Month: July 2008

Heavenly Peach Banquet

Midsummer happy hour! This one comes from fooling around with Dixie Peach juice cocktail from Trader Joe’s, though any similar peach concoction would probably work. Less is more, as it turns out. (Name courtesy of my wife, who makes puns in many languages and is lovely to boot.)

Pêche d’Or

3 parts gin
3 parts peach juice cocktail
1 part Triple Sec
1 part Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice

Shake with ice until very cold (it’s a bit on the sweet side—you could also cut down on the Triple Sec, although I didn’t like that as much) and strain into the aquarium of your choice.

Imbibe to the strains of the first stonefruit-themed piece of music I thought of off the top of my head, Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia.” Here’s the great sage, equal of heaven himself, in Vienna in 1988.

Greetings from Hooverville

Here’s a bit of intellectual mischief concerning a flanking maneuver in the Complexity Wars (which I’m late to, in part, because I was at Tanglewood listening to a week’s worth of Elliott Carter—there has to be a joke in there somewhere, in the “boy, are my arms tired” category). It starts with this whole notion of “the audience” as something that you can make generalizations about. Criticized for promulgating such a view (in large part, in service of the opinion that spirit-of-Copland populism is always going to resonate with a larger audience than complex modernism), Kyle Gann didn’t take things very kindly:

“There’s no such thing as ‘the audience.’ Each musical exchange is a private one between a performer and a listener, and everyone listens differently. You can’t generalize about musical experiences.”

OK – there’s no such thing as “The Nazis,” either. Some Nazis shot Jews in the head with apparent unconcern, others felt quite anxious and guilty doing it, and still others managed to get themselves confined to clerical work. You can’t generalize about the Nazis, because each one was an individual who acted and felt differently.

Given that I have never, ever seen a generalization about “the audience” that didn’t disenfranchise a huge swath of my own preferences as an audience member, I found that dubious choice of analogy to be, at best, ironic. Besides, it’s not even that valid—of course you can generalize about the Nazis, because they were a specific organization, with stated goals and policies; either you were a member or you weren’t, and if you were, it’s an acceptable assumption that you bought into said goals and policies, however reluctantly. “The audience,” by contrast, is such a mass of conflicting motivations and needs that any generalization is on shaky ground to begin with. I agree that it’s hard to talk about the world without making generalizations—in fact, I generalize often and with great enthusiasm. The problem, though, with generalizations about “the audience” isn’t the generalizing itself, but that what results almost invariably isn’t really saying what it seems to be saying.

Take this statement about “the audience”:

Audiences prefer simple music to complex music

(Yes, we’re assuming you can make a clean distinction between the two.) Well, how do you know that to be true? Did you take a poll? Kind of.

Audiences, in terms of tickets and recordings, buy more simple music than complex music

One could argue that the larger availability of simple music makes that pretty much a foregone conclusion. So find the causality for that imbalance of availability:

It’s easier to get a majority of the audience to buy simple music than complex music

I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement. But notice: it’s a statement about marketing, not the artistic worth or communicative efficacy of complex music vis-à-vis simple music. You might think that, given the mechanism of the free market, that such a marketing bias does reflect what audiences really do want, that the market for music evolves to a point where it becomes a collective reflection of individual desires. You’d be wrong.

The historian Paul Starr, in his book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, demonstrates how each new communicative medium—newspapers, the telegraph, the telephone, &c.—has its own constitutive moment, a period of time where the standards and business models for the medium come into being, laying down a track for the industry to follow. Starr’s main point is that such moments almost always have more to do with contemporary political exigencies than with market forces. Broadcasting, for example—where most people got most of their music in the 20th century—had its constitutive moment in the 1920s. The landscape for mass broadcast media was largely determined by the way the radio industry was shaped after World War I. And the process was dominated by one man: Herbert Hoover.

Hoover became Secretary of Commerce in 1921 and promptly set about regulating radio, even though he had no specific mandate to do so. Up until that point, radio was largely limited to military use, but with the nationwide radio announcement of the election of Warren Harding to the presidency in 1920—reports that scooped newspapers by several hours—the civilian possibilities of the medium became apparent. Hoover was determined to create a regulatory environment for radio that hewed to his own pro-business views—he saw his job as using governmental power to shape industries in order to maximize the opportunity for private profit.

Hoover set about licensing portions of the radio spectrum to private, non-governmental actors. Hoover lacked explicit authority at first, but most of his actions were given retroactive legality by the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Federal Radio Commission to regulate licensing and standards. The FRC provided a veneer of independence, but then-President Coolidge gave Hoover a free hand in picking commissioners, which continued when Hoover himself moved into the White House in 1929.

The FRC was biased towards clear channels—frequencies reserved nationwide for a single licensee—and high-power transmission, on the grounds that they a) provided better reception, and b) provided better penetration into rural areas. In practice, the policies favored corporate broadcasters, who could afford high-power transmitters and network hook-ups. And corporate broadcasters were steadily embracing an advertising-based business model.

