Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eliott Carter's First Hundred Years

I particularly like the title above because at 99 Elliott Carter doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, he has written more and varied works (an opera, more symphonic works, etc.). There is an embarrassment of riches in his output for winds. His chamber music has been where most all of his watershed works have come from and the opportunity for Elliott’s orchestration to really shine comes from the unusual combinations of wind music to be heard throughout his career. From the charming and slightly challenging Quintet for Winds (1948) we hear a young voice aligning himself with what’s come before by marrying elements of both American and European sensibilities. This was de rigeur for much of the new American composers; especially those who studied abroad in Nadia Boulanger’s Paris studio (Carter, Copland, Thomson, and many others). The forms are classical for the most part with a nod to American popular dance music in the rondo that is the last movement.

From there he seems to move into new territory almost immediately by tackling the exact problem that every composer faces when writing for the wind quintet, how to orchestrate it so that it doesn’t sound like the hot mess that many wind quintets turn out to be. Elliott deftly uses the character of each instrument to play not just a dramatic role but also a defining characteristic of the texture. Indeed the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1950) written just two years later goes off in search of novel combinations in an almost experimental (yet thoroughly enjoyable) piece that stand up as a dramatic statement leading to the fantasy which sums up all that has come before it. As you will see below, in a five year period three composers with very singular voices brought their first wind quintets to light using elements from the past but definitely looking toward the future. In each case the composer traveled much further afield in the second work adopting what was the beginning of their signature styles. Berio is the exception to this; he was translating a larger element of his music to a smaller ensemble to great effect.

It’s interesting to note that Gyorgy Ligeti who also defined his style well early on with nods to his own country’s music took up the same experiment as his second wind quintet Zehn Stucke (1968). This opus also came after a setting of some of his serial tinged but folk inspired piano experiments for quintet entitled Six Bagatelles (1953). While stylistically on different sides of the aisle these two composers were obviously wise enough to reach into the wind quintets bag of tricks. Luciano Berio is worth mentioning here as well given his two enormous accomplishments in the quintet literature again kick started by the use of folk elements and novel scoring. Berio’s first work for wind quintet entitled Opus Number Zoo (1951)also reworks earlier music of the composer’s modified from some popular and folk elements as well; while the music is more clear cut, the dramatic role used by Berio was to give different players part of a spoken text that passes through the ensemble. He then moved on to something completely novel for the wind quintet, but all his own compositionally, with Ricorrenze (1987).

Each of the three composers then went on to explore their own peculiar approaches to harmony, each with fascinating and rich careers. Never quite far enough away from a pitch center, Elliott’s music tickles the ear with a variety of texture immediately thrown into relief by the use of near misses in the rhythmic layout of each piece. This creates a tension that draws the listener into a microcosm of sounds held together by an interlocking but off-kilter forward motion. Another comparison to Ligeti is the pervasive use of melody as a sort of “cantus firmus” that slowly makes its presence felt steadily throughout his works. This is demonstrated well in his several works for solo instruments. Even in the very recent Catenaires (2006) what looks like and etude with a steady stream of fast notes belies a melody made up of the accents and various attacks that stick out of the continuous onslaught of information.

The Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991) is as serene a statement of continuous motion as I have ever heard. The piece moves forward with a controlled urgency and grace that rarely seems harried in its movement to the inevitable finish. There is a sense that you have walked in on the middle of a conversation that’s been going on for quite some time. Like his friend Milton Babbitt, Elliott pursues every possible combination of the ensemble while keeping each instrument in its rhythmic and intervallic role. These two definitions of each character makes them placeholders in the continuum and stakes out a piece of your hearing whether you are aware of the theory behind what’s going on or not. The horn just keeps coming at you with minor thirds and seconds in values of five and it serves only to further underline the rightness of that part in the flow. The piano serves as both catalyst and commentator in the proceedings prodding the poets forward and underlining their vehemence while also providing support in repose, etc..

The wind quintet is alive and well in the hands of the New York Woodwind Quintet. Perhaps it’s an ensemble that will continue to inspire composers with its many combinations of sounds to be explored. In the current trend of making big statements with small means it certainly has much to offer.