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Elliott Carter, Part One

Elliott Carter
Despite turning ninety-five this past year, Elliott Carter (b. 1908) remains a prolifically active American composer. In fact, you could make the case that Carter's "latest" period is among his most fertile. His output over the last decade includes song cycles (Tempo e Tempi and Of Challenge and Love), chamber works (the Fifth String Quartet, Luimen, the Oboe Quartet, and several other pieces), a concerto grosso for orchestra (The Boston Concerto), a three-movement symphony (Symphonia: sum Fluxae Pretium Spei), Clarinet and Cello concerti and his first opera (with the self-aware title What's Next?).

Compositional productivity in his autumnal years is a trait that Carter shares with his slightly younger contemporary Milton Babbitt (the subject of last month's File Under ?). Both composers have written works at a far quicker pace than they did when they were younger. Perhaps this is due to a cognizance of the passage of time, or the masterful control that both exhibit over their respective working methods.

Another interesting parallel between late works by the two composers is that both seem to be writing with an even greater degree of clarity. Their recent works evince transparency of texture and a lightness of touch, while compromising nothing in terms of musical language, virtuosity or artistic ambition.

While these circumstantial similarities are intriguing (and while the two composers are often grouped together by critics of modern music), there are many differences in musical style and methodological approach between Babbitt and Carter. While Babbitt has focused much of his career on extensions of the twelve-tone method, employing serial techniques in all musical domains (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation), Carter has never been a strictly 12-tone composer. Rather, he has relied upon a highly individual working method. Carter is perhaps best known for his innovations in the treatment of rhythm. By the mid-1940s, works such as the Sonata for Cello and Piano and the solo Piano Sonata tested the limits of conventional Western notation. Time signatures change frequently -- almost from measure to measure. In some instances, like the first movement of the Piano Sonata, Carter even abandons them altogether.

Gradually, Carter introduced a procedure called metric modulation into his compositional approach. Metric modulation is a method by which sections of a piece fluidly morph into each other, "modulating" from one underlying rhythmic structure to the next. This creates complex tempo and metrical relationships within the piece, allowing for a tremendous flexibility of rhythm, but also occasioning certain technical challenges that the performer must surmount. One of the satisfactions that Carter's longevity must provide to him is the opportunity to hear the complex rhythms in his scores, once deemed "unplayable" and only assayed by a few, performed by an increasing number of classical musicians and ensembles.

The pitch language in Carter's music, while perhaps less revolutionary than his use of rhythm, is derived from an equally idiosyncratic working method. Much of his approach to harmony relies on restrictions: limiting particular pieces to a finite number of pitch collections or chords, limiting given instruments within the work to certain intervals or registers. Instead of the 12-note series that we find in Babbitt's music, much of Carter's music is organized with smaller groups of pitches: tetrachords (four-note groups) and hexachords (six-note groups) are common. This careful partitioning of register, interval and collection gives his harmonic language its own distinctive chromatic pitch environment -- often (although not always) dissonant, spiky, and acerbic, and always recognizably his own.

Many Carter recordings are available, although some of the pivotal ones have lapsed out of print and some important works have yet to be recorded. However, compared to many of his far-too-neglected colleagues in contemporary concert music, Carter has fared quite well. There are recordings of orchestral works, chamber compositions, songs and choral music. With such an embarrassment of riches, it can be confusing to know where to begin. The following recordings should help the Carter neophyte to get started; they are also the ones that a Carter buff should make sure that he has in his collection.

Chamber Music (Auvidis Montaigne)
Featuring pianist Ursula Oppens and Auvidis label mainstays the Arditti String Quartet, this disc features a broad retrospective of Carter's chamber compositions, ranging from the 1948 Sonata for Cello and Piano to the 1995 Fifth String Quartet (in its first recording). The Arditti Quartet excels at new music of all shapes and sizes, but their rhythmically incisive and aggressive approach is particularly suited to Carter's metric modulations and dissonant language. Their premier recording of the Fifth Quartet will be difficult to top (they have also recorded the preceding four for Auvidis). The 1994 Fragment for String Quartet, filled with delicately shimmering harmonics, is, in its own way, equally memorable.

Oppens performs ably as a collaborator on both the Cello Sonata and the 1974 Duo for Violin and Piano. She is also given the opportunity to perform solo, on the relatively brief but richly detailed 90+. Clocking in at nearly 76 minutes, this is a jam-packed and excellent single disc introduction to Carter's music.

Orchestral Music (Arte Nova)
Featuring two important orchestral compositions from the 1960s and one from the 1980s, this collection gives the listener a sense of the ambitious sweep and fiercely dense textures of Carter's works for large forces. Ursula Oppens appears here as well, as soloist in the Piano Concerto (1965). She plays with poise and aplomb, despite the fiendish difficulties set before the pianist in this work. The Concerto for Orchestra (1969) serves as an excellent companion piece to the Piano Concerto, equally uncompromising in its demands and resolutely modernist in its aesthetic. The Three Occasions for Orchestra (1986-89) were originally written separately, but can be performed together as an orchestral suite. Taken as a whole, the Occasions echo both the spirit and some of the sound world of Charles Ives, an early influence on Carter and a composer of orchestral suites himself (such as the venerable Three Pieces in New England).

While the Sudwestfunk Symphony Orchestra (of Baden-Baden) is certainly not a household name in the classical recording industry, hype does not always follow strong performances. Their conductor, Michael Gielen, is a dedicated advocate of Carter's music, and he leads the SWF Symphony with conviction and enthusiasm. While some may prefer different recorded versions of these pieces, their appearance together (and at a budget price) makes this a collection with considerable appeal.

The Complete Music for Piano (Bridge)
This disc's title is technically misleading, as Carter has written solo piano works since 1997, but it features the bulk of Carter's music for the instrument, played by longtime interpreter pianist/music scholar Charles Rosen. His rendition of 90+ is slightly slower than Oppens' version on the Auvidis release (reviewed above). However, it is enjoyable to hear the two versions side by side, as Oppens errs on the side of propulsive energy whereas Rosen more clearly explicates the rhythmic evolution and articulative details of the piece.

Rosen's assured rendering of the Piano Sonata demonstrates its status as a transitional work in Carter's oeuvre, bridging his early style (composed in the shadow of Copland and the American neo-classicism in vogue at the time) with his revolutionary works of the late forties and early fifties. Carter had not yet broken away entirely from the established "American classical" sound of the time, but he was champing at the bit to create something that would serve as a departure.

The other composition included here, Night Fantasies (1980), is a substantial work built out of small components ("Fantasies"). In his program notes, Carter says that "Night Fantasies is a piece of continuously changing moods, suggesting the fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night." The result is an eclectic assemblage, rife with diverse musical details, yet it somehow blends together into a cohesive whole.

As an added bonus, there is a short interview with Carter, conducted by Rosen, included at the end of the disc.
· · · · · · ·

Next month:
Part two of our survey of Carter Recordings. There's much more Carter to come, so don't miss next month's column!

Once again, thanks to Duke University Library for granting permission to use a photo of Elliott Carter from the William Gedney Collection. Thanks also to Becky Starobin at Bridge Records, Boosey and Hawkes, and Dr. John Link (of William Paterson University), for their valuable suggestions and help in obtaining materials.

-- Christian Carey



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