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Carter: Asko and Beyond

Adam Greene

(written for SONOR's performance April 23, 2003)

Composer's Notes:

My Asko Concerto for sixteen players features each one of them participating in one of the following groups – two trios, two duos, a quintet or a solo. These six sections are framed by the entire group playing together. Although the music is in lighthearted mood, each soloistic section approaches ensemble playing in a different spirit.

The score was commissioned by the Dutch ASKO Ensemble from Amsterdam that has performed so many of my works. It was composed largely during January 2000 in New York City. -Elliott Carter, 2000

The remarkable acceleration in Elliott Carter’s productivity over the past dozen years, astounding in itself, has been accompanied by a growing sense of clarity and precision in works that have been as varied as a brief piece for solo flute to a forty-five minute symphonic essay to the composer’s first opera (entitled What Next?). Now aged ninety-four, Carter has long been considered by many to be one of the most important American composers who ever lived, and certainly among the world’s foremost figures composing today. His recent activity has perhaps confirmed his stature, but more importantly it has consolidated the many innovations of his earlier music and recast it in a leaner, more direct presentation.

Carter’s music is performed with increasing frequency in major orchestras and performing ensembles around the world, suggesting a sort of rising popularity, albeit in the obscure field of contemporary art music. Since Carter’s rise to prominence in the early 1950’s his music has been the subject of both skepticism and respect. It is ironic that as he was forging a new musical idiom which he believed to be uniquely American, given its preoccupation with rhythm, his main support network developed in Europe. Indeed there was a time when Carter’s music was considered to be too dense, too difficult, and too demanding of rehearsal time to perform in the major musical institutions of his own country. Thus, despite critical achievements such as winning two Pulitzer Prizes (in 1960 and 1973), reflecting a reasonably broad admiration for his unique and personal musical voice, he found many more opportunities for his music to be performed in Europe. While this situation has changed, somewhat, in recent years and his music has finally been embraced at home, one senses in Carter a profound affinity for Europe, and for the people who vigorously supported his music for so many years. That Carter would entitle his Asko Concerto after the well-known Dutch ensemble is testament to the strong transatlantic relationships he has developed.

Perhaps it is worth musing on the work’s title. In looking through the composer’s list of works there is a preponderance of generic titles: String Quartet, Piano Concerto, Brass Quintet, as well as a number of titles drawn from modern literature, so one might expect this particular work to be named either after a piece of literature or perhaps a more generic "Concerto for Ensemble." One wonders whether SONOR, in performing this evening actually will become ASKO, as if channeling some psychic essence the composer has woven into the score. The impish humor of this notion resembles a quality which has managed to emerge in much of Carter’s recent music, a surprising development given that many of his best known, earlier works often have a severe character (although Stravinsky once remarked that Carter’s Double Concerto of 1961 was "full of new-found good spirits"). This is not to suggest, of course, that Carter’s music has suddenly become tongue-in-cheek but rather that there is room, now, for humor.

This new accommodation is subsumed into a larger category that one might term "lightness." In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino proposed lightness as a preferred quality in literature (along with quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity). Lightness, for Calvino, is the absence of weight, of density, not of thought or importance. He contemplates a "lightness of thoughtfulness" which "can make frivolity seem dull and heavy." Later, he writes "Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard." A famously literary person, Carter demonstrated an awareness and affinity for these ideals in his homage to Calvino, Con Leggerezza Pensosa (with thoughtful lightness), written in 1990. Carter must have appreciated Calvino’s remarks about Lucretius, who stated in his De Rerum Natura that all matter is composed of small particles. Paraphrasing Lucretius, Calvino writes "emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies." Carter himself cites De Rerum Natura as a literary model for his Double Concerto, and the idea of a solid body atomizing is a consistent refrain in many of his more recent works.

Carter’s own interest in lightness might be traced to an Italianate sensibility, an unrepentant lyricism, that has been a consistent feature of his music for most of his mature career. Where the masterworks of the 1960s and 1970s featured individual lines that were highly virtuosic -- tending to concatenate into massive, tangled textures -- works like Asko Concerto show an interest in removing weight from the proceedings. There no longer seems to be the same degree of consistent intensity and virtuosity placed on individual parts; rather, there is a quicksilver change of focus both between principal voices and their ensemble affiliation. Speed, then, is important in Carter’s music, and it pervades the activity of individual characters as well as the transference between them. There is a palpable ebullience to this sound world, and while Asko Concerto certainly has its moments of dramatic intensity – starting with the massive, abrasive chords that open the work – the music refuses to become mired in any one texture for very long. Always interested in oppositions, Carter uses contrasting textures as an important rhetorical thread, and (as he suggests in his own program note) as formal signifiers.

One often encounters in Carter’s recent music a surprising and remarkable spirit of curiosity and invention. His use of multiphonics in works such as the Oboe Concerto and the solo clarinet work Gra was an unforeseen development and indicated the composer’s willingness to explore new territory. The Fifth String Quartet from 1995 contains entire passages of natural harmonics and a quirky pizzicato finale. The agility with which unusual colors and textures are introduced into a work is a new hallmark for Carter, and it suggests an interest in formal innovation beyond mere phenomenological flourish. As materials and textures collide and seemingly abandoned ideas return Carter engages in a nonlinear narrative approach – one might think of cross-cutting in film editing, or of a Joycean epiphany. Depending on the level of detail with which materials are invested, their identities may not be fully formed or fully known until late in the composition.

It is tempting to think about Carter’s recent music in relationship to the past, and to make premature historical assumptions. To be sure there are trends that could be followed through the composer’s seventy-year career, but one might miss enjoying an extraordinary moment by attempting to force a historical context on the current work. Carter is no longer burdened by the need to create masterpieces, having already written several, and is thereby freed to compose music intended to divert, to entertain in a thoughtful manner. The freedom, then, with which his pieces are composed is communicated through the lightness of the music itself. As if to enforce this impression Carter often leaves a work with a peculiar, unsettled ending, which reminds one of either disintegration or a false start. It would be inappropriate to consider this practice to be a sort of joke; rather, one suspects the lightness of the moment is sufficiently appealing to Carter that he has chosen to encapsulate it into his own inimitable signature.

©2003 by Adam Greene