Friday, December 12, 2008

Elliott Carter Begins His Next Century

Elliott Carter is probably (and rightly) tired of answering questions about what it feels like to be 100. He says he's just going on day by day thinking about the music he wants to write today and the next day and the day after that.

So yesterday, knowing there were things on-line about Carter’s birthday I wanted to hear, I finally broke down and bought some new speakers for my computer, to replace the two sets the kittens had chewn through in the past, particularly Freddie the self-appointed Director of Wireless Technology (he has also chalked up several mice – not the usual ones you’d associate with cats – a couple of power packs, an old headset which I was going to throw out anyway, an antique high-intensity lamp from the ‘70s plus various phone cables).

New speakers allowed me to partake of two things last night: doing more than lip-reading the Charlie Rose interview with Elliott Carter, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim, recorded before the Boston Symphony performance at Carnegie Hall of Carter’s new “Interventions” for Piano and Orchestra, which aired on Wednesday. And what WNYC was broadcasting on-line, called Carter@100.

I managed to get through the whole evening without getting the wires chewed (more discreet placement seemed to do the trick, placing them in areas the cats are now too big to get into: in the past, when I had a wire-chewing cat, someone told me to rub a paprika-and-barbecue sauce mixture on the wires which, aside from being quite the antidote to the usual eau de cat-litter box, the cat developed a taste for, sitting there licking the wires clean and eager for more...)

At the moment, I don’t have time to write a more extensive post * (as one expects here...) so I’ll just point out a few links:

The New York Times article which, this morning, included a photo taken on the stage of Carnegie Hall with the composer, conductor and pianist and a huge 100th Birthday cake (fake, it turns out), also includes a side-bar (on the left) with a three-minute excerpt from Interventions as well as bits from the interview audio between Daniel J. Wakin and Elliott Carter.

It’s easy to imagine the composer, bombarded by requests for interviews from everybody on the planet all asking the same questions over-and-over again, getting exasperated, here – at one point, he loses his cool when asked “what it is about your music that appeals to such top-level interesting musicians” and responds “because it’s top-level music, what else could I answer?!,” softening it with a chuckle – that Wakin concludes the printed interview,

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With the interviewer out of the apartment, Mr. Carter was heard on the other side of the door saying to an aide, “I’ve got to rest a little after this nonsense.”

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Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the concert describes the work as well telling the story that Carter, having been commissioned for a piece to be played on the occasion of his 100th Birthday, finished in and had the score to Levine by May of 2007, wanting to finish it right away rather than put it on a back-burner since the event was a year-and-a-half away: after all, Tommasini says, “who could count on his being around and active on his 100th birthday?”

Tommasini also points out what it might have been like if Beethoven had lived to see his 100th birthday rather than dying at the age of 56, what music he may have heard – attending the premiere of Tristan, for instance – well, let’s forget the fact that Beethoven was deaf if we’re going to play “What If...?” – and then ends the article by saying, after Carter returned to his seat to listen to the orchestra play Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, “surely, Mr. Carter was the only person in attendance who had also heard the Carnegie Hall premiere of the piece nearly 85 years ago.”

Steve Gregoropoulos, in writing his reminiscences of attending masterclasses with both Messiaen and Carter in 1978 – when both composers turned 70 – also mentioned that “someone who was 5 years old when Beethoven died would only be 91 when Elliott Carter was 5 years old (and lots of people live to be 91).”

NPR's All Things Considered had a great segment on Carter's Birthday with lots of great comments and reminiscences, not to mention the usual side-bar of goodies! One of those includes another 3-minute excerpt from Interventions, starting at the beginning.

Carter has always been more regarded and more frequently played in Europe than in America: here’s Anastasia Tsioulcas’ article from the British magazine Gramophone which I’d seen before but just located again this morning looking, of course, for something else: it’s called “Who Gets Carter?”

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Listening to Terrance McKnight on WNYC last night, the evening dedicated to Carter’s birthday, I expected in the first hour, called “Elliott Carter: the Early Years” to hear music Carter composed before he developed his signature voice in the 1950s but instead heard music by composers who would have influenced him – Ives (something from 3 Places in New England, though I didn’t catch the back-announce), Stravinsky (the 3 Pieces for String Quartet, not the Rite of Spring which he heard in Carnegie Hall which prompted him to decide on composition as a career), some innocuous cello and piano piece by his future teacher Nadia Boulanger (composed in 1915 which was so annoying, I wondered how she could go on to become the inspirational teacher she would become – what talent was exhibited in this piece was thoroughly pedestrian compared to the music her sister Lili was composing), and then, for some reason, Samuel Barber’s lovely lyrical Violin Concerto – all of it – which though lovely and lyrical and probably more fashioned to the kind of listener who’d be tuning in to hear some pleasant classical music while watching their fishtank after a hard day’s work, had nothing ostensibly to do with Elliott Carter, the topic of the program. The fact that it was composed during Carter’s early lifetime doesn’t make it topical. So I switched over to watch the Charlie Rose interview instead.

