In late 2011 (right after I moved to NYC), I got the opportunity to attend Elliott Carter's 103rd birthday concert celebration. My composer-friend Scott Ninmer told me about the event; his old teacher from the University of Illinois, Jim Pugh, was playing on the concert in-between shows with his main gig, Steely Dan. What followed blew my mind but was hard to process. There were four world-premiere compositions, and I believe that everything on the program was written by Mr. Carter after turning 102. Following the concert, the composer was truly beaming- I mean, just radiating joy that could be felt from a distance. He was surrounded by adoring fans, and I was too nervous to say "hello," so I just stood like 10 feet away and stared at him awkwardly. Jim Pugh told me at the reception afterwards that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker came to the show and were really into the music. I also remember him saying that Mr. Carter could hear the tiniest performance errors at rehearsal at the ripe-old age of 103.
To me, it was impossible to hear what was happening in those pieces. I've since realized that the music I heard that night was some of Carter's most accessible music. I didn't necessarily even like the music. It presented itself as a code to me that I really wanted to break. I especially liked "A Sunbeam's Architecture," his setting of e e cummings poetry for tenor and chamber orchestra. I have a copy of that score that I studied... sort-of, kinda... really just following along with a recording in absolute confusion. Later I listened to his classic work- things like his string quartets and concertos. I saw a great performance of his "Double Concerto" that was mind-boggling. At MSM, the music library was giving away a hand-written score for the "Symphony of Three Orchestras," which I scooped up for free to my utter amazement.
To anyone who has been through the bewilderment of enjoying Carter's music, I have three books to recommend. The Elliott Carter Harmony Book, edited by Hopkins and Link, is something kind of like the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns or Yusef Lateef's Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns in that it is full of pages and pages of notes, with very little explication from Carter himself. The forward by John F. Link helps... but not much. Essentially, this book is a compilation of all the notes that Carter took for himself to use in his daily composing. He created his own system that is much too complicated to explain in this context, and I can't honestly say it fully makes sense to me. But, it has really inspired my own compositional practice!
I'm also reading Elliott Carter Studies (ed. Boland & Link) and Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995 (ed. Bernard). Carter, like so many other composers of the 20th century who couldn't make a living as a young man solely composing, was a music critic. His writing is a huge clue into his own composing. A cursory list of surprises off the top-of-the-dome: Carter liked Ives the man but was suspicious of his compositional technique; he loved the clarity of Fauré; he loved Copland the man and his body of work; he was a fan of such relatively-conservative composers as Piston and Sessions; and there is unfortunately more than a little uninformed writing on the new music in America during his youth- jazz.
Next Wednesday, December 6th, at 9:30pm, I will be debuting a new quartet at Club Bonafide which I'm calling Liddle. This iteration will feature typical cohorts Olli Hirvonen on guitar, Simon Jermyn on bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drum set, and I'm playing Bb clarinet and bass clarinet in addition to my beloved Conn 26M alto saxophone. It's actually the public debut of my new Buffet R13 clarinet, which was hand-picked by my teacher, Larry Guy, out of a batch of 40 R13s. That's a story for another blog post.
We're going to play some of my new work that is directly informed by the Harmony Book of Elliott Carter. Check out the first four measures of "Saturnine":
I debated trying to verbally describe how I wrote this, but decided against it. Analysis is fun, yes- but super boring to read. Besides, part of what I find so exciting about this music is precisely its impenetrability. It sounds great, but is so hard to describe- Carter himself had trouble explaining his process. In the simplest terms, I set myself limitations in terms of combinatorial sets of pitches. Certain intervallic shapes belong with certain harmonic progressions. Repetition of these relationships over time solidifies their belonging together and sounding "right." I also chose rhythmic proportions that are consistent throughout the composition, but which are never repeated literally. This is an effervescent quality that I am trying to capture in most of my recent compositions- how to give the listener a feeling of cyclic repetition, without jamming the same idea down his/her throat incessantly.
I hope you'll come check out this music at Bonafide next Wednesday. You can buy tickets in advance here. Please let me know if you read this and found it interesting!