Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Confluence of Times: Hearing Elliott Carter's String Quartets

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliott Carter’s music, with a pile of CDs on my desk and a handful of scores, ranging from the Concerto for Orchestra to the 4 Lauds for Solo Violin. In April, I heard the world premiere (twice) of his Clarinet Quintet which he’d finished the previous September, saying rather blythely “and I’ve written several works since then.”

Since July, I have sat down with all of the quartets and followed them with the scores (I wasn’t able to get the 5th - out-of-stock - and the 1st is still in one of those boxes yet to be unpacked). Listening to the 5th the other night reminded me of one of the most significant musical experiences I’ve had in my creative life: hearing all five of these incredible works live in one concert.

Granted, his music is not likely to be high on the list of most popular composers, but he is probably the most influential composer in my creative life. Regarded as a composer of some of the most complex music being written in the past 60 years, Carter will be turning 100 in about six weeks and this past year's celebration marking his “100th Year” will soon transform into his Centennial Birthday Celebration. He’s the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season and they’ll be premiering a new work of his the night of his 100th Birthday!

He’s probably best known for his string quartets, certainly the most significant cycle of works in the genre since Schoenberg and Bartok. I heard the Composers Quartet play “All Three” of the Carter Quartets thirty years ago and ended up sitting directly behind the composer at the performance. In late January earlier this year, I heard the Pacifica Quartet play “All Five” of the Carter Quartets and I wondered, while the composer would be in attendance, how close would I be able to get to him?

John Clare, a guy who has interviewed more living composers than most of my fellow musicians could even name and who has a special regard for Carter and his music, talked me into going to this concert and got the tickets set up with the cry of ROAD TRIP.

We made no plans to meet anyone else there, but grabbing a quick pre-concert dinner, we ran into a friend of mine from my UConn & NYC days, DG, whom I’d seen maybe twice in the past seven years now, all three of us shuffling off to the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West that is the temporary home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center while Alice Tully Hall is closed for renovations.

The Pacifica Quartet have made quite a name for themselves, championing all of Carter’s challenging quartets and playing them the way other groups play Beethoven or Bartok – individually, in groups, in complete cycles. I’d heard them play the 1st in Harrisburg a few seasons ago with Market Square Concerts, a performance they played with all the intensity and assuredness as if it were in fact Late Beethoven they were offering us. They had just released a new recording on the Naxos label of the 1st and 5th quartets, the first in a series of the complete quartets which can’t be released fast enough for me. Ever the champions, they’d commissioned him to write them a new quartet which he joked, once he reaches 100 he may just have some time for it.

The performance space itself was actually designed as a lecture hall very similar to a church: a wooden thrust stage surrounded by an amphitheater of wooden pews on various levels. We stood in the narrow area that passes for a lobby, DG and I standing near the Naxos CD display, listening to the clanking of the radiators and watching the audience as it entered from the blustery January night. I wonder how many of these people had attended the performance I was at 30 years ago? Many looked like they would’ve been in their 30s and 40s then. But there were many who were also clearly 20-and-30-somethings now: by the time they become grey-haired concertgoers, the composer would probably no longer be in attendance at such an event...

And then we realized the elderly gentleman being guided toward the bench opposite us was the composer himself. Elliott Carter at 99, dressed in an overcoat and a lambs wool cap pulled down over his ears, frail (but only with one cane: I’ve seen him photographed walking with two) but looking remarkably unlike a soon-to-be Centenarian. I just stood there and gazed at him the way a kid would gawk at a hero he just ran into unexpectedly on the street. It was a private moment and yet no one wanted to intrude on his privacy and he, for one, did not look around in any attempt to engage anyone else. And we respected that. In fact, I think some of us were reverencing that. When his secretary came over to escort him into the theater, I felt I wanted to go over and touch the bench.

(Over thirty years ago, standing in line to buy tickets for a concert at the 92nd Street Y, I realized the guy in front of me was Elliott Carter. I think I let out a little gasp. Anyway, somehow a conversation started. “Are you a composer?” he asked me. When I told him I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, he said “Oh, then you work with Charlie Whittenberg! He’s a very fine composer!” When I told Charlie that, he was walking on air for a week.)

When John and I found our seats, they were dead center in the auditorium but unfortunately up under the balcony. The sound it turned out was not bad and the balance was excellent. However, we were seven rows behind Carter and I decided being able to watch the composer, even if only the back of his head, was part of the “event.”

(What would it have been like to attend the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th and see the composer there? Or hear the performance of Brahms’ 4th Symphony when the composer made what was clearly going to be his last appearance in public?)

