Lions In Winter


187 years total, Photo by Jon Simon

Did Elliot Carter ever babysit Pierre Boulez? It’s possible, considering that Boulez is only 85 years old this year, while Carter finished his 102nd year on earth December 11. Carter was in the audience this past Monday at Miller Theater for a Portrait of the younger man. It was another one of the events at Miller that drew a packed and excited audience that included, along with Carter, other composers and musicians. John Zorn and Chet Biscardi sat in front of me, Olga Neuwirth at the other end of my row, Sean Sheperd milled in the crowd afterward.

Boulez is deeply important, of course, and also truly fascinating. He may deny this, but he has gone through several important transformations in his musical career that have paralleled large-scale movements in art music in the 20th century, from extreme dogmatism and musical utopianism through the return of Romanticism. He has been on the inside of all this both as an important composer and conductor, and has produced great music on paper and on the podium.

Boulez took Schoenberg’s serial atonality to the extreme, applying strict, hermetically logical rules to other aspects of music, like rhythm and dynamics. And although he is, historically, the antithesis of Cage, he did create a very Cageian piece, Le Marteau sans Maître , where willful expression on the part of the composer and musicians is subdued almost entirely. That work was a pivotal moment for him and for contemporary music. It has been praised for decades, but I feel it is a bad piece of music, but a necessary one. It is completely unenjoyable, in the guise of musical expression it expressive nothing other than a set of rules. Yet it also shows that Schoenberg’s system and its developments were a technical and aesthetic cul-de-sac, and after it music had to back it’s way out and find new directions.

Boulez did the same, and with orchestras, by going backwards in time from Alban Berg, he discovered the great works of Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner. While his results in leading this music are mixed, he can produce astonishing performances, especially live, and has also made some of the finest recordings of Stravinsky and Debussy. I recall his leading the Chicago Symphony in Petrushka a few years ago as the greatest I have ever heard that music. The Miller Portrait was dedicated to his work as a composer and gave examples that spanned seven decades.

The earliest work was 12 Notations, from 1945. Anthony Cheung played this with impeccable skill and musicality. The pieces are sharply etched, mostly atonal but not strictly so. Atonal music is, for most people, including musicians, impossible to follow along the lines and their repetition, it goes against how the ear and the mind work. The fundamental features of melody and harmony cannot be defined in the moment of hearing, so we are left with a series of events placed in time. The best of this music places them with exactitude, and this is one of Boulez’s great virtues as a composer; he creates tension and release by producing a feeling of suspense around when the next event will take place, and what it will be like. The Notations have this virtue, and even have moments of tonality. They also have a great deal of charm and wit, and as Boulez said on stage, they are strictly organized but “hopefully the audience can’t hear that,” which is an important point about music that he would have denied when he first wrote the work! It should just sound good.

His intellectual charm and what is a typical French love of transparent sound and colors is just under the surface of his music, making even the most difficult works appealing in some ways. He also writes very well for the voice, one of the few composers who can make atonal and dissonant vocal lines pleasurable. The example in concert was two Improvisations sur Mallarmé from the 1950s, vocal music that formed the basis of one of his large scale masterpieces, Pli Selon Pli. Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie sang these beautifully, with a full voice, real expression and fabulous pitch. She was accompanied by the centerpiece group of the concert, the excellent Talea Ensemble with precise, impressive leadership from conductor James Baker. The ensemble began and ended the evening with Boulez’s two Dérives, the first from the mid-1980s, the second originally from that same decade but greatly revised and expanded just four years ago.

The first is light, brisk, almost Baroque in the way it builds itself from flourish and trills. The colors are crystalline, chiming. It’s a tone poem, a landscape piece, something out of the Artic, with wind blowing across the frozen surface while, underneath, geological processes move slowly and powerfully. The second work is enormous, the duration of a late Romantic symphony, and a work of complete brilliance. It is ultra-complex but not dense, the clarity and transparency of the score reveals how full of committed thinking the music is. There is something going on all the time, so much polyphony that it is truly too much to digest in one hearing, and it is abstract, revealing nothing about what Boulez was thinking other than the notes and the sound. But Boulez was thinking a great deal, and the music is the demonstration of a mind working at an extremely powerful level, holding and developing multiple ideas simultaneously. The flow of ideas is so fast that it approaches the level of a Cecil Taylor improvisation, just with great orchestration. The effect, as one tries to keep track of the lines, is the creation of a pleasant fugue state. Although there are repeated gestures and sectional ideas, it approaches Carter’s ideal of endless, repetitive music.

Every time I think of, or write that line, I do have to stop and contemplate the idea of a music that does not repeat. Music is repetition and change, that is how musical structures can be made and, usually, how essential ideas of tension and release are conveyed. Music is artificial, it’s something we create out of our minds and in our ears. Carter has dedicated himself for decades now to creating music that doesn’t repeat, music that follows the external flow of time rather than creating it’s own, artificial sense of time. I find this in concept, as a human being, unnerving. Time is what I exist in, and I prefer my art to be artificial, to be at its core an Existential blow against the entropy that is an inevitable feature of the universe. And yet here is Carter, doing the thing that every neuron tells me can’t be done, and doing it brilliantly.