Lest you think that to be a natural evolution, keep in mind that, at the same time, Britain was building its own standards around broadcasting in the form of the BBC, a government-owned monopoly public-service network, supported by taxes and license fees. That too was largely the work of one man—John Reith—and not a response to free market pressures. I’m not saying that the BBC model was, or is, preferable—Reith’s unapologetically elitist bent towards highbrow and educational programming correspondingly ignored popular culture, and the network’s quasi-governmental status resulted in an enforced political neutrality that, as Starr points out, diminished the diversity of broadcast political opinion. But it does show that the American broadcasting regime was hardly inevitable or necessary, that it was the result of arbitrary decisions based on arbitrary assumptions as to what would best serve the public interest—assumptions that, even at the time, were demonstrably incorrect.

In the early 1920s, polled public opinion was overwhelmingly against advertising on the radio, what was then called “toll broadcasting.” Nevertheless, as private industry gravitated towards an advertising-based model—how else were they to make money?—Hoover and the various regulatory agencies did nothing to prevent it. The result? By the early 1930s, public opinion was overwhelmingly for advertising, as opposed to a BBC-style tax or fee; the industry didn’t respond to what audiences wanted, the audiences got used to what the industry was providing. Not that there wasn’t dissent—educational, religious, and labor groups clamored for Congress to set aside a portion of the spectrum devoted to public-interest programming. It went nowhere: when Congress revisited the issue soon after Franklin Roosevelt took office (changing the FRC to today’s FCC), it largely left the 1927 structure intact. Why? Because FDR, who saw radio as a pro-Democratic bulwark against the mostly pro-Republican newspaper industry, needed to keep the broadcasters on his side. Again: short-term political considerations with long-term effects.

The advertising-based model soon resulted in advertisers themselves taking over much of the programming, producing and packaging their own sponsored programs for the networks. (Note that this is why the Met broadcasts, underwritten by Texaco and, for all practical purposes, produced by the Met itself, gained such a radio foothold, while something like Toscanini’s NBC orchestra was a short-lived anomaly.) When the dramas and sitcoms and variety and quiz shows moved to television in the late 1940s, rather than go back to producing shows themselves, radio stations instead turned to other prepackaged programming in the form of recorded music—programming that soon came to favor short, popular numbers as an ideal vehicle for spot advertising.

This whole stroll down memory lane is to show that, when it comes to talking about “the audience” as a collective entity, the more you scratch the surface, the more factors turn up that pull the audience’s behavior away from a basic causality of want/don’t-want and towards reasons of convenience, availability, and routine, reasons that, while at first glance may seem to be the result of the free market’s alleged efficiency, in fact turn out to have more to do with patterns of consumption laid down in grooves so old that we’re not even aware of them. Had the structure of broadcasting in this country somehow been fashioned to initially favor music of modernist complexity, would the general public now prefer it? Probably—pace radio advertising, audiences prefer what they’re used to, a bias that only increases over time. That whopper of a contrafactual raises the question of motivation—modernist complexity was, after all, not being created in a largely welcoming world, but in the face of a mass audience conditioned towards a very different kind of musical discourse. Would it have seemed as expressive, as audacious, if it was being widely consumed? Maybe not. But at the same time, composers and critics that celebrate simplicity should pause to consider that the apparent greater communicative power of such music, at least as measured in audience numbers, might owe as much to Herbert Hoover as it does to human nature. Not much is as simple as it seems.

Magna Carter (8): You’ve got a head start

Elliott Carter, 1917.

The final concert of the all-Carter Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was supposed to be a blow-out of sorts. It featured, rather than the TMC fellows, the Boston Symphony Orchestra—their first full concert in the FCM in memory, their first subscription concert in Ozawa Hall, their first all-Carter concert ever. But it felt a little anti-climactic. Maybe it was because everyone, myself included, was just tired by the end of the festival. Or maybe it was because, for all the sense of occasion, and for all their evident care and superb playing, it was but one concert in a long BSO summer. Based on experience, I’m guessing the TMC orchestra players partied all night after Wednesday’s concert; the BSO probably went home after Thursday’s—they still have programs all weekend.

Again, it wasn’t because they phoned it in—the playing was excellent, although you could sense the adjustment from James Levine, who had previously conducted all the works on the concert with the group, and his replacements, very different from him, and very different from each other. BSO assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung led the Three Illusions with big, sweeping gestures, and intense dramatics. “Micomicón” had broad shapes and some sharply-shaded ensemble phrasing—this mirage was palpably in focus. “Fons juventatis,” Carter’s fountain-of-youth evocation, was a bit aggressive in its swirling figures, a full-blast hose rather than a bubbling spring. But Sung’s dramatic penchant produced a stunningly dark and driven account of “More’s Utopia,” a dystopian ending—an inexorable long line, full-bore voicing. Interviewed earlier in the day, Carter demurred when asked about his fondness for soft, sideways-glance endings, saying he just liked to end that way, that’s all. But I still think there’s a statement of democratic philosophy in those endings. Carter’s work is never explicitly political—the closest he’s ever come is the “View from the Capitol” in A Mirror on Which to Dwell, a gentle stiletto into post-Vietnam, Cold War America—but “More’s Utopia,” referencing More’s draconian prescription for social calm, could easily be read as a warning response to post-9/11 domestic policies. Thus I find it not insignificant that, uncharacteristically, the piece ends with a bang.

