Curating difference

Adlington, R. (2020) Curating difference. In: Finding Democracy in Music. Musical Cultures of the Twentieth Century . Routledge. ISBN 9780367486921 (hardback) 9780367499457 (paperback) 9780367486938 (e-book)


The idea of democracy loomed large in Elliott Carter’s many obituaries. Carter was ‘the most democratic of composers’, his music presenting ‘the ideal form of American democracy’, ‘a pristine and utopian town-hall democracy’, even a ‘vision of America [that] resembled ... that of the Founding Fathers’. Special emphasis was placed upon Carter’s interest in musical textures that combined multiple distinct voices, an idea that Carter himself likened to ‘the democratic attitude’. Less was said by the obituarists about how this commitment sat with Carter’s view that serious composition was fundamentally threatened by the democratic preferences of modern Americans, and what Daniel Guberman terms his self-mythologization as a stubbornly asocial frontiersman. The numerous allusions to democracy in Carter’s writings and interviews have to date received no sustained analysis. This chapter explains the apparent contradictions of his position in terms of divergent mid-twentieth-century American readings of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. These provided a basis both for the advocacy of equal differences and for assigning a privileged status to visionary artists. In this way, Carter’s appeals to a single concept disguised irreconcilable positions on the questions of freedom and equality in American society.

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