For many (most?) listeners, American composer Elliott Carter is probably better known for his longevity than for his music. Born on December 11, 1908, he died on November 5, 2012, a little over a month before his 104th birthday. Age seemed to have had no effect on his productivity, and over twenty of his compositions were completed after his 100th birthday.
The other attribute that is almost always associated with Carter is complexity. He is often associated with efforts towards using the modulation of rhythmic patterns as a structural marker similar to harmonic modulation in tonal music. Carter’s efforts basically involved polyrhythms that would enable a gradual shift in tempo. This device is not particularly easy for the ear to follow and may be even more difficult should one turn to the published score for guidance.
Nevertheless, he has had several champions among conductors, many of whom have been capable of bringing clarity to concert performances without drowning attentive listeners in technical details. This is probably because, while Carter could develop both logic and syntax to a painstaking level of detail, he never downplayed the extent to which rhetoric would seize and hold the attention of the listener, regardless of how well the listener was aware of those details.
courtesy of Naxos of America
This past August Ondine released an album of Carter’s music entitled simply Late Works, whose cover is shown above. The selections include the premiere recording of “Epigrams,” the composer’s final piece. Scored for piano trio, the work consists of twelve movements, each with a brevity that would resonate well with those listeners who enjoy the music of Anton Webern. The trio performers for this recording are pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, violinist Isabelle Faust, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. Like the best Webern interpreters, they are probably well guided by an understanding of the underlying structural details; but their interpretation is all about an intense rhetoric that urges the attentive listener from one gestural piece to the next.
Four other compositions also received premiere recordings on this album. The oldest of these is “Soundings,” completed in 2005 for a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In chronological order the next is “Interventions,” completed in 2007 and scored for piano and orchestra. “Dialogues II” was completed in 2010. Written for piano and chamber orchestra, it was composed to honor Daniel Barenboim’s 70th birthday. Finally, Two Controversies and a Conversation achieved its final form in 2011 in response to suggestions from conductor Oliver Knussen. It is scored for piano, percussion, and chamber orchestra. The remaining selections on the album are the 2003 “Dialogues,” also for piano and chamber orchestra, and “Instances,” completed in 2012 for chamber orchestra.
Knussen is the conductor for all of these works except for the “Epigrams” trio. He leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the selections for full orchestra, and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is his chamber orchestra. Like the members of the trio, he has a clear understanding of the extent to which rhetoric is the key driver behind any act of serious listening; but he always knows how to shape his rhetoric around his own attentiveness to Carter’s wealth of technical details.
It is therefore to Knussen’s credit that any newcomer to Carter’s music may first be attracted by the almost uncanny diversity of sonorities. So much attention has been paid to the logic behind Carter’s approach to the notation of pitch and rhythm that his approach to instrumentation is often all but entirely overlooked. The fact is that, when Carter engages titles like “Dialogues,” “Interventions,” or “Controversies,” he has very specific ideas about human interaction in mind; and, more often than not, those ideas are realized through the ways in which his instruments assert their individuality and those individualities then confront one another. Far from abstract, this is highly dramatic music, even if the nature of the narrative being dramatized is not always crystal clear.