BSO principal James Somerville reprised the Horn Concerto he premiered last season, with Sung again conducting. It’s a piece of quiet virtuosity—Carter spends more time than most composers would exploring the instrument’s low range, and much of the middle sections, both slow and fast, are an exercise in sparse lontano orchestration, the interplay between horn and orchestra seeming to come from very far away. In that same earlier interview, Carter rather provocatively claimed that the many instances of instrumental works in his catalog supposedly inspired by poetry is actually backwards causality, insisting, perhaps in jest, that he would pick poems afterward in order to have something to talk about when people asked him about the music. If Carter were looking to reverse-engineer a literary spark for the Horn Concerto, I think Apollinaire’s “Cors de chasse” would be a good candidate:

Les souvenirs sont cors de chasse
Dont meurt le bruit parmi le vent

Memories are hunting horns
Whose sound dies upon the wind

The concerto does end big, before a final note from the solo horn, but then again, when he is claiming a literary reference, Carter usually insists that he doesn’t follow the poem all the way through.

Oliver Knussen then took the podium for the 2002 Boston Concerto. The contrast with Sung was one of increased tonal focus and more careful detail: the rebound from Knussen’s beat is looser than Sung’s, which tended to result in more precise off-beat puncutations, and he seems to draw the music in to himself, where Sung encourages it to promiscuously bloom around her. Knussen’s style was perfect for the Boston Concerto, in which lightness and delicacy predominate—even thicker-textured sections, as in those featuring the brass and the strings, return to a twittering refrain of (literarily-inspired, if you believe him) rushing raindrops.

Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei, Carter’s big 1990s anthology, started off in blazing fashion with a “Partita” that was absolutely, bracingly stunning, precision horsepower married to a taut, tough sonic clarity. It was the best playing of the night—I can’t imagine any group doing the piece more justice. But the middle “Adagio tenebroso” was a bit slack. At first I thought maybe the group had left it all on the athletic field of “Partita,” but I actually think it was Knussen’s conducting style, precisely cued and impeccably balanced, but missing the Mahlerian sweep—Sung’s conducting, with its forward momentum and high emotional temperature, would have actually been a boon here. And then Carter himself undercuts the standard symphonic drama with the finale, an “Allegro scorrevole” of elusive, incorporeal motion, a tossed-off scherzo in place of a generic peroration. It’s a fantastic, and fantastical, ending, but it needs monumental weight from the Adagio to work in context. Nevertheless, Tanglewood itself (under gorgeous, rain-free skies for once) honored the occasion with its own counterpoint: an insect, infiltrating Ozawa Hall and flitting about the stage, a touch of such perfection that Carter should specify it in the score.

Back in 1994, when the Chicago Symphony premiered “Partita,” when the lights in the hall failed—twice—during the performance, when we all thought the piece would be one of the last big statements from Carter’s pen (a joke pleasantly on us), Carter himself, at a little symposium at DePaul University, offered the best analysis of his music I ever heard. He said that all the complexity—the subdivisions, the metric modulation, the scurrying intervals—was because of his French connection, a French tendency to musically favor upbeats over downbeats. All the technical innovation was in service of an idea that an entire piece could be an upbeat, that the sort of “arrival” we expect in liberal amounts in Classic and Romantic music could be effectively and compellingly suspended such that it only arrived at the end of a piece, if at all. I think this is the one thing that all the performers in the festival, students and professionals, all “got” to an extent I’d never heard before, that a combination of textural transparency—not lightness, but keeping all the myriad layers of the music alive and audible—and articulation embedded within forward motion—those offbeats and odd subdivisions either coming off of the previous beat or headed towards the next, or both—is what makes Carter’s language sing, what keeps that grand upbeat so wonderfully suspended, so edge-of-your-seat exciting.

It’s also tempting to put that upbeat idea to service in explaining not only Carter’s extraordinary longevity, but his extraordinary continued creativity, inventive, vibrant, challenging, and, amazingly, accelerating. I suppose if you decide never to arrive, you just keep going. After a week of his music, after ten straight concerts of the stuff, I’m beginning to think that Carter’s greatest rhythmic innovation might just be his own career.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or

Magna Carter (7): Either/Or


The final day of the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (so appositely dubbed “Carterpalooza” by the Boston Globe‘s Jeremy Eichler) opened with the man himself, in an interview by former Globe critic Richard Dyer. Much of it was stories (Carter sang in the American premiere of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex? I’ll be damned), but at one point, despite a couple of re-phrasings of the question from Dyer, Carter absolutely refused to make a distinction between technical composition—planning the form, mapping out the harmony, engineering the rhythmic relationships—and intuitive composition. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘intuition,'” Carter protested. He compared it to the relationship between language and grammar—we use grammar when we use language all the time, but to describe grammar, we have to use language.