Yet here was Elliott Carter, fresh from attending a concert of his music the night before at Juilliard, with many more concerts and festivities in the year ahead: no one assumes he’s not going to be there. And this one was going to be a long concert: all five of his quartets, some very challenging music to play and listen to, much less digest. I figured it would be at least three hours long!

Carter’s music is not for the faint-of-mind. His music is often dismissed for its complexity, a style that is overly intellectualized so that the only way you can appreciate it is to bring a slide-rule to the concert. Is it music you can love? Or call beautiful? Is it something you can put on just to enjoy?

I listen to a lot of Carter. He is, basically, one of my favorite composers. Most recently, I find myself listening to the Violin Concerto and the 4 Lauds for Solo Violin over and over again, especially when I’m in the car (better than listening to the radio). A few years ago, I’m not sure I would have said I love it or that I find it beautiful in the same way I would Beethoven or Schubert. It’s not exactly background music (but then, neither is a lot of Beethoven and Schubert). But I thought differently after experiencing, not just hearing, all five of these quartets by the end of that January evening. I do love them and I do find them amazing: in spots they are incredibly dramatic and theatrical; at other times, beautiful.

One of the things that attracted me to Carter’s music years ago was his concept of “time.” There is “metrical time,” when you follow the score and see how the rhythms and meters are worked out in “real time,” what the musicians count in order to play his complex music correctly and stay together even when they're playing apart.

But there is also “audible time” which would be the phrasing you sense when you can’t “see” the beat, either on the page or from a conductor’s baton: lines that sound like they have downbeats and upbeats which set up a specific tempo yet are in contrast if not in conflict with the other instruments’ sense or senses of tempo. At times it’s hard to figure out how many actual tempos are going on, here, and then suddenly they all come together in a climax as direct as any standard harmonic progress or delineation of form from the 19th Century!

There is also gestural time, I guess you could call it, watching the musicians play their lines and seeing them sort of self-conducting the up-beats and down-beats of their individual parts. Or comparing that to watching the second violinist occasionally tap his toe (is that beat expressed by any of the instruments at the time?) or someone bringing a heel down onto the floor on a beat that is in the middle of the violist’s phrase but which marks the end of the one violinist’s line just as the cellist has started a new phrase with a fragment here, a fragment there.

Whatever time was, that evening, it was not three hours of time spent sitting in a pew. If the first quartet is over 40 minutes long, it didn’t seem half that long. The others, some only a little over 20 minutes’ length, seemed hardly to have begun when they were over.

There is also a sense of spatial time: a group of four musicians constantly divides and subdivides itself into various combinations. There are two sound-worlds of Carter’s that I love: one he marks scorrevole (scurrying) where they play extremely fast notes in long smooth bowings, though some of them may play this against the others playing long sustained intervals or perhaps sharply attacked chords that might almost sound scatter-gunned against this whispering, scurrying background.

(This morning I was listening to the Pacifica’s recording of Carter’s 1st Quartet and during one of the scorrevole sections realized I can hear mice scorrevolying around in my attic – with nine cats in the house, how can I have mice in the attic? But I digress...)

The other sound-world is the long sustained intervals at very soft dynamic levels that move almost glacially. Neither background nor foreground, it serves as a foil for other instruments to play something completely contrasting, often violently. At one point, the violence subsides until everybody is playing the long sustained tones, as if absorbed into the sense of stasis. Then just as suddenly, the scurrying may start up again as we’re off into a whole different section. The sense of texture and contrast, the variety, amazes me: like looking at a jewel in light that constantly refracts the light in new and iridescent patterns in your mind.

The quartet plays lines that flow as if they were Beethoven though created out of melodic intervals Beethoven may never have imagined; there were dotted-rhythm patterns that had the quality of swing while the cellist plunked out a walking bass right out of jazz. What, I wondered, was so terribly intellectual about all of this that it is supposed to be so unapproachable?

For the 2nd and 3rd Quartets – perhaps the two major works of the evening, both having won the composer Pulitzer Prizes in music – the Pacifica Quartet adopted slightly different seatings. Where the 1st Quartet recombines frequently – opening with a cello cadenza and ending with one for the 1st violin, and in between every possible subdivision imaginable – the four players are almost constantly separate individuals in the 2nd, each playing their own exclusive material (what passes in Carter’s musical language for melodic and harmonic invention) and rarely convening as a unified quartet. So they spread themselves out more than usual across the stage, as if being too close might engage their concentration too much. It also allows the space between their music to sound more individualized, and I was happy to be sitting in the center where the blend would be less... blendy.

