Thursday, February 7, 2008

Learning to Listen to Elliott Carter

While "real" music critics tend not to cover master classes, I feel it is important to recognize the quality of these events at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, particularly in light of my ongoing argument that we should all try to be good listeners when we go to concerts. The last time I covered one of these events at the Conservatory, Menahem Pressler was conducting the class; and three of the students had prepared the trio movement from the Charles Ives piano trio. I felt it was important to write about this, not only because Pressler was a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio but also because the Beaux Arts worked closely with John Kirkpatrick, one of the foremost authorities on the performance of Ives, in preparing the work for their repertoire.

Last night's master class was conducted by Robert Mann; and, as Yogi Berra used to say, it was déjà vu all over again. This time a quartet of students had prepared the Fantasia movement from the first string quartet of Elliott Carter; and Mann was another "founding member," this time of the Julliard Quartet. While Carter had written his first quartet for the Walden Quartet, rather than the Julliard, he has had a long history of working with the Julliard, which has recorded (at least) the first four of his quartets.

Carter was a Visiting Professor at MIT back in my senior year there. This meant that he came up from New York once a week to give a lecture that probably most of us did not understand; and a concert of his works (which included his second string quartet) was arranged in his honor at Kresge Auditorium. I worked at the campus radio station (back when the call letters were the now-notorious WTBS), where there was a recording of that quartet as performed by the Julliard. Listening to it was a real challenge, and none of Carter's lectures did much to help me confront that challenge. So I took a brute force approach and immersed myself in the recording, following it with a copy of the score that was in the Music Library. Eventually I had internalized the listening experience to a point where I could face the live performance with a sense of the overall structure and at least some of the "engine room" details. Several years later I had occasion to hear the work on the radio, only to discover that my internalization had dissipated, leaving me as lost as I had originally been.

Perhaps it was because I was not alone in such experiences that Mann chose to address the audience before the Conservatory students start to play the first movement of Carter's first quartet. He talked about Carter's reputation for complexity (and how it was justified); but he also talked about how emotional Carter's music could be if properly approached. Later on, in his comments to the students, he revealed that the primary emotion he seemed to have in mind was anger; but I wonder if this was an accurate interpretation, because the one thing I did seem to take away from Carter's visit to MIT was his appreciation of the enormous legacy of music history that confronted him and the frustration of feeling obliged to do something other than tread the same paths of that legacy. Since I have become very occupied with trying to understand both making and performing music within the framework of the medieval trivium, I feel that Carter was gifted with an intellect powerful enough to take on all three of the component disciplines: logic, grammar, and rhetoric. He has also been gifted with longevity (he will turn 100 this year); and, since Mann reported that he is still in the best of health and has all his wits about him, he has enjoyed the luxury of "world enough and time" to exercise that intellect. I may not be able to understand him very well, but I cannot help but admire the way he has set a path for himself and kept to that path.

Ironically, the last time I actually wrote about the trivium was in the framework of addressing Ornette Coleman's experiments in "free jazz," which is about as diametrically opposed as one can get to Carter's compositions. Indeed, in many respects I would say that the best thing that prepared me to listen to this particular quartet movement was my experience of listening to Richard Goode's performance of a fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Carter is, above all else, a master contrapuntist; but, while the "points" of a traditional contrapuntal structure are the notes of a melodic line (or at least a motif), Carter has always been more concerned with rhythmic patterns. Thus, if we were to take that social conversation metaphor that I introduced in writing about Goode's performance, rhythmic patterns are the "fundamental utterances" of the conversation that emerges from a performance of his first quartet. Composition them becomes a matter of developing and realizing a logic of how those patterns unfold in both sequences and simultaneities within the framework of a grammar the addresses the "sorting out" of the embellishing and the embellished. All this then needs to be put into a rhetorical package through which not only the members of the quartet but also (as Mann stressed) the members of the audience can get a handle on just what it is that it keeping those four performers so intently busy in their work. I am not sure if Mann's eyes would roll up after reading those last few sentences, but they are a reaction to at least one comment he made. After the students had performed the movement in its entirety, practically the first thing he said about the experience of playing for Carter was that Carter could be very tolerant of the odd wrong note or two; but he was insistent that the performers get all the rhythms right. As a result, most of what Mann had to say was about coming up with the right performing gestures to execute all the rhythms properly and to make even the most complex of those patterns manageable.

This is not to say that I came away with a better understanding of this music, but at least I felt less intimidated by it. Indeed, I felt that at least part of what I wrote about Goode's performance of Bach was equally applicable in this setting:

Thus we have "statements" that a met by "responses;" but we also have situations in which two voices make a statement together or in which (at the risk of pushing the metaphor too far) other voices "nod in agreement" at what one particular voice is "declaring." (Seinfeld fans might really want to stretch the metaphor and argue that there are also "yadayadayada" passages!)

The independence of the voices may be a bit more radical in Carter; but the basic "rules of discourse" still seem to prevail. This is enough to send me back to my own recording of this work (by the Arditti Quartet) and see if I can go down my own path that will leave me with even less intimidation and the first intimations of enjoyment!

The other offering at the master class was the Overture movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's second string quartet. This made for an interesting pairing, which did not go unnoticed by Mann. After the students gave their initial performance, he commented that, while the challenge in performing Carter was to make it simpler for the listener to deal with the complexity, the challenge of Shostakovich was to bring attention to the complex subtleties that lurked beyond a deceptively simple surface. Indeed, considered just as a structure of notes, it is easy to dismiss this particular movement as simplistic; but Mann explored the rhetorical implications of Shostakovich's melodic and harmonic decisions in a way that swept aside such simplicity. He also made an extremely important observation that extended beyond Shostakovich: If you want to really get "inside" the music of any composer, begin by getting to know the folk music to which that composer was exposed. (Richard Taruskin has done wonders in applying this technique to the analysis of the music of Igor Stravinsky; and, as I had tried to observe in one performance by the Eusebius Duo, ignoring Ives' roots is about as counterproductive as you can get.) Those "folk roots" tell us more about the logic and grammar of this quartet movement than can be gleaned from a "purely analytic" examination of the score pages; and Mann's argument was that, once informed by those "roots," the rhetoric of performance could almost take care of itself. Of course the other thing I realized from this approach was how little I knew about Carter's "roots," even after having attended his MIT lectures!

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