Huh? Well, you could kind of hear what he was talking about at the 5:00 concert, the second of the festival devoted to miniatures and solo works. The Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, for example, of which four were performed—”Saeta” and “Canaries” are both early (1949) experiments in simultaneous tempi and metric modulation, and, with their predominantly triplet-, eighth-, and dotted-eighth-note vocabulary, there are fleeting audible glimpses of Reichian phase-shifting. But only fleeting—Carter would never keep a technical idea like that front-and-center the way Reich does (at least in his more austere pieces) because for Carter, the idea itself isn’t “technical,” it’s on equal dramatic terms with an expressive turn of phrase, or an orchestrational color. It’s why Carter’s surface isn’t as structurally clear as, say, Piano Phase: the technical framework is expressive, the expression is part of the technical framework. None of it is intuitive—or maybe all of it is. It’s hard to tell. The “March” is even more schematic, with its two competing layers, heads and butts of the sticks respectively. But that’s just one element in the piece’s DNA—the “March” is still expressive without aurally disentangling the two bands. Even “Canto” (added to the group in 1966) is more obviously rhapsodic, but the surface is made possible by a technical feature, the glissando possibilities of the pedal timpani. (Steven Merrill dispatched “Saeta” and “Canaries” with a round, booming tone and confident swing; Kyle Zerna brought a somewhat leaner tone to “Canto,” working the pedals like a bomber pilot, and then brought the house down with an athletically-choreographed, taut-toned rendition of the “March.”)

The Four Lauds for solo violin, brief celebrations of friends past and present, juxtapose “technical” elements to expressive effect. “Statement—Remembering Aaron,” a Copland tribute (marvelously played by Martin Shultz) opens with a singing line, abruptly drops in a pizzicato phrase, and then proceeds to integrate the two, along with some Coplandesque fiddle riffs. “Riconocenza per Goffredo Petrassi” (Stephanie Nussbaum, combining high-contrast articulation and infectious joy) is a parley of intervals: soft “consonant” double-stops side-by-side with loud “dissonant” ones, before both combine into a gentle close. “Rhapsodic Musings,” for Robert Mann (Nussbaum again), works its materials—all derived from a D-E dyad (Re-Mi)—in similar vein as the “Riconocenza,” though at a more appassionata pitch. “Fantasy—Remembering Roger” (as in Sessions) is manifold where the others are sequential, keeping all its elements and all the violin’s registers seemingly active at once—a Joachim cadenza gone haywire. Shultz brought it home with energy and bite.

Kevin Jablonski played the double-bass Figment III with easygoing aplomb, its rhetoric similar to “Statement” with the dialiectic addition of the profound timbral contrast between the instrument’s high and low. Figment IV likewise works the timbre of the viola, the trombone-like C string, growing more vocal as the range ascends; violist Gareth Zehngut was grand and soulful. (On the evidence of the quartets, Penthode, and Figment IV, somebody really needs to get Carter to write a viola concerto.) Steep Steps, for bass clarinet, plays the timbral angle for humor, staccato Raymond-Scott machinery in the bass against the unlikely espressivo of the instrument’s treble, ending with a big-band saxophone-like wail of clarino; Brent Besner hit it all with character and flair.

The last two works were juxtaposed chronologically. “Elegy” for cello and piano dates from 1939 (though reconstructed last year), making it the earliest piece on the festival; unlike the Piano Sonata, there’s not a whole lot in this solidly Pistonesque cantilena that points to later Carter, but the polish and poise of the piece is breathtaking, yet more evidence that Carter’s expressive, “intuitive” side is not easily disengaged from his technical concern. Fred Sherry gave the cello line a wiry drama, while Charles Rosen played sympathetically in the background.

Rosen then played another gift for Petrassi, 1994’s 90+ for piano solo, the introduction of that instrument into Carter’s “late” style (as best one can categorize it). As in the Double Concerto on the festival’s opening program, Rosen brought an old-school pianistic touch, the accents integrated into the flow rather than spiking out from it, the passagework more a legato wash than a cloud of sparks. It was the sort of performance that quietly connects Carter with the historical continuum of composers, not the front-edge of a progressive arrow, but a member in good standing of the guild. Regardless of language or grammar, Carter remains in pursuit of the well-formed piece.

More reports from the festival:

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

Magna Carter (6): This Is Your Life


The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.

—Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

Wednesday’s 5:00 concert at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music began, new-Prometheus-style, with Elliott Carter’s 1991 Quintet for Piano and Winds clanking to life, rising up with a waking gesture in the winds (that sounds an awful lot like the opening of West Side Story) and a groan of chords in the piano. It’s a piece that could easily be described—as Carter does in a program note—as another in his series of musicalized conversations among disparate individuals. But the Quintet evolves, sparked by the piano. Carter treats the other four instruments—oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn (in imitation of Mozart’s K.452)—in such a way that the differences in timbre are exacerbated rather than ameliorated; rhythmic homogeny or smooth-voiced harmonies aren’t much in evidence. The piano prodding in the background, avoiding any sustained sounds for a huge swath of the piece, ends up sounding like firing neurons, controlling the other four disparate instruments’ simultaneous biological processes.

