Magna Carter (1): Punctuality

Tanglewood came up with one of its typical mornings for Elliott Carter on Sunday, opening the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music in a humid, brightly diffused haze. Carter himself opted for brightness, an orange shirt to go with the suspenders that seem to have become as much of a sartorial trademark as Steve Reich’s omnipresent baseball cap.

This year’s festival is, of course, an all-Carter affair, but it’s startling to realize, given the guest of honor’s approaching centennnial, how much the festival is not a conventional retrospective—of the week’s 50-odd pieces, no less than 21 have been composed since 2000. That’s an impressive output for a composer of any age, let alone one about to hit three digits. I will remind everyone that Carter was alive at the time of the monkey-gland fad; maybe he knows something we don’t.

The first piece was one of those recent efforts, the 2003 fanfare Call, in a bright titular wake-up by horn player Michael Winter and trumpeters Brynn Rector and Christopher Coletti. It was a reminder right off the bat of Carter’s ability to turn typically “Carteresque” gestures to varied ends with context and orchestration; here the familiar trope of busy trills, fluttertonguing, and staccato mutterings coalescing into homophonic chords was like a sudden collective memory, a centripetal conversation that comes around to a shared anecdote.

Conductor Leo McFall led a performance of the Asko Concerto (2000) marked by beautifully saturated color. It’s one of a handful of recent Carter works that take the form of mini-orchestra concerti, tutti perorations alternating with often unlikely duos, trios, etc. The instrumental combinations are particularly arresting in this piece: clarinet and double bass harmonics with marimba/harp/piano sparks, cello with bass clarinet, trombone, and pizzicato strings, &c. The performance showed the expressive possibilities that have opened up for Carter’s music as the steady advance of technical proficiency has caught up with his vocabulary: that cello solo, for example (played by Marie-Michel Beauparlant), came off as positively Brahmsian. The piece also showed, in a particularly clear way, the complex relationship between rhythm and pulse and meter in Carter’s music. There was much of his penchant for fast music in slow tempi and slow music in fast tempi, but the fairly constant underlying pulse, even when it was more visible than heard, gave a sense of how much more than just a means of coordination meter is for Carter; it’s the tie that binds, the underlying connection between the instrumental individuals, linking them in common cause no matter how fractious the argument.

Luimen, from 1997, intriguingly combines harp, vibraphone, guitar, mandolin with trumpet and trombone. It’s music of continuous rustling—even the long notes the brass lays down like a foundation are overlaid with buzzing, plucking activity. Christoph Altstaedt conducted; among the players, harpist Megan Levin stood out, making the most of extroverted writing that belies the instrument’s stereotype. The ending is another Carter trademark: a furious climax (in this case, a loud, vibrant trill) seems to bring the music to a close, only to give way to a brief coda of sparse, whispered interjections. Carter adopts a similar pattern often enough that it seems almost like a statement of democratic faith, that the loudest voice doesn’t always, and shouldn’t always, get the last word.

Réflexions (2004), given its American premiere, is another ensemble concerto like Asko, but in this one (an 80th birthday present for Pierre Boulez), Carter gives free rein to his humorous side, and the result is a full-blown Tex Avery cartoon, from the contrabass clarinet solo at the outset, to the hectoring brass, to the stealthy winds, to the kitchen-sink percussion (the piece begins and ends with the bracing rattle of stones—pierre in French, get it?). Carter adjusts the timing of his characteristic brief interjected gestures so that they become comic asides; his standard scorrevole whirls through the ensemble like a chase; even the slow passages are shot through with the anticipation of the next chaotic tumble. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth kept the proceedings appropriately brash.

Most of the festival programs close with a “classic” Carter work, and this first concert closed with a doozy, 1961’s Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord, each attended by its own ensemble. Oliver Knussen conducted Ursula Oppens at the harpsichord and Charles Rosen, who premiered the piece, at the piano; the performance was technically superb, but also warmer and more expressively confident that the (admittedly few) other renditions I’ve ever heard. Rosen, in particular, has an extraordinarily deep expressive connection to the fiendish piano part, and played with a lovely, limpid touch that brought out the impressionistic aspects of the music, the play of register and voicing. One fun thing I only noticed now is how the harpsichord’s winds (trumpet, trombone, flute) are more “ancient” than the piano’s, which include clarinet and French horn—as if Carter is setting up a contest between eras as much as timbres.

One of the interesting things the program revealed was Carter’s evolving approach to musical punctuation. Punctuation is important in Carter’s music, setting up another layer of marked-off time, somewhere between the the prevailing discourse and the underlying meter—both the Asko Concerto and Réflexions primarily use sharp, staccato chords as punctuation, in orchestrations and voicings that cover wide ranges, but the Double Concerto and even Luimen are more likely to punctuate with overlapped gestures or motives, similar in intent but blurring the temporal edge. The works of the 60s, 70s, and 80s would set up multiple layers of time like orreries, each pace in its own orbital flux, but Carter’s more recent increased textural transparency includes that echo of the steadily ticking second violin of the Second Quartet, but slyly transformed: the milestones may seem regular and objective, but in reality are as subjective a contribution to the discussion as any other feature. Even living by the clock is a matter of flux and folly.

More reports from the festival:

2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start


  1. Wow, Matthew.This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about Carter. You capture so much that is so vital in the music to those of us who admire and love it.Thanks.

  2. Matthew–i just stumbled across your lovely descriptions of the Tanglewood festival. These are beautifully drawn sketches! I was there from Sunday morning through Wednesday evening, and your blog entries are helping me relive the joy and excitement i felt being there. Many thanks!

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