November is almost over, and we would be remiss if we failed to note the passing of the composer Elliot Carter on the 5th.
Before he was a composer, he was an English Major at Harvard, and later in life set music to many poets, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Wallace Stevens. Carter’s music sounds like a lot of other 20th century music (as Bach sounds like a lot of other early 18th century music), in that it is typically atonal and rhythmically complex.
The Concerto for Orchestra is considered by many to be his finest work; in the comments you’ll even see comments “this is indeed the greatest musical composition ever.” Ever! It is great, but it is also fairly tough going for the uninitiated—much, much more difficult than even Bartok’s great concerto, or Lutoslawski’s.
As Carter himself says about harmonic patterns in his work, “a chord, a vertical group of pitches either simultaneously sounded or arpeggiated, like a motif, is a combination to be more or less clearly remembered and related to previous and future chords heard in the same work. Whether the composer is conscious of it or not, a field of operation with its principles of motion and of interaction is stated or suggested at the beginning of any word. The field may be tonal, employ traditional harmony, or it may be unrelated to traditional harmony, as my music seems to be nowadays …”
There is also something about the rapidly changing rhythms that makes it sound chaotic and dramatic at the same time, and being difficult, it demands repeated listening many times over. But as it becomes more and more familiar, new discoveries are in store for the listener. The flip side of the demanding nature of the music is that it bears up to repeated listening very well.
It moves quickly, and if it sounds as if each of the instrumentalists is doing his own thing, that’s because they are. As Carter himself said, “I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble.”
Elliott Carter, December 11, 1908 – November 5, 2012. Requiescat In Pace.