But then, as the winds reduce their activity, the piano detaches from the quartet, and for a spell it lays out a simple, sustained, mid-range melody. It’s like a realization that there might be a higher existence than the twittering fits and starts of the previous section; when that texture returns, it’s more organized and more complex—the winds still heterophonous, but phrasing in concert, the piano adding pedal and legato to its thought process. The massive-gear piano chords return at the end, after which the winds briefly continue—the next generation. Oboist Henry Ward, clarinetist Raymond Santos, bassoonist Rose Vrbsky, horn player Lauren Moore, and pianist Nolan Pearson bounced bright tone around in an engaging and—unusual for Carter performances in the past—solidly matter-of-fact manner.

The String Quartet no. 2, from 1959, is, in almost every way, the Carter piece, the one in which he fully seems to be the Carter we recognize today, the trailhead of all the myriad paths his music has gone on to follow. The glib thing to say is that the quartet is a turning-point in Carter’s career. The somewhat more accurate—and Carterian—thing to say is that it’s an unusually interesting turning-point drawn from the infinitely many such points that Carter, like everybody, accumulates each day. That distinction, I think, is why the “characters,” the personalities Carter assigns to each instrument, remain so remarkably at odds even by the end, one of the least-resolved of Carter’s unlikely-bedfellow negotiations. (That aspect was particularly strong in this performance, by the strings of TMC’s New Fromm Fellows—violinists Stephanie Nussbaum and Martin Schultz, violist Gareth Zehngut, cellist Kathryn Bates—my only quibble would be that Schultz’s “laconic, orderly” second violin, in Carter’s description, was less laconic than insistent, an efficiency expert trying to keep the other three on task for their own good.)

One of my favorite movie clichés is when a character insists that “there must be some sort of mistake,” a sure sign that no, there is in fact no mistake at all. But in the quartet, the cliché is true, the four instruments don’t belong with each other—the movie won’t end with everybody realizing that, deep-down, they’re really alike. (It’s a similar situation to Carter’s 1999 opera What’s Next?, a film of which was screened earlier in the day.) The respective intervallic vocabularies remain, to an extent, a tower of babel. Yet the overall harmonies flow so expressively because the little deviations—the viola’s minor ninths giving way to the first violin’s major ninths, the cello’s extroverted cadenza versus the first violin’s equally dazzling, but inward one—the little differences seem to be always on the verge of coming together. The quartet is, in a way, nothing but turning points in the relationships between the instruments, none of them the big, life-changing ones we’re accustomed to waiting for, but no less dramatic for that. Life goes by pretty fast, Carter says; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while (or if you’re only looking for the obvious demarcations), you could miss it.

The evening concert brought the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra back to the stage for the second of their programs. Unlike the second quartet, the Three Occasions for Orchestra, an anthology of commemorative works from the late 1980s, do privilege certain of life’s turning-points—the drama is in the negotiation between the public and private acknowledgement of such events. The opening, “A Celebration of Some 100 X 150 Notes,” is a public milestone (commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Texas statehood). Carter divides the orchestra into big, primary-color blocks of somewhat static sound, moving them around each other like floats in a parade (or, to use a darker simile, like the wide-shot geometric assemblage of the Roman army in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus). The finale, “Anniversary,” is private, marking the composer’s 50th wedding anniversary; here the blocks are made up of daisy-chain motion, networks of recalled experiences and past and present conversation.

The middle movement, “Remembrance,” is the most haunting because it puts those public and private worlds in conflict. An elegy for Paul Fromm, the piece seems to be a public eulogy—a solo trombone (Patrick Pfister) pronounces a noble line, while the orchestra returns to the static blocks of the fanfare, here transformed into frozen, stoic sadness. But aggressive music keeps sneaking in—angular basses, railing winds, rumbling piano—private anger intruding on public grief, the attempt to sum up a man’s life disrupting the way we construct our own. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted a performance of firm, broad outlines and confident declamation.

Fred Sherry then played Carter’s 2000 Cello Concerto, with Stefan Asbury conducting. The piece seems to ratchet up the traditional concerto struggle between soloist and orchestra quite a bit. Partly, it’s Carter’s way of maintaining a certain amount of sonic energy while still providing orchestrational space for the tricky-to-balance solo cello timbre; the soloist has the luxury of playing his thorny part in isolation, or against sparse (or, in the striking Giocoso, unpitched) accompaniment, while the orchestral response is concentrated into singular, startlingly violent accents. (The opening’s knife-chords are loud even among Carter’s dynamically wide-ranging output.) The drama of the orchestral mob attempting to drown out the individual voice is apparent, although the cello is more resilient than we might expect—in the opening, he absorbs those blows but continues on after a breath; when similar rhetoric returns at the end, the soloist sails through the storms, having learned how to navigate the shoals.

