Elliott Carter’s Music of Time

A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.

In Carter’s music, things happen for different instruments at different tempos—none of them dominates the others, and an idiosyncratic character is often given to the different instruments that preserves their individuality. Carter is never dogmatic, and the different measures of time may occasionally combine briefly for a moment of synthesis. The individuality of tempo and rhythm can make his music difficult to perform as each player unconsciously responds physically to the different rhythms he or she hears and yet tries to preserve his or her own system intact. Carter is, for this reason, best interpreted by those musicians who have often played his scores. Just as, in a polyphonic work of Bach or any other competent and genial contrapuntist, one takes pleasure in the independent line and interest of the separate voices and rejoices in the way they illuminate each other, so in Carter we can often delight in a quick foreground movement heard against a mysteriously shifting background that gives the foreground a new sense.

On December 8, 2011, friends of Elliott Carter arranged for a concert at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in honor of his 103rd birthday, which arrived three days later. All of the works were written in recent years, nine of them since Carter reached his century mark. The evening began with the most promising sign, a performance of a Duettino for Violin and Cello played by two well-known and superb performers, Rolf Schulte and Fred Sherry, who have played Carter for many decades, and continued with a new piece for solo violin.

This was followed by a world premiere of a string trio written last year. The program notes by John Link claim that Carter tries in this piece to give an unaccustomed leading role to the viola and writes revealingly that “as in much of Carter’s recent music, the line between dispute and shared expression is ambiguous,” but this was already true of the treatment of the viola in Carter’s second string quartet of more than a half-century ago. Nevertheless, the new string trio is a dramatic and satisfying work. Some even grander works appeared later in the program.

The one slight disappointment for me was Retracing III for solo trumpet (a US premiere), a new version of …

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