Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Elliott Carter: Still Ticking-Tocking Away

Elliott Carter
Richard Termine/The NY Times

I'd wanted to post this almost exactly a month ago, when, on December 8, 2011, friends of the composer Elliott Carter (1908-) organized a concert on behalf of his imminent 103rd birthday (December 11) at New York's 92nd Street Y, but J's Theaters perhaps now know how such things go. At the concert, which Carter attended, the performers played a series of the composer's works, all of them written in recent years and, astonishingly, nine--NINE--written since he turned 100 in 2008. I find this just almost inconceivable, but Carter has been incredibly productive in his latter years, and continues to generate works that are not mere echoes or refinements of his earlier work, but which constitute significant efforts in themselves.  For those unfamiliar with Carter's music, which is, I know, not to everyone's taste--and which generates, like Arnold Schoenberg's music, wails even in advance of its hearing--his great insight and innovation was to create works in which individual instruments play their lines, at varying tempos, simultaneously, occasionally shifting into harmonies or counterpoint, only to speed or slow right back out of such. The effect is sometimes one of jarring stratification, at others of a lyrical, atonal strangeness that feels akin the soundworld around us.  Charles Ives, another major American composer whom Carter met when he was young, pioneered compositions along these lines, as have others, but Carter's unusual instrumental combinations, and his variety of tempos, pitches and stratified lines sound unlike anyone else's.

Carter's early works were in a neoclassical mode, but after the mid-century, as he was approaching the age of 50, he began writing work that sounded like serialism but which did not use serial techniques. A good example of this work is the breathtaking the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras of 1959-61, in which the harpischord, with its chamber orchestra, and the piano with its own basically produce simultaneous concerti. It has to be listened to be believed (that harpsichord!). The first time I heard it, on a CD--because I have rarely been able to hear Carter's music live--I was spellbound by what sounded like incommensurable soundworlds being fused. Think of a somewhat inebriated Haydn playing his music alongside a contemporary orchestra, on a busy city street. Among his other notable works from this period are the Variations for Orchestra (1954-5), the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), based on a poem by the French Nobel laureate poet Saint-John Perse; the Piano Concerto (1964-65), written to honor the 85th birthday of Igor Stravinsky, whose influence on Carter's earliest music was significant; and the almost unbelievably immense Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-1996), written, as is evident from the dates, when he was in his 80s. Carter has set the music of a number of American poets, including William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and John Ashbery to music, especially over the last three-and-a-half decades.

On the New York Review of Books blog, the critic and pianist Charles Rosen offers a fine reading of Carter's music in relation to its exploration of temporality (all music, of course, represents sounds articulated within a temporal framework), "Elliot Carter's Music of Time," and discusses the December 8, 2011 concert, as well as one that ensued a few days later at the Juillard School's Alice Tully Hall. There the new music ensemble Axiom (who on their Myspace page feature a free recording of one of my favorite classical pieces, Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) performed Carter's Three Explorations, which, according to Rosen, is a song cycle to lines from Eliot's Four Quartets. Rosen highlights what he feels were the more successful pieces and performances, the overall appraisal a positive one; the New York Times's Anthony Tommasini gave the concert a positive review as well.  The 92nd St. Y's site posted videos of Carter talking about his life and work.  The NYRB site features a link to a snippets of the pieces performed at the Y as well as of Three Explorations; all are worth listening to. I am including a few Elliott Carter videos below for any who are curious. I personally hope to hear Carter's music live before he departs this earthly plane, but let me say in any case, Belated Happy 103rd Birthday, Eliott Carter.

Elliott Carter, Luimen, at Tanglewood (Joseph Brent, mandolin; Oren Fader, guitar; Megan Levin, harp; Steven Merrill, vibes; Patrick Pfister, trombone; Chris Coletti, trumpet; Christoph Altstaedt, conducting. Watch through the end for an appearance by Mr. Carter himself.)

Elliott Carter's Mosaic, Part 1, performed by Ann Hobson Carter, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Elliot Carter's Double Concerto, Part 1 (a very good version)

 Elliott Carter's Double Concerto, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Jacobs (harpsichord) and Charles Rosen (piano), under the direction of Frederik Prausnitz (one of the earliest recordings of this work)

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