Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On hearing the world premiere of Carter's Clarinet Quintet

A week ago, John Clare and I went into New York City for a concert. It seems a long drive just to go to a concert – for me, at any rate: for John, having New York this close makes it a frequent destination. He blogged about it here (and discretely took some photos which he posted, too). We left Harrisburg around 3:00, got within shouting distance of the Lincoln Tunnel a little after 5, got out of the Lincoln Tunnel somewhere after 6:30 (sigh), found a parking place by 7:00 and barely had enough time to grab dinner before heading to the concert with a minute to spare at 8:00. Then turning around, we were back in Harrisburg around 2am. And why, you may ask?

This was no ordinary concert: it was the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet by Elliott Carter with the legendary Juilliard Quartet and no less than Charles Neidich (whom I used to hear practicing years ago when he lived in the same building as a friend I would be visiting on my trips into The City then), a clarinetist who’d already inspired Carter to write a concerto for him.

As a fan of Elliott Carter’s music, this may not have been the “Must See” event hearing all five string quartets in one evening was, three months earlier (and then blogging about it), but it certainly was an important opportunity to hear a new work – twice – and to hear the composer talk about it in between performances. Considering Carter is 99 and the piece is barely seven months old – as he said, “and to think I have pieces that are even younger than this one!” – how many times will you get to hear a world premiere by a composer still writing as he pushes 100?

Ever-smiling and jovial, he seems the personal opposite of the complicated music he composes. However, as you become more acquainted with his music, especially the pieces he’s written in the last 15-20 years or so, you realize how much of this is simply intellectual and artistic curiosity blended with a sense of whimsy if not obvious humor. There are so many things to mention, here, but this is not complexity for the sake of being complicated: the sound he wants to achieve is very clear in his mind, the method of accomplishing it is complex only because it cannot be realized in a more traditional way.

Last Tuesday, the quintet was performed first - followed by a solo work from each individual performer – followed by an on-stage conversation between the Dean of Juilliard, Ara Guzelimian, and Carter with the musicians ready to play examples, and then the second performance of the quintet.

The first question was, after noting the long associations with the performers (the Juilliard Quartet had premiered most of his quartets, going back to the ‘50s with his 2nd Quartet), what inspired him to write a piece for clarinet and string quartet.

Carter looked at Guzelimian for a moment and said quite genuinely, “Well, I really don’t know.” Perhaps we were expecting some long convoluted technical exegesis from this man, considered “the greatest living composer” (certainly by seniority and accomplishments alone: it could be said with certainty he is “the oldest living composer still writing”). He continued that it was the sound of the clarinet and how it would work with the sound of the quartet – a fairly basic inspiration, perhaps, but nothing technical, all about how it sounded, nothing different, perhaps, than what might have inspired Brahms to write his Clarinet Quintet (for Richard Muhlfeld) or Mozart to write his (for Anton Stadler).

(Curiously, these are both late works also: Brahms was 58 and coming out of retirement for a series of pieces for clarinet; Mozart was 33 and writing about two years before his death – even combining those numbers doesn’t equal Carter’s age when he wrote his Clarinet Quintet!)

Because so much of his music reflects human personality traits – the 2nd Quartet in particular – whether it is conversational or argumentative, Carter was also asked if the individuals he was writing for inspired anything in the piece: was it, basically, a portrait of the intended players?

Again, he paused and looked quizzically at the dean and said “I didn’t have a picture of them on my desk while I was writing it, no,” but that basically the musical characteristics were the result of composites of performers over the years.

That being said, the work is less involved than a typical Carter conversational piece: rather than pitting each player with each other in various combinations, though this happens on a more microformal level, it is more the clarinet as one entity and the whole quartet as another, neither for or against each other. One of the most memorable “sounds” are the extremely long (and I mean extreeeeeemly long) tones Neidich would sustain against what the quartet was playing. In the conversation, Carter explained that, in an orchestra, a clarinetist can sustain these long pitches, so he wanted to use that in the background, here - and then he asked them to play this passage, starting at a certain rehearsal number “and just keep going until Charlie falls over,” or something like that. Through the magic of circular breathing, Charlie did not in fact fall over, but it was amazing to hear these two different sound layers and how they intersect in the piece.

On the more technical side, he mentioned how the opening notes of the first clarinet solo – or rather the intervals they formed – are the basis for much of the piece’s language: he asked Joel Smirnoff, the first violinist, to play another passage which was basically the same intervalic structure but inverted – a minor 2nd becoming a major 7th, a minor 3rd a major 6th. This chain of intervals, in one form or another, permeates much of the language that defines the individual roles within the ensemble.

Then he added, “though this is not something most listeners are going to hear - I don’t think anybody would actually hear that - I certainly can’t...”

Even as a composer, I would have assumed Carter would be able to hear something like that and that I, not being able to, was therefore somehow lacking. That it could be comprehended without being analyzed - the way one can appreciate poetry without knowing exactly what every word means - is one thing, but for a listener to hear a passage and know what it was, technically is another. Perhaps this music, which so many complain about must be written with a slide-rule, doesn't really need to be listened to with one, either.

Another hallmark of Carter’s style is the juxtaposition of layers of what sounds like different tempos, resulting in some very complex-looking cross-rhythms, trying to write this out in a common-denominator tempo rather than telling the clarinetist to play it with a metronome marking of quarter-note = 127 and the quartet to play it at quarter-note = 142 or something, just picking numbers at random.