The 3rd divides consistently into two duos throughout, so rather than maintain the usual configuration, the 1st violinist and the cellist are on one side of the playing area while the 2nd violinist and the violist are on the other, a space in the center between them. In this piece, the one duo plays four movements while the other plays six. They start and end together (and furiously, at that) but in between, they overlap movements here and there, sometimes one duo dropping out for a while, or sneaking back in with a reprise of some of their material as if the transmission had been interrupted only to be resumed where we left off. Seeing the separation of the duos also helped audibly define the sound of them much more clearly than you’d get from a recording. In many ways, this may be the most complicated quartet in the repertoire, yet the Pacifica Quartet played it with no less intensity than others would bring to late-Beethoven and made it seem no more difficult, either.

During the second intermission, after the 3rd Quartet, John Clare went down to talk to the composer and his secretary: they’ve been talking for a couple of years, now, about a possible interview. “Oh yes, he’s been communicating with us for quite a while about this,” his secretary told Carter who looked up and said “But I’m very busy right now – I’m working on a new flute concerto…” How amazing to think he’s 99 and writing his first flute concerto! John also asked him for his autograph, a signature that hardly shows any signs of age or infirmity (see John's photo, left). And he’d been signing plenty of autographs during both intermissions.

The 4th and 5th Quartets – written when he was 78 and 87 respectively – followed in the “third half” (we were now past the second hour), and though I’ve listened to these works a few times in the week before the concert, they sounded at times familiar and different. They work their way back from the complexity of the 3rd, less divisive and more conversational. In the 4th, it becomes at times confrontational, at other times collegial. The 5th was inspired by the idea of attending rehearsals where the musicians might try out a fragment of an upcoming passage, and then discuss how it could be interpreted, almost a play on the composer’s own sense of creative flow and how we ourselves might form ideas, discuss them, perhaps adapt them or dismiss them, bringing to the work a different sense of cooperation than one heard in the earlier quartets.

In this sense, Carter may be saying good-bye to the various approaches he’s tried out in the earlier works, but then he didn’t tell the Pacifica Quartet he wouldn’t write them a sixth quartet: he joked that by the time he’s 100, he might be ready to try another one. Perhaps hearing them play the first five, he might be inspired to find yet another solution to the problem composers have been asking since before the days of Beethoven: how do you write another quartet without writing the same thing over and over?

For all their originality, there is a great deal of common ground between them: beyond the idea of creating cooperation through conflict and communication through discourse, mostly those fingerprints of style we associate with his musical voice (the scurrying passages, the glacial sustained notes, the wildly contrapuntal tempos), the same way we might say about Beethoven or Brahms. In today’s world, many composers are chided if each new work isn’t “original,” whatever that means, accused of recycling the same old/same old rather than striving for the constantly new. But many solutions can be found using the same building blocks, retaining something familiar helping to unify the variety of solutions. And so I heard gestures and sounds in these five works (which, after all, span some 45 years of creativity) that refracted differently in each work’s overall soundscape. Part of the concept of originality is to be able to make the familiar sound fresh.

And yet for all the different senses of time expressed in this music, it never speaks of a specific time, never sounds dated. And then it struck me.

Elliott Carter has been experiencing an unprecedented creative outpouring in the past decade, not just composing at all but composing a great deal quickly. True, as someone said, “By now he’s got it down,” but here is a composer who never really worried much about what other composers and listeners thought of his music. Not from the arrogance of many of the 20th Century Serialists who, according to Milton Babbitt’s often misunderstood misquote, may have thought “Who Cares If You Listen?”, but because the strength of his own ideas and convictions gave him a sense of integrity that didn’t require any compromise.

This may go a long way to explain Rossini and Sibelius who were both insecure with their styles which had become outmoded as they passed through middle age. They each stopped composing despite the number of years they had left to live, yet Carter is still busily composing as he approaches 100 as if he may still have more time, somewhere later down the road, to rest on his laurels.

Granted, no one going to this concert could have walked in unaware of what they were about to hear, so in a large room maybe 7/8ths full, it was fair to say these were all fans and friends of Elliott Carter and his uncompromising music. People who were 20 or 80 sat in rapt attention, often smiling, always concentrated and focused on the music and its thoroughly awesome performance. The ovation at the end must have been heartwarming to a man of any age, walking carefully up to the front of the auditorium to accept the prolonged applause and cheers, proving that, despite critical brickbats and public indifference to his music over the decades, perhaps it was good after all to stick to your convictions.

