Magna Carter (3): The stuff that dreams are made of

But probably the music had more to do with it, and
The way music passes, emblematic
Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
And say it is good or bad.

—John Ashbery, “Syringa”

Monday’s concerts for this year’s all-Elliott-Carter all-the-time Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood began with the absence of James Levine, still recuperating from kidney surgery; stepping in to play Matribute, a short piece Levine commissioned from Carter in 2007 as a birthday gift for Levine’s mother, pianist Ursula Oppens took a moment to send best wishes to Levine and remind the audience of the circumstances of the piece’s birth. Beginning with a void seems like the sort of philosophical game Carter would appreciate and appropriate; but Matribute itself was a sort of two-part invention with occasional chordal privileges, the individual voices—one fast, one slow—not imitating each other, but rather at key points dovetailing into a single flourish. The piece is characteristic of Carter’s solo piano writing over the past decade or so, concentrating on brief evocative miniatures rather than major statements. (Although given the man’s pace of output, that generalization may be obsolete by the time you finish this sentence.)

It was an elegant though somewhat incongruous prelude to the day’s music, which elsewhere often evinced a grittier cast. The whole of the 5:00 concert was given over to the piano. Charles Rosen performed Carter’s 1946 Piano Sonata, in which the open-prairie perfect-interval sound of contemporary American modernism is, in many ways, both romanticized and reimagined through an urban prism. Ravel and Ives are common reference points for the Sonata, but Franz Liszt might make a viable claim, right down to the second-movement fugue that echoes the B minor Sonata—nevertheless, the intricacy of the writing is a vehicle for bringing the piano into the present, not modernism overlaid with old-school virtuosity, but modernism through virtuosity: you can hear how Carter’s scurrying density grows out of his style of counterpoint, rather than just being an added textural element. The combination of lush texture and chromatic rigor produces a tough Romanticism reminiscent of film noir. Rosen’s wasn’t always the most note-perfect performance, but who cares? He’s earned that slack. His phrasing and tone was exactly right, redolent with streetwise grandeur.

Oppens followed with 1980’s Night Fantasies, in an amazing, blazing display of keyboard prowess—and both music and subject matter would echo through much of the subsequent evening. I once saw a television program where Harold “Doc” Edgerton, the high-speed photography pioneer, did a neat trick with an open faucet and a strobe light: he pointed the strobe at the stream of water, and when he turned it on, the stream seemed to “freeze” into its consituent individual droplets. Adjusting the rate of the strobe, the droplets could be made to appear to descend or ascend at varying rates. That’s kind of like what Night Fantasies does: the torrent of notes may suddenly turn into a passage of oracular chords, or sparse gestures, but you never escape the sense that the flow of the music is still hurtling forward.

The recognition of pianistic flow as just individual notes is one of the keys to Carter’s piano writing. So much Classical and Romantic piano music requires the complicit illusion that the immediately-decaying piano tone isn’t decaying at all, that the sounds are actually connected via a viable legato. As listeners, we’re conditioned to suspend our disbelief in that regard; Carter will have none of it. His piano notes explicitly decay; if he wants to sustain a phrase or gesture, he’ll fill it in with more notes, more attacks. It’s a matter of principle: you don’t write for what you wish the piano could do, you write for what the piano actually does.

That kind of sonic realism carried over into the 8:00 program, which was evenly divided between vocal and instrumental chamber works. The Triple Duo, from 1983, seems to refashion the battlefields of Carter’s 1960s music (the Double Concerto, or, especially, the Piano Concerto) into a more ritualized, civilized-veneer game. Throughout the opening, the instruments offer variations on a gesture, a flourish that ends with an accented jab—the effect is like fencers jockeying for position. The play of allegiances and conflict is just that: play, a civilized, rule-based simulacrum of combat. Eventually, though, the piano is lobbing low-cluster grenades, the motives become wide-ranging jousts, the jabs are less tentative. The return of the initial rhetoric is a bit more sardonically wise about the stakes involved in even the most formalized contests. Stefan Asbury conducted a performance that emphasized the allusive seriousness in a piece that could be played for sparkling humor; what humor there was in this reading was subtle and dark.

Penthode, which closed the concert, is a different kind of dark, a dim, old-varnish landscape. Composed in 1985 “for five groups of four instruments”—a rationally-organized league—it seems to regard the sudden, nocturnal danger of Night Fantasies from a more objective distance. The low components of each group (bassoon, bass/contrabass clarinet, tuba, double bass, trombone) are almost always present; the ombrous colors and more diffuse orchestration reduce extremes of exuberance or violence. Even the most loud and active sections have that mid- and low-range foundation, giving the complex surface a grounded feeling: the piece is at home in the shadows. Asbury conducted again, keeping a cool edge amidst the velvety timbres.