(To explain, a slower tempo might sound like 1/4-note = 60 and another, a faster tempo might sound like 1/4-note = 120, but all that would be is a series of quarter notes moving against a series of eighth notes, something you hear all the time in Bach. In Carter, it’s more like 5 notes against 7 rather than 1 against 2, something that just looks horrendous to someone used to playing in a more four-square single tempo all the time.)

But here, he also said something that intrigued me: the way he works his intervals out, planning out what the possible pitches might be at any given point, if pitches coincide in a way he doesn’t like, he just changes it!

As complex as his music is, it is still the sound that is the determining factor – not the system, not the rules we associate with this presumably strict style. True, the premise of Schoenberg’s 12-tone style serialism, at least as practiced by a lot of his followers, is full of rules and regulations, but nothing much different in context than you would find in tonal music of the 18th and 19th Centuries (or for that matter Palestrina’s “species” counterpoint). Schoenberg may have devised an approach to music to help him approximate the sound in his inner ear, but it’s quite possible many of his devotees in the ‘50s and ‘60s allowed The System to rule what they wrote rather than the other way around. Carter doesn’t do that: he manipulates the system his own way – often, it’s more a starting-point than an end from a means – as if Beethoven could be sitting there to tell us, “Well, according to the rules, it should’ve been a B-flat chord, but really, I thought the G-flat chord was much more exciting.” (Though actually Beethoven, asked such a question, would probably just say “What? Who cares?!”)

Though I doubt Carter’s Clarinet Quintet will nudge Mozart’s or Brahms’ off the stage any time soon, it was a beautiful piece, given its own context (not to compare it to what we normally think of as “beautiful” with Mozart or Brahms), and remarkably clear and unfussy, that bit of stylistic clarification that happens with maturity.

When a friend of Carter’s was asked how the composer can be writing so much when he’s in his 90s, the interviewer was told “By now, he’s got it down.”

Another thing I’ve discovered, reading through what text is included in his “Harmony Book,” is that he is less concerned with ALL the possibilities a few notes might yield. Rather than exploring all the combinations these pitches might yield, how many new chords might be created by adding one or two additional pitches to it and then playing with all the intervalic possibilities, he tends to work with a couple of basic building blocks which contain the most variety within the fewest notes. In that sense, it’s like returning to the same friend and still finding new ways sound can be expressed from that friendship (much in the same way no less than Arnold Schoenberg once told his students “there’s a lot of good music still to be written in C Major”).

In between, each of the five players performed solo works by Carter, short pieces that might be difficult to fit in on a standard program but create a fascinating bridge from the complexity of the quintet with a sound-world challenging for a single player. In many cases, different characters appear in a solo piece as well: a high lyrical line interrupted by rapid or abrupt or declamatory notes in a lower register. In one solo violin piece, a third layer was added with sustained double-stops (two-note chords) in a middle register. This is no different than Bach writing a melody in one register against an accompaniment in another in his solo Sonatas and Partitas for the violin – or writing three-voiced fugues for an instrument with only four strings.

Some of these individual performances were more successful than others. One had to wonder, since the program had first been announced with only the quintet, if these were some kind of last minute addition. Not that these players, at this level of awesomeness, couldn’t handle the challenges. But it sounded like Joel Smirnoff, the 1st violinist, and Joel Krosnick, the cellist, were not quite as comfortable with their pieces yet or maybe had not gotten back into them after an absence. I didn’t know them beyond having heard them maybe once years ago, but they sounded scrambled or unfocused for some reason, like they were working too hard (yeah, the music is hard, but...). Perhaps, I was thinking, they are not as successful a piece as one might hope.

Meanwhile, Neidich played “Gra” which he’d been playing for a long time (and recorded it on the Bridge label), with all the flare as if he were a clarinet choir all by himself, but it was 2nd violinist Ronald Cope’s performance of a work written for the Juilliard Quartet’s founding 1st Violinist, Robert Mann (who was also in the audience) called Rhapsodic Musings (RM = Robert Mann, get it? And the pitches D & E, Re and Mi (R&M) are Frequently Heard Pitches within this short work) that was the most compelling, singled out not only by the audience’s applause but also by the composer’s remarks after intermission. Concluding the first half was the violist, Samuel Rhodes, playing a piece composed for him that was, by contrast, quiet and sustained that I wish could have been more, but then the nature of the piece suited both the instrument and the player.

Again, it was an all-Carter evening, not everybody’s cup of java, in a packed theater, met with enthusiasm and enjoyment. It might not be the same, hearing one work in the context of the usual, more traditional concert program where a daunting work like the Concerto for Orchestra, perhaps (a work I’ve never warmed up to, though I bought the full score at the Juilliard Book Store in January, hoping to come to terms with it), might not please an audience there to hear Mozart and Beethoven. But it is a style that has its own integrity – and, the more I hear it and hear Carter talk about it, the freedom to be nowhere near as didactic as it might look on the page. And it’s one closer to my own mind’s music. Like friends of mine who’ve followed Carter’s music over the last 30 years, I find myself liking (on first hearing) more of his latest works more readily than some of the works he composed 25 to 50 years ago, the string quartets aside. Even simplified, his style is still more complex than most of what is being written today, but you know what? I don’t care – I like it, and if it speaks to me, that’s all that matters.

Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. What a pleasure to read your piece, Dr Dick. I'll be going on Tuesday to the UK premiere. Will report back.


    Roger Neill