But in second and fourth sections of the arch, slow movements of sorts, the distance between the mob and the individual seems to shrink a little. In the fourth section, those rifle-crack chords from the beginning return as sharply accented individual notes, from the string section, the xylophone—and the cello itself; Carter quietly warns against the dangers of an unexamined life.

Anticipation of the TMCO’s performance of the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra had been running so high that apparently even the weather felt the sense of occasion: the biggest storms of the week peaked at intermission, bringing magnesium-flash lightning and a Noachian deluge of rain. It made for a family reunion—with Oliver Knussen conducting, the Concerto tore through the hall like a force of nature. At a panel discussion on Tuesday, Knussen compared the Concerto to Moby-Dick as an “American epic,” but the performance here was exceptional for being not an epic of size—although the piece and the performance were very, very big—but, like Melville, an epic of energy, Herculean not in the ground it covers but in the power it releases.

Beyond the broad, four-section high-to-low breakdown, it’s hard to describe how the Concerto goes, but the music—dense and exhilaratingly fluid—insists that the apprehension of how it goes is secondary to the actual experience of it going. The piece starts out evoking swirling winds, but its true nature is literally mercurial: the orchestra as a giant quicksilver mass. Where a composer like Feldman alters your perception of time by slowing the clock to the point where its grid becomes imperceptible, Carter goes to the other extreme, washing away the grid in a flood. I can’t think of a piece that’s more compulsively immediate than the Concerto, one that more effortlessly but relentlessly focuses your attention on the constantly reinvented present.

The paradox is that the Concerto is so absolutely composed, so structurally sure-footed, yet the flow of the music is such that you hear it like you experience life itself, before your memory has a chance to go back and make and orderly narrative out of it. The playing, without a hint of tentativeness or hesitation, overflowed with the music’s quickness and vitality—impossible to pin down or capture. The lightning might well have been being channeled into the orchestra’s laboratory for Carter’s creation. It’s alive.

Thanks to my sister Jeana for the Lewis Thomas quote.

More reports from the festival:

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

Magna Carter (5): Role modeling


In keeping with the pattern of salting the mostly-recent repertoire of Elliott Carter with “classic” Carter works, the 8:00 Tuesday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music started off in both senses of “classic” with Carter’s 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord. I say classic, because, while the rhetoric at first seems derived from Baroque music, Carter is assimilating Baroque music the same way Mozart did, trying on the costume to see how it might fit around his own music. (In fact, given the Sonata’s prevailing lushness, something like Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah might not be a bad point of departure for considering the piece.) Falling chronologically between Carter’s first two string quartets, it’s not completely off-base to hear the Sonata as Carter-lite, the polyrhythms and simultaneous tempi squared off into simpler subdivisions, as in the first movement, with the harpsichord ticking off a stately, out-of-time chorale-prelude cantus firmus. That approach, strangely, makes for a particularly jazzy effect—when you filter Carter’s penchant for emphasizing the upbeat more than the downbeat through a regular grid of sixteenth notes, it can sound (as it does in the middle section of the second movement) like pre-swing ragtime. The Sonata echoes jazz in another way, though, in that the material Carter is putting through his favored paces is often quasi-vernacular, rather than newly-invented—for example, the forlana rhythm that permeates the third movement—and we’re more conscious of the manipulations, like an improvisation over familiar changes. And then sometimes Carter simply drops in a stylistic tic without any preparation at all: if the Sonata as a whole is an elaborate costume, the out-of-nowhere octave-displaced unisons at the end of the slow movement are the equivalent of putting on an anachronistically funny hat. Jeremiah Bills (flute), Andrea Overturf (oboe), David Gerstein (cello), and Yegor Shevtsov (harpsichord) performed with an energetic, palpable bounce.

The other instrumental piece on the program was 2004’s Mosaic, for harp and chamber ensemble. Where Trilogy, earlier in the day, aimed for brilliance, Mosaic turns inward. The harp part is still largely a Salzedo homage, but sparse and pointillistic where “Bariolage” is dense and virtuosic (to make another jazz analogy, if “Bariolage” is Art Tatum, Mosaic is Count Basie), while the instrumental groups that form the ensemble, three winds and four strings, tend to function as self-contained groups, tiling in the music in reference to the title. Ruminative, even sometimes hesitant, Mosaic seems to exist in an uneasy twilight. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted; BSO principal Ann Hobson Pilot, appropriately playing a Salzedo-model instrument (see, I remember something from my harp lessons), brought elegant eloquence to the solo part.

