, then later Nuria Schoenberg —he now had one of Claire Danes.

“What’s that you got playing on your CD there, Marcel,” I inquired. “Sounds pretty intense. I’m going to assume it’s not Credence Clearwater Revival. Right?”

He grins at me and shows a tiny fleck of Bugler on the tip of his tongue. “ Come one, John. That’s Elliott’s Variations for Orchestra. You gonna tell me you don’t know this—one of the indisputably great American orchestral works.”

“Yeah, I guess I recognize it after all,” I say. I didn’t let on that I had recently done it with the amazing New World Symphony Orchestra and was planning to do it again in London. I thought I’d play dumb, have a little fun with Marcel—-pull his chain and see what kind of response I might get.

“I just can’t make my mind up about Carter, Marcel,” I say. “I’m in a state of perpetual ambivalence about his music. What I love is—what should I call it?—the integrity of the whole and the sum of the parts. And there are ideas of really stunning originality, like those granite brass chords that can plaster you into your seat faster than any Messianic Expectorant. I love its vitality, its invention and overall seriousness. But there’s also an unyielding busyness and corresponding lack of repose that threatens to turn me off…the same kind of brain fatigue you get after an hour (or ten minutes?) of reading Adorno.

Marcel, who’s just taken a generous swig of Geezer Surprise, makes a contorted face, coughs and sputters, “Excuse me, friend, but isn’t there more to the appeal of music than its being striking and original? What about the experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty or by its truthfulness in the the representation of emotion?” He pounds his fist on the table and I can see one of his pit bull’s ears prick up in a state of anxious alert and hear it growl.

“Whoa, there, Marcel,” I exclaim in consternation. “Don’t get so upset…you’re sounding like one of those people Jaron Lanier writes about, someone who’s perfectly nice in the flesh but kinda coarse when they get online.”

“You mean a troll?”

“Well, not exactly that bad. But that’s a topic for another time. What interests me is how long it took me to like the Carter Variations. I confess that half the reason for deciding to conduct the piece was hoping that I’d come to really know and even love the work.”


“Yes, well I believe that happened, at least for the most part. I still feel it’s over-written in some passages. Those two amazing variations, the one that slows down gradually only to end up where it started—you know, like a rhythmic Shephard tone—and its mate (which does the opposite) both suffer from too heavy a contrapuntal piling on of material. They could be more effective if there weren’t so much conflicting activity that ends self-cancelling.

And likewise, that splendid moment at the end of the finale arrives after so much frenetic activity and harmonic ambiguity that I always find I have to hit “reset” on my emotional sensor.”

He smiles with a look of condescending patience. “You’re just getting to know the piece. Come back to it in another year, and I’ll bet you will like it even more than you do now, that you’ll even love it. John, this is a really strong piece, and it’s a scandal that it hasn’t become a repertoire favorite by now. Do you realize this piece is coming up on its sixtieth anniversary, and still you don’t see it on the seasons of major American orchestras more than once in a blue moon."

“In fact I do love it, Marcel, and I think the reason it’s so rarely played is because a lot of big time conductors just don’t get it, and they also know it takes a huge amount of time to rehearse. There has to be some supreme irony in the fact that a great band like the LSO knows “Harmonielehre” but still has yet to perform the Carter."

“Marcel—you’re such a demanding listener!” I razz him. “Oh well, what can I expect from someone who lost his virginity while listening to the Sessions Violin Concerto on his car radio!”

“A case of serious imprinting, I guess, John.” Well, I gotta get to bed. Herb Schreiner and I are heading out at 5 AM for some abalone diving. I hope it goes well for you in London. Best audiences in the world, I hear tell.”

By the time I leave it’s become completely dark, and I don’t have a flashlight. I have to fumble my way a half mile up the road, my hands stretched out ahead of me, a similar experience to hearing the First String Quartet for the first time. Finally I see a light way ahead in the distance and head for it. Far behind me in the canyon I can hear the sound of Marcel’s CD player—he’s put it on shuffle mode, and now it’s playing an old Moondog tune.

Comments (8)

Elissa Forsythe
January 10, 2013

I love that Proust is till around to shmooze with and that he has a dog. What an interesting life JA!

