Elliott Carter: Refracted glory

Posted: March 02, 2008

Though he is one of America's great composers, Elliott Carter had to live to be nearly 100 to be heard with any frequency in Philadelphia.

The usual explanation - his music isn't traditionally ingratiating - is so tired as to be as much a cliche as film images of the 99-year-old composer happily making his way through the urban chaos of his native New York - the inspiration for music packed with simultaneous unrelated events. The question isn't whether listeners can parse a 130-piece oeuvre that includes Symphony for Three Orchestras and Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras, but whether they can face musical refractions of urban life.

"What he's after," says cellist Thomas Kraines while preparing for today's Carter tribute by the Network for New Music, "is three different people not paying attention to each other, which is very New York, and maybe a little less Philadelphia." Or a lot less.

Performed both here (at 3 p.m. today at Settlement Music School) and two days ago at New York's Symphony Space, Network's "Ten for Carter" program is Carteresque in its plurality: Ten composers were asked to write birthday pieces for him, including modernist Milton Babbitt (who dropped out due to health problems), ex-Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh (a Carter admirer who was too busy), the jazz-oriented Uri Caine, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose generation rebelled against Carter's modernism.

Some, like Jennifer Higdon, borrowed notes and chords from Carter and built new pieces with them. Zwilich was inspired by his expansive personality. "I remember running into him at the New York City Opera at La Clemenza di Tito [one of Mozart's lesser operas]. We both pointed at each other and asked what we were doing there," she recalls. "But of course we would be there. Why not?"

Carter skeptics might ask why this friendliness to the wide world of music isn't more reflected in what he writes. His defenders would ask if skeptics have even heard enough Carter music to say that; most cities don't. Caine grew up in Philadelphia, and his access to Carter was mainly occasional University of Pennsylvania performances and LPs that had to be special-ordered from the long-gone H. Royer Smith.

Little had changed until recent weeks. Last Sunday, the Juilliard Quartet played his String Quartet No. 2 here. On March 18, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will juxtapose Bach's Art of the Fugue with Carter's Two Diversions, followed March 19 by a Musicians From Marlboro concert featuring the composer's more ambitious Oboe Quartet, both at the Kimmel Center.

The Network for New Music is discovering anything but severe, cerebral music. The main challenge in the four-minute clarinet/cello/violin trio Con Leggerezza Pensosa is the instruments moving at opposing speeds. Re-creating Carter's meticulously calculated portrait of disassemblage is tough for those taught to play together. Clarinetist Paul Demers spent six hours marking his parts with cues to help him make correct entrances that sound random.

"We have little pizzicatos, as if we're playing a game with each other," says violinist Gloria Justen. "There's even a mad fiddler that arrives at some point, some jazzy elements, and syncopated rhythms - lots of fun listening discoveries to be made."


How about joy as well? Modern music specialist Marilyn Nonken, a guest pianist on the Network concert, hears "the joy of bringing something into the musical universe that wasn't there before."

Carter grew up in New York at a time when automobiles were rare, and has written music that reflects having lived through two world wars and 9/11. He's a chatty, affable, witty man - no pretensions, even with his two Pulitzer Prizes - and his music is much the same. He gamely refers to having lived an "appalling" number of years (born Dec. 11, 1908) and to having taken compositional techniques "to disastrous extremes." His viewpoints about creating music with the rhythm of prose and rebelling against the numbing repetition of commercial music are humanistic, nonelitist, and probably a surprise to those who write him off as dissonant and esoteric.

How could Carter believe one thing and be perceived as so much the opposite? One answer dates to the 1922 American premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Even now, that revolutionary work is one that listeners work up to from Tchaikovsky. But that's where Carter started.

While at Harvard in 1926, Carter was laughed out of composition classes because of his Stravinskian dissonance. Though studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and an apprenticeship with Charles Ives were more sympathetic, Carter didn't really find his voice until midway through the century he has encompassed.

He rejected the highly systematized serial composition techniques that were in vogue at the time, preferring the freedom of composing simultaneous events - like Machaut in the 14th century and not unlike the Beatles' sound collage "Revolution No. 9" in the 1960s. That, plus an attitude that a piece isn't worth writing unless it's a big adventure, has kept him prolific into old age. Last year, he wrote seven pieces. Thanks to his increasing distillation, some of his best music has been written after age 80.

At age 90, he wrote his first opera, What Next? The world needed a few years to figure it out, but a recent production at Columbia University's Miller Theater revealed the opera to be a dark, existential comedy: With the Lincoln Tunnel lovingly reproduced onstage, the characters are car-accident victims not fully aware they're deceased. What could be more apt for a composer who made musical collisions an expressive act?

"Elliott has an attitude toward density in music that's very expressive," says Caine. "When it's well performed . . . there's a headlong rush of all these different things that are happening."

These are the words of a passionate minority. How large those ranks will grow depends on performers willing to put in the time - even at chamber music hothouses like the Marlboro Festival, Carter drives performers to despair - and listeners willing to abandon any semblance of certainty.

"Some listeners treat music as a refuge . . . and can be threatened or confused when expectations aren't met," says Nonken. "Carter's music is about exploration, surprise and adventure. . . . Listeners need to say, I'm going to go wherever this composer takes me."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Elliott Carter quotations were taken from the Frank Scheffer film "A Labyrinth of Time" and from a Frank Oteri interview with the composer, issued by Boosey & Hawkes publishers.

Hear David Stearns' profile of Elliott Carter on WRTI-FM's "Creatively Speaking" at http://go.philly.com/stearnsonradio


Network for New Music: Ten for Carter

3 p.m. today at the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St., Philadelphia Tickets: $15-$20. www.networkfornewmusic.org

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