The rest of the concert featured the voice. Carter usually expertly adopts and adapts vocal styles to the needs of the text, but in Carter’s 2006 Wallace Stevens cycle, In the Distances of Sleep, the reverse almost happens. Previously in the day, a panel of musicologists—Jonathan Bernard, John Link, and David Schiff, with Robert Kirzinger moderating—talked about Carter and his music, and there was much discussion of the “long line,” the Boulanger-derived idea that each of Carter’s pieces has a single, overarching melodic arc that, while often divided among different instruments or indistinct within dense textures, holds the structure together. In the Distances of Sleep features a voice part that is the long line, syllabic and prominent, in sustained note-values. The difference, I think, is Stevens’ narrative posture—in other poets Carter has set (Bishop and Lowell, certainly), the narrative is experiential: what’s in the text is what’s happening to the poet, and, by extension, the listener is sharing in that experience. But Stevens is not experiencing something in the world, he’s telling you something about the world, offering lessons in the way the world is. Carter thus has his singer be a preacher, an oracle; and the musical accompaniment often rises to a furious bustle, as if to shake you by the collar and get you to listen. Even the quiet center, “Re-statement of Romance,” with its gently aching unison string line, is conscious of its telling rather than showing. Jeffrey Milarsky led a sturdy, well-framed account; mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay was marvelous, with a big, rich voice and a stern dramatic commitment that never flagged. She was stunning, in a part that is meant to stun.

The festival’s second world premiere, Mad Regales, was as light as the Stevens cycle was dark. It marks a much-noted return to choral writing for Carter—six a cappella voices, singing obliquely wry texts of John Ashbery—but the layout is closer to Carter’s chamber music than to standard choral practice. In fact, the first instance of traditional “choral” writing in the piece—all the voices lined up in reasonably homophonic harmony—doesn’t happen until the third and final movement, where it butts in as an amusing shock.

The first movement sets 8 of Ashbery’s “37 Haiku”—after a swooping-down glissando opening, each haiku is declaimed by a solo singer while the rest accompany on “ahs” and “oohs” derived from the word haiku itself. The statements are funny in a vague way until the last, when the mezzo-soprano, heretofore relegated solely to accomapniment, interrupts the soprano’s wedding-memory reverie with a cold-water douse:

He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you’re a monster

Carter, showing where his sense of humor lies, deploys this line with such exquisite timing that, even on second hearing (the piece was performed twice), the effect remained.

The second movement, “Meditations of a Parrot,” is drop-dead slapstick. Ashbery’s poem is a surrealist jumble of a seeming conversation between a girl and a parrot; but the latter, the poem reveals at the end, only seems to know the words “Robin Hood.” That becomes a punchy accompaniment figure, passed about the ensemble, always on the same pitch, a unlikely tonic that, despite their best efforts, the group can’t seem to escape. Carter sets the rest of the text with staccato jabs and inappropriate accents. It’s an obsessive, escalating absurdist gem that, especially given the subject matter, happily channels Monty Python.

“At North Farm” is an elusive meditation on absence, the sort of piece that seems to be trying to decide between mirth and dolor. In the background, three singers at a time lay down text in slow, distant, near-triadic progressions, while the others declaim the text in fragmented bursts. The singers simply can’t figure out which role they should be playing, as the poem comes to reveal:

                      Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

That last section is set in rhythmic unison, a witty-sad contrast to the ambivalence of the text. The performance was musically solid and dramatically ideal; John Oliver was the conductor.

The evening closed with another Carter classic, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, the 1976 Elizabeth Bishop cycle that marked Carter’s return to writing for the voice. Milarsky again conducted, with another excellent soloist: soprano Jo Ellen Miller, her bright, golden voice flexible to Carter’s demands and colorfully sympathetic to Bishop’s moods. Unlike Syringa, Mirror is not conceptually complicated, but the music is worked out with such intricacy that the lack of perceptual access to the machinery becomes part of the expression. The first movement, “Anaphora,” is an exercise in fixed registers—each note only ever appears in a given octave—which, as the composer James Primosch pointed out via e-mail, is exactly similar to the structure of Sound Fields. Which is a connection I probably never would have made, because the effects are so divergent. The process of Sound Fields is immediately apparent, even without a score; the process of “Anaphora,” unless you know it’s there, is imperceptible behind the dense, violent rustle of the texture. But you nevertheless sense the structure, the fact that all these notes are coming from somewhere, someplace just out of intellectual reach, and that affects the way you hear the song. Or, for another example, the fifth song, “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” Bishop’s deftly sarcastic debate between Mother Nature and the Air Force Band. Carter evokes the band with a march that unfolds in a particularly complex way among multiple streams of time. But you don’t really hear how the march unfolds in performance, you’re just aware of the unfolding. (There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.)

It’s a Bishop-like gambit—take “Sandpiper,” portraying the bird as oblivious to the larger forces surrounding it, but also, by focusing our attention on the bird, leaving us just a little oblivious to the theme of the poem. Carter’s bird is a famously difficult oboe solo (played superbly by Angela Limoncelli), the virtuosity of which similarly leaves us as listeners just a little bit oblivious to the way the voice and the instruments are subtly interacting. That’s a bit of misdirection derived from the poem, but elsewhere, Carter brings his own contradictions. The absence of brass instruments in the “gathered brasses” of the Air Force band; the vocal line in “Insomnia,” Bishop’s haunting picture of night, “that world inverted,” which stubbornly adheres to the metrical lines, and not, as is Carter’s usual practice, to the sense of the language; the final song, “O Breath,” filled with such gasping, breathless phrasing—Carter honors Bishop’s poems of the unnoticed and the disconnected with deliberate gaps of realization. We all put on costumes, he seems to be saying; the problem is, they often don’t fit very well.