The 8:00 program, billed as a tribute to Carter, brought in as guest Nadia Sirota, the over-night host on WNYC, who is also a violist and, as daughter of composer Robert Sirota, someone who grew up with all kinds of modern music in her life, including Carter’s. There was music by Conlan Nancarrow – some of the fascinating player-piano pieces that explore the same kind of temporal relationships that Carter would start exploring in the ‘50s – and some fascinating music by 14th Century Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia with a “choral“ piece in which the vocal line is sung in several different tempos at the same time, just to prove that Elliott Carter’s use of contrapuntal tempos is neither his own idea nor something even relatively contemporary.

There was, as well, something by the Grateful Dead since Phil Lesh of the band has been very public about finding inspiration in Carter’s music and that both found Jazz from the ‘20s and ‘30s to be a major influence. Carter often talks about how the band would set up a steady tempo and then someone, say a clarinet, would improvise a line that had little immediate relevance to the going tempo (it always makes me chuckle to hear something in one of Carter’s String Quartets where the cello plays steady beats exactly like a jazz “walking bass” while one of the other instruments starts a riff that just takes off in complete independence from that pulse).

And finally there was also some Carter – an excerpt from his String Quartet No. 1 and Fred Sherry’s performing the Elegy from 1939 (ooh ooh, incidentally, the same year Barber wrote his violin concerto) which has become known through a version for viola and piano or for string quartet or string orchestra (where it does sound like Carter’s own version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings). The story goes that it was originally written for a cellist – Carter couldn’t remember who or for what occasion, if the Elegy was specifically dedicated to someone’s memory – and the manuscript had become lost. But Carter wasn’t pleased with the viola version and Fred Sherry, a frequent performer of Carter’s music, was hoping somehow, during the last decade, to talk Carter into reconstructing this early work. And in a couple of days, he did, going back to a style he had not composed in for some fifty years to try remembering a work written perhaps 60-65 years earlier. (On the station’s website, it was billed as “a new Carter work written specifically for him” – no cigars, there: it would be a revision of an old piece, not a new one.) They then played it. Okay.

At one point, McKnight and Sirota, in their pleasant bantering, pitted something by Philip Glass against Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano, both works composed around the same time to highlight the fierce dichotomy between “Downtown” Music and “Uptown” Music in the ‘70s. Downtown was the hot-pot for the new Minimalism while Uptown was the cerebral intellectual stronghold centered around Columbia-Princeton and the followers of Schoenberg and Webern. The competition was very fierce and only now, as a new generation of composers and performers manage to enjoy both without feeling the need to be either/or about it, music in New York may be becoming more “Midtown” by compromise. But it was a very real divide, back in those days – I lived in NYC between 1978-1980 and I can attest that it was just as bitter then as Blue States and Red States are today. (Incidentally, I did more than just live Uptown...)

Eventually, they got around to playing the premiere performance of Carter’s Clarinet Quintet which had been completed in September of 2007 and played at Juilliard in April 2008 (I loved how Carter, in his conversation about it, had fun with how long ago that seemed, hearing it now: “and I’ve written several newer pieces since then,” he added with his impish chuckle). It was great to hear it again – for the third time, actually: they played it twice at the premiere, before intermission and again afterward, following a conversation and show-and-tell with the composer, the performers and the dean of the school.

And that was basically it after another performance of Ives’ 3 Places in New England (complete, this time).

Most of the music that I would have wanted to hear – music BY Elliott Carter – was going to be played on Sirota’s overnight show, segregated into the X-Rated Hours after midnight when the listenership is so low, statistically, who cares if you offend people with modern music, though I’m sure her regular fans are probably not likely to be those wanting to hear Pachelbel’s Canon to wile away their insomnia. But I digress...

So, tonight, after I get some more copying done on my Aria & Chaconne, I’ll sit down and listen to some of Carter’s own music to begin the celebration of Carter’s next century.

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Incidentally, I want to acknowledge Meredith Heuer who took the photograph of Carter in my side-bar - I've seen it everywhere but rarely credited.

* Okay, so it's 1,853 words...

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