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Elliott Carter - A Nonesuch Retrospective

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Artist: Elliott Carter

Album: A Nonesuch Retrospective

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: May. 20, 2009

Elliott Carter is an imposing figure in just about every way. Sure, he just passed his centenary and probably couldn’t swat a fly at this point, but I wouldn’t want to get in his musical way. What makes him imposing is his musical output, in terms of volume, breadth, ingenuity, and sheer difficulty (both to the listener and performer). A hundred years is a long time, and what’s truly mind-blowing is that his rate of output has only increased as he’s gotten older - he’s written more pieces since turning 70 than he did before! So while he’s not the last living student of the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (who shaped the music of a few generations of American composers, and whose students include Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Virgil Thompson, Philip Glass, David Diamond, Donald Erb, Roy Harris, and the list goes on and on), he’s the oldest still around and certainly the last of her students from the 1920s alive. However, unlike many of Boulanger’s students, his music started succeeding best the moment he started discounting all the rules she taught him. And this box set chronicles much of the music from that period of artistic ferment and maturation between 1942 and 1961, along with a couple pieces from the early 1980s (themselves marking the beginnings of another transition, to his so-called “late” period, which has been going on for 25 years now).

So why should we care about Elliott Carter’s music? In a way he is just another branch of mid-century high Modernism, full of dissonant chords, mathematically (or pseudo-mathematically) controlled and determined structures, high levels of musical density, and crashing (non)resolutions. And lord knows there’s enough of that dreck out there already for people to not listen to. But Carter’s music is somehow different from the Babbits, Boulezs, and Stockhausens of the world. Part of it has to do with the fact that Carter is a generation older than those scions of serialism, so he was around and aware of much of the pre-WWII musical scene (through the lens of Charles Ives and Boulanger), and thus he has a bit more of an affinity for line and continuity. Even at his most dense and intellectual, Carter’s music still feels connected to the human voice and the melodic line, even if those lines and that voice are utterly disfigured and unrecognizable. There is also something very organic in the way that Carter (via Henry Cowell and Conlon Nancarrow) came to his signature compositional techniques and harmonic structures, which can’t necessarily be said about the other high modernists who were more interested in smashing musical history than engaging with and extending it.

Carter’s major musical innovations have to do with the way he conceives of time and the way he creates his harmonies. Time, for Carter, is intrinsically and inextricably flexible commodity, constantly changing, expanding, contracting, and shifting from one tempo. He accomplishes this feat through what has been termed “metric modulation,” which means roughly that he takes a group of pulses in one tempo and regroups them as a different kind of pulse in a different tempo. The result is that his music is constantly in a state of interrelated flux, which can be a bit unsettling at first. He also likes to have the instruments in his ensembles playing in different metrical subdivisions at the same time, making it sound like they’re all playing in different tempos. I’ll refer you here to the two string quartets in the set, which best exemplify this. The classical conception of a string quartet is of a kind of conversation between the different instruments. But for most of musical history before Carter, all the voices in those conversations happened to be talking at roughly the same pace, saying similar things about the same topic. Conversation in the Carter quartets is comparable to conversation in a Beckett play (or, more accurately, 3 or 4 Beckett plays going on simultaneously); the instruments occasionally engage with one another, talking about somewhat similar things, but they all speak in their own dialect with their own distinct way of phrasing things and often don’t pay attention to what one another is saying. Carter even goes so far as to instruct the performers in his Second String Quartet to sit as far apart as possible on stage to give the impression of four individual players that happen to be playing at the same time (an idea he surely got at least in part from Ives’s symphonies, in which he creates the effect of multiple marching bands passing each other on the street).

Harmonically, Carter’s path is a bit more quixotic. The first disc here of music from the 1940s shows him in a mostly tonal idiom, if one considers Copland “tonal.” Harmonies are built around triads and distortions thereupon, and melodies are fairly recognizable as melodies. Starting in the 1950s, his tonal palate began to expand, making all 12 notes of the chromatic scale active at the same time. But he still used those 12 notes to make longish melodic lines, supplemented with interested harmonies influenced in part by jazz and in part by possibilities of the instruments at hand (see, for instance the way he uses the harpsichord both for its harmonic and timbral possibilities in the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord). Later, by the third disc of this set, he began building pieces based on using all the possible combinations of chords using four or five pitches, and he started limiting the intervallic content available to different parts of the ensemble. In the Double Concerto, for instance, the piano is only allowed to play certain kinds of intervals, the harpsichord others. These things are remarkably difficult to hear; even a supremely well-trained ear would have trouble picking this stuff out just by listening. And his rules and games get even more complicated in pieces from the period not covered on this set, Carter’s orchestral and large-ensemble music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, where you get massive, inaudible polyrhythms (ratios of, like, 35 to 37 or something), and drastic pitch and interval limitations.

And this is where I have trouble with Carter. While I appreciate the ingenuity and invention that went into creating many of these pieces. It’s difficult to essentially recreate music from the ground up for every piece, which Carter liked to do in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, which accounts for why he composed at such a slow pace during that period (roughly 4 or 5 pieces a decade). But the human ear can only comprehend so much at a time, and when the music reaches a certain level of density, regardless of how well composed it may be, a piece devolves into sonic goo. This is what makes composers such as Ligeti and Berio so good, they manage to create interesting density with a relatively low goo-factor (or, alternately, embrace the goo wholeheartedly, making it a critical component of their work). And Carter may have realized this as well. Starting in the early 80s, beginning in part with the pieces on the last disc of this set, he began to pare back his musical language. It remains largely dissonant and rhythmically complex, but his music has started to breathe more. It’s a shame that that transition is essentially left out of this set, though I suppose that it would probably take an entire box set to cover with any level of thoroughness. This set, instead, has chosen to focus on his earlier transition, from harmony to goo (or, more accurately, proto-goo, which is, by the way, the best kind of goo), a transition that is utterly fascinating, one unlike any others going in music at the time.

By Dan Ruccia

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