Apart from the brief Matribute, the only recent music on the day’s concerts was Tempo e Tempi, written in 1999. It’s a pocket cantata about time itself, but time of day figures in many of the Italian poems—Montale, Quasimodo, Ungaretti—that Carter sets. Night creates its own time, its own flow of time—”time to which my pulse beats as I would, ” as Ungaretti puts it in the final song, “Segreto del poeta.” “In me the evening is falling,” Quasimodo writes in “Òboe sommerso”; the days become “maceria,” which could mean both rubble and a wall built from it, the abrading limits of diurnal structure. The four instruments—violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet—are more reserved than one might expect from the intersection of Carter and his favorite subject matter, but, like a laconic detective, the music gives the impression of knowing more than it lets on, the understated flipside to the free-flowing confessional of Night Fantasies. Three of the songs reduce the accompaniment to a single instrument (oboe, clarinet, and cello in turn); within the context, the silence of the others is equally eloquent. Lucy Shelton was the soprano, singing with a text-driven timbral variety that ran the gamut from whispered Sprechstimme to soaring verismo; Christoph Altstaedt conducted. That final song ends at dawn, with the word luce—Carter underlines it with a straight-up, deep-voiced major triad. Is it hopeful? Falsely hopeful? Ironic? It’s whatever you want it to be.

On the other hand, even being itself is not the anchor we would like it to be, which is one of the factors behind Syringa, composed in 1978 (a 70th birthday piece from Carter). Syringa might be the most conceptually dense thing Carter has ever written, which is saying something; it’s a fiendishly difficult piece to get a handle on, but then again, it’s a piece specifically about the impossibility of really getting a handle on anything. It conjures the Orpheus legend from myriad oblique angles—the long, elusive Ashbery poem the mezzo-soprano sings (Kristen Hoff, showing a clear-stream tone and superb diction) gives snapshots of the story while questioning both its very essence and whether living on in legend is really living at all. “Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade,” he writes, “She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.” By the end, the English text is even questioning its own existence: “And no matter how all this disappeared,/Or got where it was going, it is no longer/Material for a poem.”

Over or beneath or alongside Ashbery’s text—in keeping with the theme, it’s never really clear which—a bass-baritone (Evan Hughes, richly stentorian) complicates things further with commentary from ancient Greek sources, sung in ancient Greek, or at least what we think ancient Greek sounded like. “There can be nothing unexpected, nothing impossible,” he proclaims, but the piece demonstrates that, far from a concrete rationality, it’s that there is nothing that can be fully and completely described in any fashion.

The ensemble has noticeable lacunae—alto flute but no flute, trombone but no trumpet. A guitar provides stop-and-go bardic accompaniment to the baritone, but elsewhere seems detached from the rest of the group. The counterpoint and textures never crystallize; the piece is a fugue in the literal sense, constantly fleeing. The vocal lines, by contrast, are natural and clear, mostly syllabic for the English, judiciously expressive, but that only heightens the textual slipperiness, the contradictions and false starts. The piece expresses the impossibility of fully nailing down any aspect of experience—and it’s a piece fully aware of its own inclusion in that category. The largest musical climaxes, in fact, come not where the singers seem to be closing in on their goal of understanding, but where they break off the effort. Asbury again conducted, keeping each layer alive, avoiding the temptation to simplify the perception of the score with excessive highlighting.

If Carter’s piano writing is concerned with how the piano actually sounds instead of how we might like to believe it sounds, Syringa generalizes that theory of perceptual relativity: what we might like to believe about anything is just an approximation of varying honesty. Syringa is out to make philosophical trouble: it takes our habit of attempting to make sense of the world and continually, provocatively frustrates it. Most of Carter’s music is more “accessible” than it’s casually given credit for, but Syringa is, without a doubt, a hard case. To enjoy it, you have to be the sort of person that enjoys the experience of profound conceptual uncertainty, who likes having their reason tested. I must have that kind of personality, because I do enjoy Syringa. To quote an old private eye: I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
2: Genealogy
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start


  1. When I first hear about Syringa, back when Dinosaurs roamed the earth, my thought was that it was everything I didn’t like about Carter’s music put together. I found, though, that it was one of my favorite post 3rd Quartet (and pre the great outpouring) pieces. I like it the best of his vocal pieces, at least the ones I know. The first recording also has what seems to me to be about the best singing Jan DeGantani did–really vividly verbal (in general she seemed to me to be not all that good with words). I’ve never heard it live, though (unfortunately I was able to get to this concert). I’ve always wondered how well the balances really worked outside of a recording studio.

  2. I have to say, the balances in the Tanglewood program were quite good. I think it’s the sort of piece where if the diction is really energetically articulated, it carries a lot of the musical line with it, and the mezzo’s diction was particularly clear. (I admit, I wouldn’t know what constitutes good ancient Greek diction, but the baritone was sure making some nice sound as well.)

  3. I found the balances generally very good all week, but ironically the one piece i had a little trouble with was Syringa: i found the strings frequently buried from where i was (the second or third loge back on stage left, fairly near the strings).

  4. Two comments on this posting (yes, I am re-reading! and I know more Carter now) –The theme of <>Syringa<> sounds closely related to that of <>What’s Next<>. And there is a strong musical connection between the Piano Sonata fugue and that of the Hammerklavier (this idea doesn’t originate with me, but the aural connection is clear).

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