Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Conversations with Elliott Carter

If the Aldeburgh Festival began (almost) with a bang (see ‘Beside the Seaside’ below) it ended (almost) with the sound of a tiny cymbal - the final note of Elliott Carter’s Conversations which received its world premiere in Snape Maltings last Sunday. Performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano, Colin Currie on percussion and conductor Oliver Knussen on a rather precarious-looking chair, the seven-minute piece packs in a great deal within its short span. Luckily Knussen and his musicians played it twice on the night.

With two other recent pieces on the bill, Helen Grimes’ exuberant Everyone Sang (2010) and Charlotte Bray’s haunting violin concerto, Caught in Treetops (2010), it was an evening (indeed a weekend) for new music at the Festival. One hopes that Carter would have felt in good company. In 1994, in a piece reprinted in his Substance of Things Heard, Paul Griffiths wrote:

You do not have to be eighty-five years old to feel marooned in the past while time races on, but you probably have to be that age - and specifically to be Elliott Carter - to have the reverse feeling of desertion by time’s skidding hurriedly backwards from a point you thought was not only yours but everyone’s. At a public interview before the world premiere in Chicago of his newest orchestral work, Partita, Carter reacted passionately to a question about the future. How could he have any certain hope for his music, he said, when the last decade had seen a rush of young composers - by whom he probably meant anyone under seventy or so - ‘writing like Brahms, and doing it badly’? His tone was regretful, bewildered, but not bitter: he has too much gaiety of mind ever to turn sour - or indeed, ever to write like Brahms. We therefore have the paradox of an aged composer producing some of the most exhilarating music around, and doing so with majestic accomplishment (if that does not seem too settled a term for this athlete of the mind) in his new piece.

But perhaps the youthfulness is not so paradoxical; maybe only the old, in these jaded times, have their innocence intact, and stay able to be surprised by immediate sensory impressions, as Carter is evidently surprised and delighted by sounds. Simplicity and directness have always been as much his blessings as the vaunted ‘complexity’. (Why should this always be introduced as a problem? Who complains of the complexity of a forest?) Indeed, the abundance, to give it an apter name, comes out of a simple certainty about the nature of a composer’s task… [p.22]

Listening to Conversation on Sunday evening - how the piano often seemed primarily percussive and the percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone, took on the more melodic role expected of the piano - we were reminded of a paragraph in Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler’s ‘centennial portrait’ of Carter:

Carter has drawn on existing traditions for key points of his creative process and his artistic philosophy, preferring to prolong and rejuvenate them rather than call them into question. This applies to his preservation of the idea of a self-contained work of art, set down in writing with maximum precision, and to his focus on working with conventional tonal material (for example, precluding electronic sounds and largely avoiding experimental performance techniques on conventional instruments). It applies equally to his understanding of the role of the performer, whom he employs primarily as an interpreter of his ideas and not, as in aleatoric music, as a ‘co-author.’ And finally it is no less applicable, at least in intention, to his understanding of listeners: although Carter has often said that he never thinks of the audience while composing, but only of the performers, his efforts to make the musical events audible, and his penchant for casting his musical discourse in quasi dramatic roles, doubtless spring from a desire to make statements of maximum concision and urgency and to communicate them to his listeners. [Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, pp.16-17]

Let’s hear finally from Elliott Carter himself, as quoted in Bálint Varga’s essential new book, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers:

Each of my works is an adventure into a new conceptual, expressive, and musical domain which I have not yet explored. Their style is not something consciously thought about, but is a reflection of the expressive and musical intention. To work out a series of stylistic devices and then use them as formulae bores me as a prospect and it bores me in others who do it. Self-repetition is to me a sign of fatigue. [p.43]

In a 1985 postscript to Varga, Carter wrote: ‘The plan of your proposed book seems interesting and I hope you have the best of luck with it. It is courageous of you to include something about an American composer—for all of us have had a very hard time penetrating European indifference to our work.’ There was certainly no indifference on Sunday evening, as rapturous applause followed that delicate cymbal note in the closing minutes of the 64th Aldeburgh Festival.

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