July 31, 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.

And, just to hit both sides of the pun, the eponymous variations from the famous Perlman-Zuckerman-DuPre-Mehta-Barenboim performance of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet.

July 29, 2008

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.

July 26, 2008

Inside job

When Tchaikovsky Met Pushkin. Tchaikovsky, Bayreuth, and Eugene Onegin.
Boston Globe, July 27, 2008.

July 25, 2008

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

July 24, 2008

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

July 23, 2008

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

Flight, with layover

Reviewing the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Boston Globe, July 23, 2008.

July 22, 2008

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

July 21, 2008

Magna Carter (2): Genealogy

Sunday night’s concert for the Festival of Contemporary Music brought the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra to the Ozawa Hall stage for the first of three concerts surveying Elliott Carter’s symphonic works. Carter has always had an unusual relationship with orchestras, I think, because he considers music-making to be an activity of assorted individuals more than that of a monolithic ensemble. For much of his career, orchestral works were few and far between; the recent upturn in his orchestral output has been on the foundation of a series of concerti, two of which occupied the first half of this program.

The first, 2003's Dialogues for piano and orchestra, was actually the most traditionally concerto-like, in large part because the ensemble's main gesture of longer, sustained chords corresponds, deliberately or not, to a classically accompanimental pattern. The solo part was taken by Nicolas Hodges, who premiered the piece; the contrast with Charles Rosen's morning performance in the Double Concerto was fascinating, as both pieces share a similar approach to the keyboard. Hodges was supremely virtuosic, dispatching thorny hedges of passagework, but playing with more of a "new-music" tone—bright, sharp, clear, lightly pedaled—than Rosen's more lush approach. Hodges' color gives the illusion of more objectivity, perhaps, which may be why it was easier to hear distant ancestral echoes of earlier pianistic styles in Carter's writing: a bit of Ives' "Concord" Sonata here (particularly the "Emerson" and "Hawthorne" movements), a hint of Copland's Piano Variations there. Dialogues was commissioned by the BBC, a reflection of the European esteem towards Carter that sometimes results in him being characterized as a more "European" composer, but the piece rings with a profoundly reinvented essence of post-Romantic Americana. Conductor Erik Nielsen led a reading marked by a real assurance of instrumental balance, always so key in successful Carter performance.

I heard BSO clarinetist Thomas Martin play Carter's 1997 Clarinet Concerto at Tanglewood in 1998, and enjoyed it, but hearing him play it again a decade later, I was struck by how much more balletic the piece sounded. Carter's instrumental writing so consistently pushes the technical envelope that sometimes it can be a while before the music settles into the player's fingers, and you can hear how idiomatic it really is; in this case, Martin's playing of the concerto showed ample opportunity for the kind of dancing lilt that's so often associated with the instrument. Nielsen again conducted a vibrant reading that made me think this might be an ideal piece for a Carter newbie: there's enough of the "old" Carter to maintain a textural connection with the vaunted complexity of earlier works, but the clear delineation of the near-classical six-section structure, both aurally and visually (the soloist moves to a different stage position with each new section) makes it easy to hear what Carter is up to. In addition, the two slow sections contain some of Carter's most quietly gorgeous music, especially the fourth section, in which another distant echo of Carter's early Americana manner gradually shifts into more still and haunting territory. (Storms had been rolling in throughout the first half, and during Martin's peregrinations, lightning began to flash through the windows behind the stage, in appropriately Carterial punctuation.)

After intermission came one of the festival's two world premieres, Sound Fields for string orchestra. And this one caught everybody off-guard. It's a short piece, 4-5 minutes (conductor Stefan Asbury and the orchestra performed it twice), in an unvarying slow tempo, composed of a series of sustained, soft, overlapping chords derived from a single top-to-bottom collection, each part playing their own individual note throughout; Carter only deploys the full chord once, about two-thirds of the way through, to ravishing effect, before closing with a pair of intervals that form a near-tonal cadence. The only precursor in Carter's output would be the klangfarbenmelodie movement in the Eight Etudes for woodwind quintet, but even that doesn't come close to the atmospheric effect of Sound Fields. It's in fact uncannily like—to name two composers I never thought I'd use as reference points in a Carter discussion—Morton Feldman or late John Cage, although hearing the piece twice made you realize how much the piece still unfolds in a Carter-like way, albeit in uncharacteristically slow motion.