Standing next to the stairwell leading down to the front entrance of the Ethical Center, I watched as Mr. Carter, sitting in a pew for 3 hours, carefully worked his way down the steps, his secretary in front, urging him on, one step at a time. “It’s scary,” the composer protested, reaching tenuously for the hand-rail, “it’s scary!” But he made it down one step at a time, just as we try to make it through one day at a time. And here he is at 99, still composing one piece at a time. There’s a life-lesson to be learned, there, in that exchange at the steps, after hearing this music.

And I – I chickened out. I did not go and get Carter’s autograph at intermission. I wanted to say something like “Thirty years ago, I attended all three of your quartets and sat right behind you. Tonight, I’ve heard all five of your quartets and sat seven rows behind you. I hope soon I’ll be able to see you again when they perform all six of your quartets and…” but I figured I would just trip over my own tongue and say something stupid like “Wow, I really love your stuff!”

Because I realized, as we left the hall, I do.

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Shortly after that concert, a friend wrote to me that he regretted not going up to meet Aaron Copland when he saw him at a 1987 recital. Copland’s health had not been good by that time and it probably would not have been much of an experience beyond being able to say “I shook the hand of Aaron Copland,” but still the idea that shaking Copland’s hand would be one degree of separation from shaking Bela Bartok’s hand as Copland had done (when Bartok’s health was not that good) at the Boston premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1944.

My sitting behind Carter at a concert of his quartets in 1978 (when everybody was celebrating his 70th birthday and assuming there would never be any more string quartets from him) also reminded my friend that Carter sat next to Sting at a Kronos Quartet concert in New York in 1987 and neither of them knew who the other was. Of course, he added, Carter had also sat next to George Gershwin at the American Premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in Philadelphia in 1931.

It is easy to forget in today’s polarization that a composer like Gershwin could have even liked Berg’s Wozzeck, much less owned a score of it. When traveling in Europe, Gershwin met Berg (among many others) – you can read more about these connections in Alex Ross’ “The Rest Is Noise” – so the idea of a young and as yet unknown Elliott Carter sitting next to Gershwin (four years before the premiere of Porgy & Bess) brings to mind the meeting with Berg and with Berg's association with his teacher Arnold Schoenberg who as a young man had been a friend and protege of Gustav Mahler.

Sometimes when we listen to music, we hear echoes of the past. There’s a spot in Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection,” that leaps out at me every time I hear it, a measure straight out of Johannes Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. And then I’m reminded of a conversation between Brahms the Old Master and Mahler the Young Radical, however apocryphal the story might be: they walked beside a stream while Brahms complained of the sorry state of contemporary music and how its greatness would die with him. Mahler took Brahms by the sleeve and pointed at the stream as they crossed over a bridge: “Look, Maestro, look!” And Brahms couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Mahler pointed again “See? It’s the last wave!”

As a young man, Brahms had met Robert Schumann who had also championed the unpublished works of Franz Schubert, having been handed a box of manuscripts by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, a box that included the Great C Major Symphony which he passed onto his friend Mendelssohn who would conduct its first performance.

And Schubert, even if he hadn’t been at the first performance in Vienna of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (he did mention attending another performance of just the first movement the following year), had been a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral the year before his own death.

The story goes that Beethoven, even before he arrived in Vienna to study with Haydn, had come to Vienna when he was 20 to scout out the scene there, hoping to arrange to study with Mozart. Whether Mozart heard him play and actually said he would “make a noise in the world some day” can’t really be separated from legend but it’s very likely that Beethoven at least met him. And if not, the connection can still be made between Beethoven and his teacher Haydn who played 1st violin in a string quartet with Mozart playing the viola and who was also a good personal friend of his.

And Mozart as a boy traveling across Europe with his father Leopold met an influential composer in London named Johann Christian Bach, whose father, Johann Sebastian Bach, was not all that well known at the time.

It had not occurred to me, seeing the back of Carter’s head as I listened to his quartets, that there sat a living connection with Johann Sebastian Bach. Not that Elliott Carter wouldn't be feeling old enough these days or even know who Kevin Bacon is either, for that matter, but still... it is interesting to think how the continuity from the past continues to manifest itself from one generation to the next even as styles change and attitudes alter.

And in a way, I find that immensely comforting.

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Photo Credits: Portrait of Elliott Carter taken by Jeff Herman; Pacifica Quartet publicity shot from their website; Naxos cover from the Pacifica Quartet's recent recording of Carter's 1st & 5th Quartets; Carter's Autograph on John Clare's program, from Classically Hip.

Additional: Hear an interview with the composer & the quartet about the new Pacifica CD.
Read the New York Times review by Steve Smith. Read John Clare's 5 Things About the Carter Quartets.

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