Thursday, April 1, 2010

Is Space the Final Frontier in Elliott Carter's 21st-Century Orchestral Music? / Chip Michael

Elliott Carter recently celebrated his 100th birthday with lots of fanfare, feted for his music. Throughout his long life, Carter’s musical style defies classification, avoiding distinct association with any of the numerous of styles of music of the twentieth century. His early works were hardly ground-breaking; he was considered more of a “Harvard Composer” with obvious technical skill but reserved passion. However, Carter’s Cello Sonata (1948) established a middle period in his musical style, with “a new emotional intensity and breadth, giving it an epic quality.” With the Concerto for Orchestra (1974), Carter’s late period music obtained a density through poly-rhythmic structure and large chords creating a complex sound uniquely his own. This musical style would serve him through to the end of the Twentieth century. Continuing to defy convention by composing daily even in his advancing years, Elliott Carter is adding yet another dimension to his music. As he continues to develop as a composer, so does the density of his music, only now, in perhaps his “less-is-more” period, his music is moving toward space –seeking clarity.

The density of Carter’s late music style has been criticized and considered inaccessible; the sheer complexity of the rhythms and harmonic structure is perhaps too difficult to comprehend on first listening. However, those who love his music find it both a challenge and emotionally fulfilling. During a conversation with Chenoa Anderson, a performer of new music, she said the following about performing Carter’s music, “It's very logical music, but I think it's full of deep feeling also - much like J.S. Bach. There's an inevitability in what Carter sets in motion, and it's very satisfying when it reaches its conclusion.” Music is more than just an experience for the performer. If the audience fails to appreciate the music, there is little chance of the music gaining wide acceptance.

At the dawn of the Twenty-first century Carter’s music takes on a new dimension: less is more. In his dissertation on Carter’s Fifth String Quarter (1995), J. Aylward writes, “Certainly, while many portions of Carter’s late output contain densely layered music, reveling in contrapuntal texture just as abundantly as his earlier work, there is a tendency towards a thinning of texture in a number of the late pieces.”

Conductor Daniel Barenboim, for whom Carter’s Soundings (2005) was written, has this to say about Carter’s latest music:

I think Elliott has evolved really a new style that is in many ways directly related to what he wrote before but it is wonderfully distilled. It is what I always enjoyed in Elliott’s music was its innate complexity… [Elliott] has managed I think in the last 20 or 25 years I don’t know how much, not to lose any of the complexity but to distill its very essence.

With this distillation, Carter has achieved a new clarity and an accessibility not found in his twentieth century compositions. Through the exploration of his recent orchestral works Soundings, Dialogues (2005) and Horn Concerto (2007), I will show how Carter has begun to explore space within his orchestral music.

Elliott Carter writes a great deal about his music during the compositional process. The density of his Concerto for Orchestra was a result of his treating “the orchestra as a crowd of individuals, each having his own personal expression and coordinating in a less stereotyped way than is usually done in orchestral writing.” He goes on to say, “On a technical level, I was interested in investigating the possibilities of all the thirty-eight five-note and seven-note chords, and joining those of the most extreme dissonance with those of the blandest consonance.” Part of this need for density was to insure the music obtained its potential for expression.

…any music that is reducible to a few easily imitated tricks fails to achieve the full potential of musical expression. Music has to have the complexity of natural phenomena… And it has to be as intellectually challenging as the best poetry or philosophy.

Robert Thomas describes Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra as,

…formal polyphony. Four movements – Allegro, Presto volando, Maestoso, Allegro agitato – each with its own color, character and mode of transformation, are fragmented and superimposed. Fragmented restatements of each group’s material are never literal repetitions, but always transformations. Thus, in one work can be heard simultaneously formal superimposition, cross-cut collage, and a variational design.

Ostensibly, Concerto for Orchestra is a collection of elements intricately and simultaneously moving and shaping the piece: the very definition of complex.

Throughout Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra there is a density of sound. Although the opening of the piece is played pianissimo for the most part, there are still a large number of voices; the strings divide not only into 1st and 2nd violins, but nine desks for the 1st violins, three desks for the 2nd violins, three desks for violas, five desks for cellos and four desks for double basses, all playing their own parts. Even when there are homophonic movements, there remains a layered texture to the music to create a sense of sound mass. Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra is somewhat similar to Ligeti’s Atmospheres or Xenakis’ Metastasis, because the complexity of sound makes it difficult to cut through and capture individual moments or elements.