Asbury then led a spot-on reading of the evening's "classic" work, the 1955 Variations for Orchestra. With the full string complement remaining on stage, this was certainly the most grand rendition of the Variations I'd ever heard, and also one of the most effortlessly accomplished. Even within the vocabulary of standard mid-century American modernism, Carter's favorite themes come to the fore—the rhythmic manipulations in the number of measures instead of the number of subdivisions, the instrumental layers by groups rather than individuals. But the interrupted-melody rhetoric that distinguishes the recent solo concerti is already there, as is the big-then-unexpectedly-intimate ending. The group's sentitivity to shading and phrase made the famed continuous-acceleration variation not just an ingenious technical achievement, but a quantum paradox, inexorably moving away at increasing speed while simultaneously arriving at a state of expectant repose.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
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

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

July 09, 2008

Brighten the corner where you are

Soho the Dog is embarking on its annual summer hiatus—posts will be spotty at best for the next couple weeks. Try to keep the drama to a minimum while we're gone, OK? Upon our return, we'll have interviews, dispatches from exotic locales, and a new quiz.

In the meantime, since part of that hiatus will consist of consultations with Wilson, our Midwest Critic-at-Large, here's a bit of Chicago history, by one of the all-time great human beings, Jane Addams. Hull House, the first settlement house in America, was founded by Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, offering education and social assistance to the largely-immigrant working classes of Chicago's West Side. Part of that education included a music school; in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams offered this report:
From the beginning we had classes in music, and the Hull-House Music School, which is housed in quarters of its own in our quieter court, was opened in 1893. The school is designed to give a thorough musical instruction to a limited number of children. From the first lessons they are taught to compose and to reduce to order the musical suggestions which may come to them, and in this wise the school has sometimes been able to recover the songs of the immigrants through their children. Some of these folk songs have never been committed to paper, but have survived through the centuries because of a touch of undying poetry which the world has always cherished; as in the song of a Russian who is digging a post hole and finds his task dull and difficult until he strikes a stratum of red sand, which in addition to making digging easy, reminds him of the red hair of his sweetheart, and all goes merrily as the song lifts into a joyous melody. I recall again the almost hilarious enjoyment of the adult audience to whom it was sung by the children who had revived it, as well as the more sober appreciation of the hymns taken from the lips of the cantor, whose father before him had officiated in the synagogue.
Some of the pupils in the music school have developed during the years into trained musicians and are supporting themselves in their chosen profession. On the other hand, we constantly see the most promising musical ability extinguished when the young people enter industries which so sap their vitality that they cannot carry on serious study in the scanty hours outside of factory work.... [A] young man whose music-loving family gave him every possible opportunity, and who produced some charming and even joyous songs during the long struggle with tuberculosis which preceded his death, had made a brave beginning, not only as a teacher of music but as a composer. In the little service held at Hull-House in his memory, when the children sang his composition, "How Sweet is the Shepherd's Sweet Lot," it was hard to realize that such an interpretive pastoral could have been produced by one whose childhood had been passed in a crowded city quarter.

Even that bitter experience did not prepare us for the sorrowful year when six promising pupils out of a class of fifteen, developed tuberculosis. It required but little penetration to see that during the eight years the class of fifteen school children had come together to the music school, they had approximately an even chance, but as soon as they reached the legal working age only a scanty moiety of those who became self-supporting could endure the strain of long hours and bad air. Thus the average human youth, "With all the sweetness of the common dawn," is flung into the vortex of industrial life wherein the everyday tragedy escapes us save when one of them becomes conspicuously unfortunate. Twice in one year we were compelled

"To find the inheritance of this poor child
His little kingdom of a forced grave."

It has been pointed out many times that Art lives by devouring her own offspring and the world has come to justify even that sacrifice, but we are unfortified and unsolaced when we see the children of Art devoured, not by her, but by the uncouth stranger, Modern Industry, who, needlessly ruthless and brutal to her own children, is quickly fatal to the offspring of the gentler mother. And so schools in art for those who go to work at the age when more fortunate young people are still sheltered and educated, constantly epitomize one of the haunting problems of life; why do we permit the waste of this most precious human faculty, this consummate possession of civilization? When we fail to provide the vessel in which it may be treasured, it runs out upon the ground and is irretrievably lost.

