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.’
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.