Why not compose for the ear?

If I were to try, like some minimalist sculptor, to reduce modern music's biggest issue down to its simplest component, it would probably be: How important is the ear, as a reference, both for listener and composer? How important is a work's actual aural impact on our ability to take in, judge, remember, and cherish? Or are theories, stratagems, and philosophies more crucial now to what music is all about? The variance rages on; it very likely will for some time.

One of the most richly symbolic composers in this whole debate - to my thinking - has for years been Elliott Carter. I cannot remember a time when Carter was not ranked with Stravinsky and saluted as the hottest item in North America's all-time musical harvest. Yet something has always gnawed in me about the stability of that claim, and since in recent years the eclat has grown only stronger, so has my faint vexation.

Carter's music has pulled together a tremendous following over the years, largely beginning with the European premiere of his first String Quartet in 1951 . His success came, by his own admission, when he ceased composing with a concern for anything except the problems and ideas that most interested him. A thorny, abstruse musical language resulted, utterly unyielding in its severity and its involvement with the pure development and transforming of its own musical statements.

There is in his music not the slightest consideration of ''pleasing'' sounds or sounds of rest, resolution, or even symmetry. Resolutions and symmetries are important, but in their sonic context they remain on a fairly mental, ''point granted'' basis. The three string quartets, particularly, are of a staggering notational exactness and rhythmic complexity, and are among the most labyrinthine constructions the human mind has ever conceived.

Ironically, through it all, Carter has consistently achieved that ubiquitous postwar sound heard by vast numbers of listeners as ''random'': chords and patterns far beyond their ears' ability to follow.

On the other hand, a critic wrote in the 1960s of the ''powerfully expresssed , metaphoric human content'' of his music. And there is a vehement emotional drive to the gestures and juxtapositions in his pieces, the 1965 Piano Concerto being a fine example of that. Compared with, say, Arnold Schonberg's ultimately sterile musical product, Carter's tonal facelessness turns out to be much more highly expressive and gripping, whether in the powerful passages or in the hushed, phantasmagoric ones.

That praiseful critic introduced the term metaphoric, which keeps returning (to me) and urging its importance to the proceedings. For how far can the coherence of absolute musical material - no matter how passionately it is played - be attenuated on the strength of metaphoric, once-removed ideals? What is the tensile strength of the architectural argument, when the piece runs on in what amounts to a musical Esperanto of the composer's own fashioning?

Art music is distinguished by its subtlety, yes. But in Carter's music, things are frequently happening in time simply faster and thicker than any set of ears can register them and sort out their significance. And that, by the way, defines the threshold of what is called non-aural music: music in which other things are going on that take precedence over its sheer aural impact - how it sounds, how it comes across.

Does Carter's complexity have as much to offer, in return for the listener's and performer's commitment, as did Stravinsky's ''The Rite of Spring'' in 1913?

Is that a fair question? Probably, for, still and all, such complexity is an act of ego. This might seem less of an issue, were it not coupled with Carter's slightly apres-moi attitude, for which he has been fairly well known, concerning the fate of art music in Western society. It seems too much, to me, to ask the listener or performer to accept both the mootness of music's continued relevance to society and the gnarled Carterian maze of sound, no matter how visceral.

During the 1940s Carter did make the attempt to write music that was infinitely more approachable and digestible in style - works he has subsequently described as ''populist.'' He and many other artists were deeply concerned by the human devastation that was going on during the war, feeling that their ''high art,'' in his words, ''seemed cruelly remote.'' He tried to make a more humane musical gesture, but his heart wasn't in it, and it is to his credit that he abandoned ''populism'' for what his inclinations demanded: the rarefied musical experience.

In its monolithic impact, his music today strongly invites comparison with Beethoven's. There is a throbbing dialectic at work, of impassioned, timeless-sounding forces; the self-assuredness about honoring traditions of the past; the forbidding, inexorable logic. There is, however, an important distinction. Beethoven's is high art, to be sure. But there is also his extended hand, the willingness to speak to intense human need, to nourish the human heart.

It is following this line of thought, set up mostly by Carter's music itself, that leads me in my placement of him - as one for whom music is an abjectly exclusive experience; as one, among many, for whom music has always been the property of a privileged inner circle, the warped outcome of the heady experimental days of the depression when drifts and trends were exciting and the new dawning looked as if it would last forever.

And perhaps there is a deeper difference in basic outlook, expressed in the Wallace Stevens quotation used at the front of Allen Edwards' book of interviews with Carter: . . . delight, since the imperfect is so hot in us, Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.m

Carter's music gives every evidence that such are his delights, and the suggestion says much to me about where such a creative motivation is coming from.

It is possible that the music of Elliott Carter will, in our time, eventually bring to a boil the problem I began with - the issue of what humankind will find to remember and cherish in music - and be one of the biggest helps in resolving it.

An Elliott Carter listening list:

* Symphony No. 1.

* Sonata for Cello and Piano.

* The three String Quartets.

* Double Concerto, Piano and Harpsichord.

* Piano Concerto.

* ''A Mirror on which to Dwell'' (song cycle).

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