Part of the density of Carter’s music comes from the harmonic structure, which uses three-, four-, five- and seven-note chords. He also divides the ensemble in a unique way in Concerto for Orchestra, creating four groups defined by their tessitura rather than by the organic family. By crowding notes in the same tessitura together, he creates cluster chords which make isolating individual notes, or even tonal centers, difficult. Even in his Fifth String Quartet, a nearly twenty-first century piece, “Carter encourages the listener to cross-reference the individual traits in rhythm and pitches that repeat, transform, clash and combine to create ‘many layered contrasts of character—hence of theme or motive, rhythm, and styles of playing’ that weave in and out of the stream of motifs.” Anthony Tommasini, a reviewer for the New York Times, wrote in a recent review, “Mr. Carter's "Triple Duo" (1982), which came next, was a reminder of the unabashed complexity of his music from the 1970s and '80s.”

Carter, however, does not necessarily feel his music is complex.
I'm not sure it's really complex,…Contrapuntal music, which I'm most interested in, has many lines come together. What you're hearing you shouldn't be analyzing in detail. But you should be hearing the total effect. It's not that different from classics like Mozart, where sometimes they're just running around on chords or scales. I'm after the total effect, a nice thick sound with harmonic quality.

While he may not have felt his music written prior to this century was complex, there is definitely a sense of density to the music that makes it difficult to comprehend on first hearing.

As Carter composes in the twenty-first century, his music takes on a sense of space it lacked before. Individual lines, solo sections and slow moving chords can be heard, all designed to allow the listener to get a sense of clarity in the music. Examining three of Carter’s most recent orchestra pieces will show how Carter utilizes this new found space to create music which is more accessible.

Dialogues opens with solo English Horn (Figure 1). At the piano’s entrance, while there is more than one line of music and the pace of the notes is somewhat frantic, the texture is still sparse (Figure 2), with separate entrances for each note. The texture heard are two- and three-note chords alternating with single notes. Even when there are orchestral moments during the piano interludes (mm.35, 36 & 38), these are only moments in the music and not create the density that might be expected in a twentieth century Carter orchestral score.

Figure 1 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.1-8

Figure 2 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.24-26

At bar 51, there is solo English Horn again, but only for a few bars, when it is joined by a bassoon. Here the counterpoint is interwoven so that the instruments are playing solo lines alternating with each other in one super-solo line of music (Figure 3). Beginning at bar 109, there is a fuller orchestrated, denser homophonic section, but that is 3’15” into the work (Figure 4). Because of doubling, there are only three- and four-note chords, not the five- and seven-note chords of the Concerto for Orchestra.

Figure 3 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.51-56

Figure 4 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.109-111

At bar 120 (Meno mosso), the denser chords Carter used in previous compositions are heard. However, the chords are alternating sustained pitches between the piano and the orchestra. While the chords are six- and seven-note chords, the sustained pitches give them a chance to breathe creating the sensation of space in the music (Figure 5).

Figure 5 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.1117-122

At bar 184, there is another section where the piano has a fairly active part accented by brass hits. With both hands in the piano part staying within the confines of the treble clef, the effect is a shimmering sound, so the brass hits provide the interest to the section. There is room between the hits to allow for openness.

It is only toward the end (mm.308-324) that we get any tutti-like ensemble is achieved (Figure 6). Even then, it is not denser than the Boston Concerto (2002), written only three years previously. In Dialogues, there is a fair amount of homophonic writing with only moments of contrapuntal texture. This allows the movement of the melodic line to be heard even amid the dense chords. While the Boston Concerto is a much denser score overall, it too has numerous places where the music is given freedom to be heard which place it among Carter’s less-is-more period.

Figure 6 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.308-311

Dialogues achieves a sense of space throughout the work. In a review of a performance at Tanglewood, Jeremy Eichler wrote, “[Dialogues] seems to breathe the distinct air of Carter 's most recent ‘late-late’ period, in which he has been writing music of more grace and transparency.” It is this transparency which enhances the accessibility of Carter’s recent musical output.

Written for Daniel Barenboim to both conduct and play the piano, Soundings was designed never to have the two together allowing Barenboim to do both. Accordingly, there is an innate sense of space as he shifts between the two functions. Beyond the shifting functions, there is additional space in the overall score. After the initial piano opening there is primarily homophonic writing in the strings. Overtop forte shimmering chords in the woodwinds along with specific trills, alternate directions to create a sonic presence. Later, as the piano holds a sustained chord at bar 34, the oboe, bassoon and French horn enter as a trio. Initially pitting four against five in Carter’s typical polyrhythmic style, this slowly shifts to become interplay between the oboe and bassoon, each one occupying its own space with the French horn acting as accompaniment (Figure 7).