July 08, 2008


From the Mahler-Werfel papers at the University of Pennsylvania: (L to R) Alma Mahler, Don Ameche, Franz Werfel, "unknown man," and Claudette Colbert, ca. 1943. The "unknown man" looks an awful lot like famous director and communist-hater Sam Wood, which means this was likely taken on the set of the movie Guest Wife. Alma probably got a kick out of that. (Thanks to reader Ben Weiss for the tip. Bonus: Nazi officials cross-dressing with Anna Mahler!)

In other news:

James Levine will miss the rest of the Tanglewood season—including the Carterpalooza—to have a kidney removed.

More get-well cards: Dame Joan Sutherland is recovering in a Swiss hospital after breaking both her legs in a fall.

More opera: that La Scala version of An Inconvenient Truth is set to be directed by none other than William Friedkin.

More critics? The Guardian is sponsoring a Young Critics' Competition. The question is: who would you really like to see lie about their age and enter?

July 05, 2008

Proof through the night

Now, I did drink a lot of champagne last night. My lovely wife and I watched The Philadelphia Story, which is a film that lends itself well to excessive consumption of champagne, if only in imitation of the characters. And when we turned off the movie, we flipped over to coverage of Boston's Independence Day fireworks display. But like I said, I was full of champagne. So I just wanted to make sure: did the canned musical accompaniment to the fireworks really segue from the usual unmitigated country-pop crap to a somewhat clumsy edit of Pavarotti singing "Nessun dorma," and then to the finale of Mahler 1? And then before the Mahler had died away, Craig Ferguson was making a bathroom joke? Did that really happen? Because that would be kind of weird.

Mahler for the Fourth. Weird.

July 03, 2008

Categorical denials

Biological taxonomists (yet another career I occasionally cast a wistful eye at) spend their lives trying to draw a bright line between analogy and homology. An analogous variation is one the evolves independently among unrelated species—the example every biology book I have on hand uses is the appearance of wings on birds, bats, and bees, three unrelated species. On the other hand, the fact that Critic-at-Large Moe and I both have two nostrils of sufficient structural similarity points to our common Mammalian ancestor: a homologous variation.

Analogy vs. homology is how biologists draw family trees. Determine that a feature is homologous, and you can pin that species to a branch pretty surely. If it's an analogous variation, or if you can't tell which it is, it's a wild card, basically. If you don't distinguish between the two, you can come up with some pretty crazy biology pretty quickly—elephants related to goldfish because they both have two eyes, for instance. But if you think about it, when it comes to music, we tend to assume that all variations are homologous.

In part, that's because it's a safe bet—homologous variations fairly outnumber analogous variations in the comparatively finite world of music. But even when variations do arise independently—Schoenberg and Rufer both hitting on dodecaphony, for example—we attribute it to something "in the air," that it was historically time for such a development. It's hard to disprove that sort of analysis. Sometimes it really is just a case of a common evolutionary goal. But I think that there are also developments that blur the analogy/homology line; I also think there are composers who turn that blur to their advantage.

One of the more interesting musical evolutions is that of ragtime. Classic rag form is rather odd and open-ended:

Key: IV
Theme: A A B B A C C D D

It's somewhere between the daisy-chain form of a generic Strauss waltz and the refrain-driven form of other 19th-century dances. But where most of those dances would round off the form, bringing back the initial theme and key at the end (like, say, the "Una Schottische"), classic ragtime lops of the refrain at the end, leaving you hanging both tonally and thematically.

You might think that the form evolved that way because the sequence of themes evolved into a cumulative enough progression that the return of the refrain became superfluous. But actually, it was the formal variation that came first. Scott Joplin's early rags try out all kinds of possibilities, but never fully round the form. "Original Rags" (1899) starts and ends in G major, but arranges its themes A-B-C-A-D-E. "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) uses the classic A-B-A-C-D form, but puts the final D in the original key, A-flat major. But both display the more interesting feature: the penultimate theme is more brilliant and "final" than the final theme (Joplin even marks the D theme of "Original Rags" double-forte and "Brilliant"). Compare the last two themes of "Maple Leaf Rag":

The C theme stays high and fully voiced; the D theme descends to the middle of the keyboard and, in the right hand, almost completely avoids octave doubling. That's a fairly consistent pattern in Joplin's early output.

But between 1907 and 1909, Joplin writes a whole series of rags—"Gladiolus Rag," "Pine Apple Rag," "Fig Leaf Rag," "Wall Street Rag," &c.—where he makes the open-ended form a virtue. The D theme of "Gladiolus Rag" is typical:

The final theme now uses the fullest voicing, the widest range, the strongest and most repetitive syncopation, and the most adventurous harmony (both "Gladiolus" and "Pine Apple," for example, feature prominent shifts to the flatted submediant in their final themes).

