Thursday, November 8, 2012

Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata [1945-46]

Elliott Carter has died, and with his very late departure we can finally close the book on a whole epoch of American musical genius. As a member of the generation which included Copland, Harris, Thomson, Barber, Bernstein, Antheil, Bowles, Cage, Ellington, Gershwyn, Harrison, etc., all long since gone--to name but a few high-spots,-- or the first wave of Modernist American musical minds which defined the character of our country as separate from European traditions--Carter was a path-blazer, from the beginning, taking his queue from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and Charles Ives (a family friend). He was aged 103 when he died, and he was active to the end. When someone lives this long, and is continuously engaged, they live through several periods in artistic time, as witness, and participant, and critic. And thus it is no surprise that Carter composed works of differing character, and lived well beyond the typical career arc, which he shared with his immediate contemporaries, starting in the 1930's. It allowed him to mature well beyond the point at which most artists are permitted by their mortality to attain--living through two lifetimes' worth of event, in a very eventful century. 

I am not a close follower of music trends, but I followed my curiosity a good way during my youth, and listened to a lot of avant garde classical music. I had a friend in those years named Michael Lamm, and he actually preferred 20th Century classical music to earlier periods. We played chess, and argued about politics, and listened to serious modern symphonic works. He liked Shostakovich, while I loved the French composers. I played the piano, but he didn't play an instrument. During my first year at Berkeley, I found an LP recording of Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata 1945-46. For those of you who grew up after the advent of digital recordings, an LP could only handle about half of a long work on one side, and had to be turned over to hear the rest. The Sonata lasts about 25-28 minutes, depending on how fast it's played. Though the work had been composed relatively early in his career, it was already over 20 years old when I first heard it. Nevertheless, it sounded newly minted to my ears, and I responded at once to its seriousness and subtle mood-shifts, qualities I generally found lacking in much pre-Modern musical works. Much of the earnestness and sense of wounded pride and resignation, coming out of the Depression years, seemed contained in its halting statements and beginnings-again, its querulous intrigues and seductive tangential musings. Playing this work presents a number of problems to any performer; there are few pianists who would even attempt it, much less perfect it sufficiently for recording. Consequently it is a work seldom heard, both because of its length, its intense seriousness, and because there are few versions to choose from. One is unlikely to hear it played on a classical music station, or at a live performance anywhere that is not devoted to serious music. And with the current fragmentation and disintegration of musical taste which has overtaken our culture over the last quarter century, one would be unlikely to "discover" it casually, since there is no more material media to browse, as music stores have all but disappeared, to be replaced by the internet. It is doubtful I would ever have discovered the piece, were I 20 years old today, and interested in this kind of music. 

The wonderful thing about this work is that, though it employs very complex tonal modulations and rhythmic changes, it still manages to sound inspiring and emotionally enthralling. Lyrically it seems of a piece with the best serious works of Roy Harris and Aaron Copland, and yet goes well beyond their comparative simplicity and economy of means to achieve its effects. Carter has been quoted saying that American music tends towards rhythmic complexity, unlike European music, which is dominated by fixed rhythmic intervals. For an interesting discussion of its musical content and methodology, you might care to read some of this thesis essay by Jane E. Gormley Perkyns, University of British Columbia, 1990, An Analytical Study of Elliott Carter's Piano  Sonata. For me, the aspect of struggle as expressed through competing themes is one I hear as very compelling. The sliding tonalities suggest layers of distraction or obsessive concern; and too the chaotic disintegration of modern urban life, mechanized and poly-contextual. 

In many respects, I think American music has gone far beyond its literature, in exploring the formal complexities and ambiguities of its medium. Writers like Clark Coolidge (an abstract structuralist), or Robert Grenier (a Zen-like minimalist a la Cage), share many of the formal interests which a work like Carter's offers, though on a somewhat intuitive level. Musical meaning, like grammar, forms the linkages within which thought moves. Writing a piece of music may be emotionally subtle, but the means would appear to be  more logically set out, than in the much greater vocabulary of our recorded verbal language. The Sonata is divided into two broad movements, within which are divisions. Clicking on the three underlined parts below will take you to a complete performance on YouTube by John Anderson, performed in 2009 in Lugano Switzerland. Though I have reservations about his version, and the recording is a bit echo-y, it's a good intro to the piece.    

First Movememt: Introduction, Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, Coda
[Maestoso - Legato scorrevole]
Second Movement: (Fugue) 
[Andante - Allegro - Andante - Allegro giusto]

While some of this music may sound "atonal" to your ears, the more you study it, the less dissembling it will seem, though the degree of complex engagement this requires may well be beyond the interest or patience most people have to give to it. Though this is not a problem in logic, it may seem quite entangling once you're well into it.  For my part, though I'm hardly a musical scholar, I find it a fascinating way to understand how works are composed, since I love to compose on the keyboard myself. But my feeling is that this piece is approachable enough to be appreciated by any reasonably intelligent person who is interested in music per se, as an exercise in apprehension or inspired meditation. Pure musical expression, apart from its historical context, may be an impossibility, and we can't listen to music as an alien would, devoid of any pre-conceptial frame. But Carter's Sonata suggests ways in which we might be free of the sort of musical clich├ęs which usually limit our apprehension of fascinating sound(s). 


Wooden Boy said...

This is a great way in to Carter's music - that wonderful way he works with tempo. And that wide emotional range.

The first thing I heard was Night Fantasies - a fair bit more daunting.

A great tribute.

Anonymous said...

Impossible to understand, let alone play, this Sonata without mentioning Carter's study of Watusi rhythms. Jazz players call this "The jazz sonata." I will soon make a recording of it on Sweetgrass Music.