More reports from the festival:

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

Magna Carter (4): Identity Politics


Two bits of received wisdom about Elliott Carter’s music are that individual instruments are given individual characters, and that there isn’t much thematic imitation in the traditional sense—the program book for this year’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music mentions, in regard to the Sonata for Harpsichord, Flute, Cello, and Oboe, that imitative counterpoint is “not usually found” in Carter. But if you expand the idea of imitation a little, and combine it with that character-driven instrumental style, Carter’s music shows imitation aplenty, as part of a dancing flow of agreement and disagreement within the musical discussion.

That was something easily heard in Tuesday’s 5:00 festival concert, devoted to short solos and small ensembles. Enchanted Preludes, for example, composed in 1988: As the flute (Brook Ferguson, in this performance) spins out her darting, bubbling line, the cello (David Gerstein) tries to join in with his best flute imitation, all tremolos and harmonics and sharp-tongued pizzicati. After a while, tired of agreeing, he starts to bring in soulful and long-breathing notes more typical of the cello, until the flute is compelled to take up such notes as well. By the end, the conversation is more equal, with imitation flowing both ways—perhaps that fluttertonguing in the flute could be heard as a translation of a bowed, sawtooth-wave string tone.

Ferguson, clarinetist Brent Besner, and marimbist Nick Tolle gave clean, collected performances of esprit rude/esprit doux I and II, dovetailed together, and here the conversation was even more voluble. Flute and clarinet have a lively but civil conversation in the first, but as the sequel begins (esprit rude/esprit doux II: this time it’s personal!), the marimba bursts in, loud and argumentative, the drunk at the party. For a while, the winds are stunned into long-note submission, but eventually they bring the marimba around to their previous style of badinage. Even Au Quai, a viola-bassoon miniature (played by Gareth Zehngut and Andrew Cuneo, respectively, avuncular and mischievous in turn) composed for the very viola-bassoon-like Oliver Knussen (O.K.—leave it to Carter to come up with a Milton-Babbitt-style punning title in French)—even this piece, despite the well-matched timbres, reveals a bit of conversational dissonance: Carter has a fair amount of fun contrasting the bassoon’s genial staccato notes with a more hard-edged spiccato viola, almost a sarcastic echo.

The solo works still came off as interactions with outside concepts and ideas more than just mere soliloquies. In Figment I for solo cello (played with caution-to-the-wind zeal by Kathryn Bates), flurries of scattered impressions alternate with a legato line, and the interjections—violent, crescendo single bows, percussively struck pizzicati—put the physicality of playing the instrument in debate with the melodic musical content. It’s a dark, expressionistic piece; thunder from late-afternoon Tanglewood storms enhanced rather than distracted. Figment II (also played by Bates) is very different; a tribute to Ives’ “Thoreau” and “Hallowe’en” that ends up sounding for all the world like early music, quieter and more rhythmically sober that Figment I, with oblique chains of double-stops forming a kind of free organum, around a whispered middle section washed over with harmonic glissandi.

Two Thoughts about the Piano are just that, studies, albeit promiscuously expressive ones. Intermittences (expertly navigated by Jacob Rhodebeck) builds on the sort of virtuosic figuration of Dialogues, but the ensemble there is replaced by silence of soft sustained placeholders here, in one-sided conversation—a mini-concerto for keyboard and absent orchestra, La voix pianistique. Caténaires is an unbroken perpetual-motion solfeggio, a fighter-jet-fast stream of equal notes (played, fighter-jet-fast, by Sandra Gu), and yet Carter still is shifting the time around in his usual fashion; it’s like a pixelated version of himself.

Carter usually engages with the musical past on his own terms, but in the Trilogy for oboe and harp, he’s doing so on someone else’s, at least in the opening movement, and it’s fascinating. “Bariolage” is a harp solo that makes express use of extended techniques invented by Carlos Salzedo in the 1920s, and it’s as close as Carter’s ever come to a period piece—the old-time exoticism of Salzedo’s plucks and buzzes and washes of sound, combined with a quirky adherence to the harp’s diatonic nature, evokes that lost time (even the pedal-glissando note bends sound like sophisticated blues), before eventually dissolving into a coda more typical of Carter’s individual language. Harpist Megan Levin was absolutely phenomenal, with headlong panache. Oboist Nicholas Stoval was phenomenal in a quieter way in the middle movement, “Inner Song,” a solo marked by a virtuosity of breath control and expression—long, unbroken tones (some microtonal or multiphonic) stretched into a sinuous line. In the finale, each instrument goads the other into new tempi, trading solos like jazz choruses, each statement occasioning a new turn of phrase. Much of what makes Carter’s music recognizably his is that free flow of musical talk; and that the talk is never, ever cheap.

More reports from the festival:

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