Our natural instinct is to analyze that as a homologous variation—Joplin must have got it from somewhere, perhaps the cavatina-cabaletta sequence of Italian opera, or perhaps Rossini overtures, or perhaps similarly obsessive passages in Chopin or Schumann. But the fact that he doesn't arrive at this stylistic point until he's been tinkering with the form for a decade or so implies, at least to me, that it was a reaction to the limitations of previously-evolved rag form, not an inspiration from outside—an analogous variation, in other words, not a homologous one. And remember that we're also hearing the shift in light of ragtime's transformation into jazz, where such final-theme characteristics do become homologous; the climactic, riff-driven shout choruses of both stride and pre-bop big-band swing can trace their lineage directly to Joplin's triumphant D themes. (Interestingly, Joplin seemed to abandon classic rag form once he mastered it—the last two rags published in his lifetime, "Scott Joplin's New Rag" and "Magnetic Rag," are fully-rounded thematically and tonally.)

One of the reasons Joplin's rags are considered such paragons of the style is because such analogous features sound homologous—the illusion of idiomatic and organic inevitability within the form is so strong. You could populate an interesting subcategory of composers with a particular flair for that kind of sleight-of-hand. But even within that category there would be variants. Francis Poulenc, for instance, conjures by mixing an analogous vocabulary with a homologous rhetoric. Robert Schumann almost does the exact opposite.

Schumann's op. 39 Liederkreis, on poems by Eichendorff, seems at times to be a cycle-within-a-cycle, some of the songs commenting on or echoing other songs. The first shift in the cycle comes at the third song, "Waldgespräch"; the first two songs have set place and mood, but all of a sudden, the singer is telling a fairy tale about the witch Loreley, luring a traveler to her castle. The melody ends with a cadential figure, sol-do-mi-re-do:

The key relationships in "Waldgespräch" recall those in the first song in the cycle; likewise, the key relationships in the fourth song, "Die Stille," recall those of the second. "Die Stille" end with the same cadential figure as "Waldgespräch":

The eighth and ninth songs in the cycle are another reminiscent pair, with harmonic and motivic connections to the sixth and seventh songs, respectively. (In addition, there's a strong literary echo of the seventh song, "Auf einer Burg," in the eighth, "In der Fremde.") "In der Fremde" brings the cadential figure back:

The ninth song, "Wehmuth" (which brings us back to the E-major tonality of "Waldgespräch") ends with a variant of it:

It might seem like a stretch to say that Schumann intends to link these four songs (possibly along with another, "Mondnacht," which ends somewhat similarly) merely through this stock cadential figure. But here's the thing: that figure turns up nowhere else in Schumann's song output. This is one of the keys to Schumann's ability to deploy the analogous as homologous: his unifying motives are often so, well, obvious that you barely notice them. And yet here, they signal the boundaries of a sophisticated, experimental embedded narrative in the style of Schumann's literary hero Jean-Paul Richter. (Which would explain the inverted character of the cadence in the ninth song, the singer emerging blinking from fantasy into reality.) The vocabulary is homologous, but it's treated in a highly analogous way.

Given the often-indistinguishable visceral audience reactions to both extreme serialism and extreme minimalism, I think you might be able to make a case that the big shift in mid-20th-century experimental music was not so much a matter of vocabulary, but that composers no longer felt the need to try and massage the analogy/homology divide. Take for instance, the difference between Philip Glass and John Adams: where Adams, with his hints towards jazz and Impressionism, is deliberately asserting a taxonomic relationship with various established genres, Glass's music, especially outside of a dramatic context, usually seems more concerned with internal proportion than external lineage. Features that resemble other musics are presented as analogous developments from within the technique. Music in Twelve Parts is a particularly fine example of this: the work's ontology recapitulates a highly personal interpretation of tonal phylogeny.

Music, like other creative endeavors, is different from biology in that decisions regarding analogy and homology can come from both without and within, as if organisms had as much say in the classification of a variation as taxonomists did. The tree of music seems to expand and contract in cycles—at the moment, new music seems focused on homology, leaves at the edges rather than whole new branches. But if history is any indication, that will change at some point—the most vital evolutionary trees, after all, are the least orderly ones.