Figure 7 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.33-37

As the piece moves slightly faster at bar 48, soft sustained chords begin, allowing the listener a chance to hear density, complexity, and rich sonority. Even the faster sections (Figure 8) are played homophonically, avoiding the complexity of rhythm and harmony at odds with each other.

Figure 8 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.47-50

Even as the chords reach fortissimo at bar 56, there is still time to understand what is heard. At bar 102, the listener is treated to three piccolos over two sustained violins; the piccolo lines begin almost as if only one piccolo is playing (Figure 9).
Although this is followed by the trio of piccolos playing together, it is this initial “solo” expression that creates the space in preparation for the complexity that follows.

Figure 9 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.102-104

The music becomes tranquil at bar 119 with the upper strings playing in their higher registers. There is dense chordal and polyphonic movement, but it shifts slowly enough for each shift to be heard, registered, and appreciated before the next one occurs. This slow movement creates space indicative of Carter’s twenty-first century music (Figure 10).

Figure 10 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.117-120

This is an excellent description of how Carter isolates pitches in Soundings:

Carter’s Soundings not only carries a verbal dedication to Daniel Barenboim but refers to him in the framing piano solos by employing his initials D and Bb as a musical monogram. The very first piano solo opens with these two pitches, and the monogram appears no less clearly in the transition to the final passage. Here we can see mm.142-146 from the passage in Carter’s still precise, if occasionally slightly shaky, hand. In m. 144 the piano responds unexpectedly to the preceding massive tutti chord with a staccato D, followed after a gentler and shorter woodwind chord by an equally isolated Bb.

Carter himself described the piece, “…this diaphanous, airily orchestrated ten-minute composition is sort of concerto grosso whose string ritornellos (occasionally augmented to an orchestral tutti) alternate with episodes dominated by solo players.”

The diaphanous or transparent textures and solo episodes of Soundings create music easy to grasp on first hearing.

Written for and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Horn Concerto begins with a similar sound to the Concerto for Orchestra. Much of the orchestra plays at pianissimo allowing the horn in its lower register to still cut through even the more dense orchestrated sections. After a frenetic percussion and orchestral climax (bar 65), the horn has a lovely section accompanied by muted sustained notes in the brass (Figure 11).

Figure 11 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm. 68-72

There is a bombastic five-bar orchestral section at bar 103, to which the horn responds with a more energetic section, accented by percussion and isolated woodwinds (mm.108-126). The accents in percussion are just that, not sustained cacophony or density of sound, as in the opening of this concerto.

When the full orchestra is heard at bar 135, the sustained notes create a sense of rest in the music as the color shifts from winds and strings to just strings, and then to just winds in a slow decrescendo (Figure 12).

Figure 12 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm.125-142

Even the strings are given space to allow their melodic line to be heard. At bar 213, the 1st violins play in unison. Even though there are lower strings beneath them, the violin line is strong and soaring to cut clearly through and be heard. The violin line is isolated in its tessitura (Figure 13).

Figure 13 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm.213-216

As when earlier in the piece, a slow solo horn section is accompanied by muted brass, at bar 274 the horn is accompanied by soft strings and brushes on a gong. Once again, the effect is to isolate the horn and create space to allow the music to be heard (Figure 14).

Figure 14 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm.273-280

Allowing the lyrical line to be heard is important to the success of the Horn Concerto. Allan Kozinn wrote, “When everything goes right, hornists can work miracles. You need only have heard James Sommerville, the Boston Symphony's principal hornist, play Elliott Carter's Horn Concerto at Tanglewood a few weeks ago to know how chromatic (and lyrical) a horn line can be.” Not only is this a piece appealing to virtuoso performers, but it strikes a chord with the audience, as well.

While only select sections of Elliott Carter’s recent orchestral works are highlighted, there are numerous other moments in all of these works which create a sense of transparency in the music. It is this new-found space that makes Carter’s twenty-first century orchestral pieces more accessible. There have always been fans of his music, but perhaps now he will truly become a popular composer, whose music has appeal with more than just performers.

In a conversation with Frank Oteri, Elliott Carter had this to say about his current attitudes toward composition, “I feel I gradually exhausted the adventurous quality of some of those big complicated pieces that I’ve written. I am finding adventure in writing pieces that show the individual players more clearly.”

It is this clarity that is significant in Elliott Carter’s twenty-first century orchestral music. All the other elements Carter is famous for and still present: poly-rhythms, dense five- and seven-note chords, and intense counterpoint. However, Carter now allows the listener into his music like never before; various elements at work can be heard and enjoyed each in its own way. Carter’s music is now “wonderfully distilled,” while eminently complex, it offers space around the various elements to allow them to veritably shine.