Fifty Modern Classics: Like many, I’m sure, I’ve been put off from approaching the music of Elliott Carter (1908-2012) by its seemingly forbidding surface. I was persuaded to try again by the compelling contribution to BBC Radio 3’s series of podcasts Fifty Modern Classics by the novelist Mark Haddon. He starts off discussing “the erroneous idea of difficulty – as if the music is a puzzle that has to be solved”. No-one stands in front of a modern painting and says ‘this is a difficult painting’, says Haddon, “because they know you don’t solve paintings. Well you don’t solve music either. It’s a sensuous experience, you need a bit of your body to be moved somehow, going through feet, legs, groin, chest and up to the brain. If your body’s not moving with the music then it doesn’t do it for you. And Carter does it for me, I feel almost physically drawn into it in some way.”

Carter’s third quartet is an example of his mature style and shows off some of his typical compositional strategies, many of which are very easily audible. For instance, his idea of “metric modulation” sounds highly technical but is really just a simple way of gradually transitioning the music between different tempos. (Carter often used one movement forms of varying mood, as in the third quartet, and thus dispenses with the usual gap of silence between contrasting movements). There are also “eclipses of sound”, the shift from clear textures into passages of high density, where there’s too much going on to hear everything at once. Despite Carter’s “difficult” reputation he was a genial character, and that geniality comes out in his music – it’s not threatening.

In the podcast Haddon goes on to talk specifically about Carter’s quartets. There is “long wavelength counterpoint working through these pieces. In the first [1951] quartet [Carter] gets very interested in big polyrhythms, rhythms working against each other. In the second [1959] he starts to divide those rhythms between groups of instruments. In the third he splits the quartet into two: violin and viola in strict time with pizzicato and fast runs in the high register; and second violin and cello with rubato and slower notes in the low register”. These four different voices variously pair up in teams, bicker, go off to sulk and come back again into some kind of interaction “like an argumentative family meal with all those characters warring against each other”.

Haddon sees the music in terms of image and metaphor, like a landscape “watching big natural processes interacting with each other, wind and water, or mountains, where patterns are working that you can’t quite see, but there’s a sense of order under the chaos”. Most memorably, Haddon describes the “fantastic” opening of the third quartet “as if the string quartet has been poured onto an ice rink so that they’re trying to stand upright – everything’s skidding everywhere – and then it settles down, you hear the different aspects of that initial explosion of sound, the skittering of the skates trying to find their footing from the higher group of instruments, and then the low slide underneath as it all resolves”.

So far as I can see Haddon hasn’t published anything specifically about music. Perhaps he should. But he did appear on the Radio 3 show Private Passions in September 2009, when his choices included Britten, Steve Reich and Carter’s Oboe Quartet from 2001.

I’ve put together a complete, annotated list of the BBC Fifty Modern Classics here in chronological order, and will fill out the notes included there into a series of these blog posts over time.