Austin Showen
January 10, 2013

I think it's fair to say that "Marcel" has become to Mr. Adams what "M. Croche" was to Debussy, or "Florestan and Eusebius" were to Schumann.

January 12, 2013

Alert readers, marvel at the biting bit of plagiarism above the dog's ears. Love it!

January 17, 2013

It took me a long time to get Carter. Once I did, it seemed like it might not have been worth the effort (except that it is always good to learn how to hear the language of a difficult composer, just for the sake of stretching the ears).

To my way of hearing and understanding it, a great deal of his music, from around 1950 to the mid-1980's is overly concerned with being "important music" and I just don't find that to be very interesting. And I could care less that he wanted to keep up with, and impress, European modernists like Boulez. The result, to me, is that his music from that era sounds very much like he is constantly advertising his technique and craft, to the detriment of the music. I remember how he was so proud of getting some absurd number of separate lines going at once in the piano concerto, but in truth, nobody's ears are good enough to hear it, so what's the point? It becomes paper music, not heard music.

That reminds me: a major help in getting Carter for me was looking at the score of the 2nd quartet while listening to a recording of it. All of a sudden, lots of stuff fell into place. But why should I need to look at the score in order to hear the music? There's something backwards there, to my way of thinking.

An odd side-effect of all that heavy burden of import that his middle-period music has to carry is that most of those compositions seem at least 20% longer than they really need to be. At least. It's actually a little strange how somewhere after the half-way point I get a "wait, shouldn't you be done already?" feeling in so many of his works. I don't get that effect from many composers.

David Nice
January 17, 2013

I've never really 'got' Carter, though I look forward to your second LSO concert for the chance to try again. Thanks for expressing your ambivalence so vividly above. I'm more of the line of your record producer when he writes in an intro to the Earbox that he spent time studying and writing notes for the Second String Quartet. Then the experience of hearing it again invalidated all that - it just didn't communicate to him. I feel like that about most works by Maxwell Davies, whose music I had to absorb over a long period for his website. To whom exactly does it speak? is a valid question.

January 20, 2013

I guess Mr. Adams does read the comments section

September 7, 2013

Hi Mr. Adams,

I hope all is well! I hear that your saxophone concerto was well received in Sydney. Congratulations!

I am a young music history student working on John Cage's music and in specific, I am examining his compositions from the late 1960s through the mid 70s where he becomes evermore interested in Thoreau and ecology. I would much enjoy sending you a chapter of my masters thesis so you can check out my work.

Once I graduate from Arizona State University (during the spring), I must find a Ph.D program to continue my studies. I would love to take a year off and come out and visit or further examine either your music or continue my Cage studies. Not to be too direct but would you be willing to house me? If not, I would still love to meet you and discuss music and politics as I could learn a lot from you and maybe you from me. I look forward to your response and respect you as a composer and a political activist.

My e-mail address is and my phone number is (614) 563-7066.


Joseph Finkel
Graduate Teaching Assistant
Arizona State University

May 15, 2014

I would simply like you to know that Doctor Atomic was adopted this year at my university (a small liberal arts institution in the midwest) as one of a dozen works in our Freshman Studies program. FS is like a "great books" curriculum, except that we always include one work of music and often other art works as well. This winter Doctor Atomic was on a slate that included Richard Feynman's The Character of Physical Law, Borges' Collected Fictions, and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, which made for some interesting connections. The opera was such a success that it will be taught again next year and, I hope, for several years beyond that. We regard our Freshman Studies program, which is required of the entire first-year class (400 students in all, about 25% of whom are from our conservatory) as an introduction to the liberal arts, and Doctor Atomic proved to be a potent interdisciplinary brew. And while we did not shy away from the purely musical challenges it presents, especially to non-musicians, what was most pleasing to me was how so many of our students, some of whom had never previously seen an opera, discovered multiple ways into the work--to the point that many found themselves loving something they had initially found quite daunting. Thank you for this profound and beautiful work, which has touched the hearts and minds of what might at first have seemed an unlikely audience.

Add a Comment

always kept private