His current output, a substantial sample of which is available on this great set released this year, is the most sheerly enjoyable of his career. Carter has always gone his own way, only coincidentally with or against musical fashion, and his individuality has never been greater. His voice is so consistent and so clear, yet he never sounds like he is repeating himself and reworking his own material. His pieces have become shorter and, as they become ever more concentrated on his idea, with it’s unfathomable implications, have become surprisingly lighter. They are impish, dazzling, full of humor, but without wasted notes or filligree. One is left smiling as if he’s played a good natured practical joke, one where the punch line went by so quickly it may have been missed. This video gives a good example of this style:

It is perhaps impossible to determine exactly what Carter is saying here, but it is so clear that he is saying something worthwhile, and that because it can’t be understood, it draws the listener in. It’s as mysterious, abstract and absolute as music gets, and still it’s amiable, approachable, winning. Carter is really exploring aesthetic possibilities that are as yet unknown in cultural history, and the clarity and concentration of his style, the sense that you are hearing exactly what he wants you to hear, comes from his astonishing creative experience. At 102 years young, his voice is assured and modestly experimental beyond any in the history of Western art music.

It’s an unmistakable feature of late style. You can hear it in a CD out this year from Noah Creshevsky, who has pioneered his own unmistakable style. He calls it hyperrealism, and it’s apt. Creshevsky works with electroacoustic sources (samples and instruments), and stitches his music together into pieces that sound like music that is just slightly inhuman, in that it is clear, direct, has recognizable means and structures, but has a particular quality of the velocity of events and ideas, or adapts an acoustic instrument in a particular way, that could not actually be produced by a person physically playing an instrument. It’s like Conlon Nancarrow’s approach, but with an interest in varied, open-ended structures. The results are as unnerving as Carter’s concept, but exhilarating. The Twilight Of The Gods is a dazzling CD, the pieces full of recognizable details that tickle the mind and the memory, the music itself moving in ways that make one dizzy. Creshevsky’s music is like riding a musical roller-coaster, one that has turns and drops that can’t be seen or anticipated from the car. It can be exhausting, but it is amazing to hear, and the CD is one of the best releases of the year. It’s also a testament, again, to an artist whose language and craft are beyond assured.

Another composer who is so clear and accomplished in his language is Ingram Marshall. He also has one of the year’s best release in September Canons . Here we are on, it seems, a unguided tour of the composer’s mind, with pieces that cover several of the areas he has touched on in his work; his use of electronics to augment acoustic instruments with great beauty, represented by the title piece for Todd Reynolds violin, his pieces that use fragments of his own memory and experiences via older recordings of music, like Sibelius or village marches, as the texture in which to create new perspectives, music for the Gambuh, an Indonesian dramatic form, and of course gamelan music, represented here by “Woodstone.” This last has one of the most compelling and beautiful combinations of melody and harmony that I have ever heard, so beautiful it’s disturbing in its power. A wonderful collection.

Of course, the great example of late style in the arts is Beethoven, especially the piano sonatas and string quartets. Beethoven, the great builder of musical structures that, without a wasted moment, inevitably conveyed the listener from beginning to end, from entrance to exit, every room and passageway with a purpose . . . this Beethoven, late in his life and deaf, with his unerring knowledge of how symbols on a page translated into sound and form, began to explore what strike me as deeply personal thoughts and feelings. The musical edifices are still unshakably firm, but they are more extravagant, with details, passageways and rooms that have no other purpose than to add a sensation of pleasure, or mystery. There is a long debate about the meaning of the late string quartets, and to that I would add the view that much of them mean nothing. That for Beethoven, who had been a public composer, producing works that more and more informed the audience of ideas along with music, the late music is necessarily internal, due to his deafness, but also delightfully internal. He is not only writing what he hears in his inner ear but what delights his inner ear, music that makes him wonder and question and mostly marvel at the oddness of it all. The reputation of the Grosse Fugue, the initial finale of the Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130, was that it was too difficult to listen to. It does begin sternly, but then it grows increasingly warm as Beethoven seems to enthrall himself with how much nice music the material can produce. Perhaps the mystery of this late style is that it is the sound of a man humming to himself in his private moments.

To explore that mystery, listen to the Tokyo Quartet’s set of the late quartets, and also to the first two volumes of the Cypress String Quartet’s recordings of the late quartets. Both groups of recordings are at the highest level, and they are quite different from each other. The Tokyo is a veteran group, their sound, especially in the brilliant Harmonia Mundi SACD sound, is bright, polished but not smoothed over. Their tempos and playing style is lighter, they have a focus on ensemble unanimity of purpose, giving the feeling that they have clearly determined the thing they will express and then doing so with great style. Their set is full of energy, bravura in every way. The Cypress is a younger group, their sound is rougher and darker (both types of sound are great in this music). Their playing is more deliberate, like they are thinking out loud, and at times they seem to be deliberately giving an independent voice to each of their members, exploring the possibilities of the music and confident it will bear them safely to a conclusion – this strikes me as a naturally brilliant approach to these pieces, with their willfulness and depth. Where the Tokyo excites with beauty, the Cypress excites with a thrilling kind of gravitas, a willingness to contemplate what is happening in front of them while they play the music. Their CDs have superb sound, and I’m eagerly awaiting the final installment. Both sets would be a valuable part of any Beethoven collection, and with their quality and differences make great ‘bookends.’