This coming November 5 will be the first anniversary of the death of the composer Elliott Carter, who died a little more than a month before what would have been his 104th birthday. Last night in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, sfSound presented a program in memory of Carter’s particular brand of modernism and of his ongoing capacity for invention that sustained him throughout his life. The breadth of the selections reached back to the 1948 cello sonata, which Carter associated with the origin of his concept of metrical modulation, and advanced to “Rigmarole,” which was composed for his 103rd birthday concert, his last birthday celebration.
Carter is frequently associated with metrical modulation, often to the detriment of his many other innovative practices of making music. It would be fairer to say that, throughout his creative life, he had an ongoing interest in the relationship between chronometric time, defined and measured by a uniform (“ticking”) physical pulse, and psychological time, a mental construct which rarely aligns with chronometric time with any great precision. Many twentieth-century composers had a fascination with the nature of time and with the question of “how time passes.” (That phrase became the title of a paper that Karlheinz Stockhausen had published in Die Reihe.) Some, like Cage, abstracted the concept down to its mathematical essentials. Carter found his own abstractions in the relationship between time and action, the “verb-based” perspective in which music is performed, rather than simply notated as marks on paper.
In many respects the most illustrative piece on last night’s program was “Caténaires,” which Carter composed for the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in 2006. This is a relatively short piece consisting entirely of a single melodic line performed at a breakneck pace. Carter himself described it as “a continuous chain of notes using different spacings, accents, and colorings, to produce a wide variety of expression.” That description also explains the title, the French word for “catenary,” defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as a “curve of the kind formed by a uniform chain hanging freely from two points not in the same vertical line.” (Think of the curve that forms the suspension for the Golden Gate Bridge.)
As is the case in many of the preludes that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for an unaccompanied instrument, that “single melodic line” actually embodied multiple voices in counterpoint. Carter uses those “spacings, accents, and colorings” to sort out those voices. As the listener becomes aware of their multiplicity, (s)he also recognizes that they are distinguished through different rhythmic patterns, as well as register and sonority. Carter’s conceptions of time extended beyond the concept of modulation (which basically amounted to approaching rhythm as a progression bearing some family resemblance to harmonic progression) to more sophisticated questions concerned with both sequencing (in the spirit of voice leading) and superposition (as in the distinctions between consonance and dissonance). In many respects “Caténaires” provided Carter with the opportunity to review many of his diverse thoughts on these matters and distill them into a brief piano solo.
On the audience side it was advantageous for listeners unfamiliar with Carter that Hadley McCarroll’s performance of “Caténaires” preceded the 1948 cello sonata, which she performed with cellist Monica Scott. In that early piece Carter deals with features such as the division of resources between the two instruments to realize his rhythmic structures. There is also a structural architecture through which each movement provides material that becomes fundamental to its successor. The final movement then concludes by initiating the material from the opening movement. Carter explicitly cited how James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake concludes with an interrupted phrase that can be completed by returning to the first words of the novel.
Carter’s interest in time was complemented with his desire to explore the distinctive sonorities of individual instruments. In “Steep Steps,” a bass clarinet solo performed by Matt Ingalls, he expressed interest in how members of the clarinet family overblow at the twelfth, rather than the octave (as is the case for oboes). (Physically, this has to do with the cylindrical bore, which is distinguished from the conical bore of an oboe.) “Steep Steps” is thus, in a sense, a study in the “implications of physics,” realized through the exploration of leaps across large intervals. (Presumably, Carter was aware of the intervallic leaps for saxophone that John Coltrane had explored in “Giant Steps,” even if the two pieces differ radically in their approach to melodic line.)
Last night’s program began with a canon in three voices that Carter had composed as a memorial for Igor Stravinsky, who had died in 1971. He did not specify instrumentation for this piece. However, in recognition of Carter’s interest in instrumental sonorities, sfSound chose to perform it as a trio for clarinet (Ingalls), alto saxophone (John Ingle), and trumpet (Tom Dambly). In addition, if the spirit of jazz was remotely suggested in “Steep Steps,” Ingalls and Ingle (this time on soprano saxophone) performed an improvisation based on a 2001 Carter piece. The source was “Hiyoku,” composed as a clarinet duet with a Japanese title that means (according to Ayako Neidich, one of the clarinetists for whom the piece was written) “two birds flying together with the connotation of eternal love.” Ingalls and Ingle deconstructed Carter’s score into a set of fragments around which they then improvised their own expressions of “flying together.”
Because most of the pieces on last night’s program were relatively short (except for the cello sonata), the evening as a whole provided an accessible sampling of Carter’s distinctively original approaches to making music. The only disappointment was Tempo e Tempi (time and times) a cycle based on poems by Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, and Giuseppe Ungaretti, scored for soprano (Julia Hathaway), oboe doubling on English horn (Kyle Bruckmann), clarinet doubling on bass clarinet (Ingalls), violin (Benjamin Kreith), and cello (Scott). While one could sense the “speaking voice” that was present in the preceding instrumental selections on the program, the vocal line tended to fall back on a declamatory rhetoric that became a bit tiresome, even in the context of the diversity of the instrumentation.
In spite of that disappointment, however, there is no doubt that Carter was well served by the rest of the program that sfSound prepared.