Off the Ovation channel I recently, happily, discovered and recorded Frank Scheffer’s “Carter: Labyrinth of Time,” a fascinating documentary about the composer. It was released in 2004, but the filming clearly spans a period from the late 90’s to early this century, which is confirmed by the odd and regrettable contemporary epoch-keeping visual device of seeing the World Trade Center in the south-looking windows in Carter’s apartment. The man-made catastrophe also figures in some of Carter’s comments.
One of the most fascinating elements of Carter’s work is simply his human longevity, and what that makes possible in terms of memory and the flow of tradition from the past into the future. Here is a man who can sit down in front of you and say he remembers the start of World War One. His listening lifetime spans the distance from Mahler to Murcof. He has lived through cataclysmic war and the transformation of international travel from steamship to jet. When he began writing music, the pencil was the most important instrument for a composer, and now it’s the digital computer – which makes me wonder if Carter has an email address?!
A good one would be ECarter99. Ninety-nine years old, in that the end of his 99th year was marked in December, and now he is in his 100th year, increasingly productive and the composer in residence for Carnegie Hall in the 2008-2009 season, where he has I think three premieres scheduled. It’s truly hard to believe. This past fall, around his birth, the de facto Elliot Carter festival year began with the New York premiere performances of his opera What Next? at Miller Theater. I attended the birthdate performance on December 11, where all in attendance serenaded the composer with “Happy Birthday” after the multiple rounds of applause for the concert (I’ve now said “thank you” to Lou Harrison who blessed me after I sneezed, and have sung to Elliot Carter – actually, I’ve also had one of my works played for Carter in a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory back in the early 90’s). That program also featured a sampling of chamber music spanning all the way back to when he was a mere octogenarian (the opera, his first, was not composed until he turned 90).
There have been other, scattered concerts of his chamber music since, with more to come over the next 12 months. The Pacifica Quartet was in town to give a single evening’s playing of his five string quartets. And Juilliard’s Focus! 2008 festival was “All About Elliot,” six concerts over eight days, chamber works book-ended by larger scale performances of Carter and his contemporaries – which again meant music that spanned roughly 80 years. I was at the first and last concerts, which were packed, with a large scrum of people waiting outside in bitter cold weather for the first, hoping to cadge any extra free tickets. It’s been exciting, fascinating, stimulating, frustrating – great musical art.
Carter is not to everyone’s liking, and that even goes for the composition teachers I’ve had. My peers in age an experience tend to find him thrilling, with at the very least that sense of challenge, of digging into difficult music and ideas that’s exciting for any developing musician or composer. But Carter, as Carter – he wrote his share of quality Neo-Classical Americana when that was the style, but found his personal path during the period of High Modernism that began in the 1950’s, and although superficially his sound world was very much that of Babbit or Boulez, his particular means were absolutely his own – is a difficult composer to listen to. Although his textures are transparent, the amalgamation of voices, notes and rhythms is as complex as exists in music.
Not all of it works equally well, of course, and not all of it works for me as a listener. Whether that speaks to the music or my cloth ears is debatable. However, Carter’s aesthetic is a conversational one that I’ve heard described as a representation of the American ideal, of many voices given the chance to have their say in society. These voices, the polyphony of their arguments, must say things we are interested in hearing – we won’t want to hear all the arguments with equal interest, no matter how skillfully the composer presents them. In this regard, the String Quartets are involving, stunning masterpieces, gripping throughout each listening. I saw the Pacifica present that concert in San Francisco a few years ago, and it was a great, almost overwhelming experience. Of his recent works, some appeal immediately, others make one want to listen again, which I think is a mark of success.
What doesn’t work, I feel, is the opera. Opera is extremely difficult to pull off with atonal or extremely dissonant music. I think Carter has the skill to do it, but What Next fails because of its libretto, by the critic Paul Griffiths. The dramatic device is the confusion and disorientation, disassociation even, of a group of survivors of a car crash. This is tricky contemporary territory. J. G. Ballard has already explored it deeply and unforgettably in Crash, which, for all its surrealism, is a story of characters and their transformations. Griffiths libretto just doesn’t make the figures characters, and we experience them only in the steady-state of post-accident experience. Something has happened, but we don’t have any baseline with which to compare before and after, and the characters themselves undergo no transformation of any kind during the course of the piece. There is no personal drama, so no matter how accomplished the music the opera fails as a drama.
The Focus! concerts were excellent. Quite an amazing resource to be able to attend, for free, concerts of the music of Carter, with Varese, Stravinsky, Boulez and Ives conducted, respectively, by Pierre Boulez himself and James Levine. The first concert, led by the former, featured the context of Modernism of the 1920’s, Carter’s Triple Duo and the marvelous Penthode, then the contemporary companions of Derive I and Carter’s Clarinet Concerto. The undergrad soloist, Ismail Lumanovski, was tremendous. I enjoy Boulez more and more as a composer, especially the colorful, vital late works. Earlier this year saw a performance of his Le Marteau sans Maitre, which is rigorously controlled to the point of irrelevance. What is it exactly? I don’t think anyone knows, including the composer. But it is an effective demonstration of what can possibly done with music.
The last festival concert was concert-making and American music at its best. Levine led the Juilliard Orchestra in a wonderful performance of Three Places in New England, which really sets the tradition which Carter still belongs to, then energetic performances of Carter’s Cello Concerto and Symphonia: sum fluxae pretieum spei. The student soloist, Dane Johansen, was once again astonishing, and the orchestral music is some of the best I’ve heard of the whole body of work. The balance between polyphony and the need to maintain clear textures in the large ensemble means an ideal mix of active and sound, and the music, even in the long span of the symphonic work, is constantly involving. It’s great music, and Carter at his best is a great composer.
In the documentary, he makes a statement about his own music and methods that is both quiet and incredibly radical. He says that he strives to avoid repetition, anything mechanical. I thought about this, and considered his music, and realized how profound and difficult that is. Repetition is the fundamental structural device in music across the world, it’s the means by which the ears can hear what holds a piece together, and at its most effective it carries a tremendous emotional power, as musical ideas are brought back in new contexts. Mozart is impossible without repetition. Yet Carter seeks to make music that starts and then runs along and ends, leaving no easy handle for the listener or even the musician! It’s unlike anything else, and it makes for challenging playing and listening, but when it succeeds, its absolutely brilliant.
When I think of my own work, and my own constant struggle to reconcile the Apollonian an Dionysian in music, which I love both equally and differently, this gives me a great deal to think about. As a matter of craft, I want to create music that has a sense of freedom and spontaneity, even though all the notes and directions are there on the page for the musicians to follow. Carter’s way seems to point to an intriguing possibility, of creating the sense of disorder even amidst the absolutely determined choice of each musical event. It’s going to be a stimulating year for Carter and anyone interested in listening to him, as he challenges us all with the sense that he will never stop finding his way to his own late style. Even at 100 and beyond.