Saturday, December 06, 2008

Elliot Carter Looking Forward by Anthony McCarthy

Elliot Carter’s reaching the age of 100 this coming week is going to be mentioned a lot more than his music is going to be played on the air. Some excerpts of the brilliant lucid and exciting music he is still writing might be played but probably not more than about 20 seconds at a time and they’ll talk over it. NPR will, I’m certain, be pulling out everything that’s been said about him to say it again. They’ll mention his opera, they did that story when it was produced. He’s written many pieces since.

There’s nothing wrong with looking in amazement at his age, just reaching the century mark is remarkable. But it’s the music he’s producing now, past the age when anyone else has produced involved works, that is really amazing. I can’t think of a single person of his age who was producing forward looking music. Stravinsky’s late music were mostly very short pieces, some of them epigrammatic and often occasional music. Though, you have to include, those are some pretty wonderful listening. Carter’s recent music, and he seems to be getting more premiers than retrospectives, are major works, brilliantly conceived and executed. There’s not a whiff of senescence or nostalgic reflection about them.

Even as he nears 100, as everyone knows, Carter is still composing with enormous facility. "Tintinnabulation," the first of the two world premieres given in Boston this week, was written for six percussionists playing a vast array of non-pitched instruments. They are grouped into general categories of wood, metal, and skin, but overall the work exudes Carter's brand of immaculately choreographed rhythmic chaos, like an explosion in a clock factory.

Carter had never written for solo percussion ensemble before but that clearly did not deter him from bending this configuration to his own composerly aims with extraordinary precision. As a short piece lasting less than 10 minutes, "Tintinnabulation" covers an enormous range of sonorities, partly through Carter's choice of instruments (a Chinese opera gong and five types of nipple gongs are among the mix) but also through his meticulous instructions of where to strike each instrument and what kind of stick to use, be it a mallet, a brush, a birch dowel, or even a knitting needle.

Under Epstein's direction, the NEC Percussion Ensemble gave an impressive, exacting performance, responsive to both the details and the music's overarching shape. Then they did it again as an encore.

Last week on one of the blogs someone said that one of the minimalist icons was “God”. I beg to differ, they’ll have to get in line to inherit the mantle, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I was any of them. Elliot Carter doesn’t appear to have considered retirement yet.