To regain wholeness: the many & the one in elliott carter's songs.
In fact, these principles grew with verbal expression, literature, poetry. Even putting aside the question of "logogenic melody," until relatively recently music was a sister art of verbal expression. Beethoven was the first major composer to create a large body of music independent of the word. These are important facts to keep in mind when considering modern and contemporary songs. While poetry has evolved in the modern period, it has not changed as radically as painting and music. About music one can say that with the abandonment of the inseparable twins of tonality and melody, it became an essentially different art. (1) Elliott Carter is different from Bach, Mozart, and Brahms in a way that Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery are not essentially different from Shakespeare, Donne, or Keats.
These considerations are especially relevant to Elliott Carter's songs because, along with being universally considered one of the most important (many would leave out "one of") contemporary composers, he is unquestionably the most literary. In his collected writings, the literary allusions range from the physics of Lucretius's De Rental Natura through Pope's Dunciad to the metaphysics of Heideggerian time. Freudian concepts of the unconscious, we shall see, seem to have been especially important to the development of his art. And it is not surprising to learn that he studied English literature while an undergraduate at Harvard and that he later taught in the Great Books program of St. John's College. The list and variety of Carter's literary references are impressive: Plato's Dialogues and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Theo-phrastus's Ethical Characters and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, Hart Crane's The Bridge and Saint-Jean Perse's Vents, Gottfried Benn and Wedekind, Simone Well and Sartre. There are few men of letters who could refer quite so cogently to so many writers.
Obviously, Carter's selection of a poet for song settings is much more than simply the subjective predilection of a musical ear. As we shall see, the poems can speak for as well as with the music. They have something to say about the loss of unity provided by tonality and about its substitution with variety, fragmentation, and dispersal. While earlier in his career Carter had set poems by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Hart Crane to music, within a limited body of work Bishop and Ashbery are the two poets he has focused on after having achieved his mature and unmistakable style. (A cycle set to poems by Robert Lowell has recently been completed but not yet performed in the United States.)
At first thought for an audience familiar with both Carter's music and the poetry of Bishop and Ashbery, the combinations might seem odd. Nothing characterizes Elizabeth Bishop's poetry as much as its understated quality and quiet, flat tone. How can this work with Carter, whose sound at times approaches the most dynamic and dense--creat-ing an effect both dramatic and extreme--that can be heard in serious contemporary music? And Ashbery is a poet who for all his dazzling originality also adopts rhetorical modes that deceive by a pretense at meaning when, in fact, they are spinning rhetorical cartwheels and that, when compared with what they seem to promise, have the effect of appearing almost meretricious. How does this coincide with Elliott Carter, who seems to measure every note of every composition and is ready to explain them in precise musicological language on dust jackets or in essays?
Upon further thought the relationship between Carter and these two poets becomes increasingly understandable. The flat and calm tone of Bishop's poetry is precisely the vehicle that allows her to hint at the immense realities underneath th.e simplest of natural or human events: anticipations of the final judgment in casual gossip during a bus trip ("The Moose"), or prefigurations of infinity in the quality of light in a fishing village sunset ("At the Fishhouses"). Carter's music, too, is characterized by multiple layers. And while Ashbery's poetry may at times seem fraudulent if the reader is trying to follow a logical meaning, from a rhetorical or linguistic perspective, i.e., concentrating on the structure of language rather than meaning, his poems flow as inevitably as the patterns and colors in an abstract painting. Of all contemporary composers, Carter is the one whose music is most like modern abstract genres of painting, in being about the materials of music--its rhythms, intervals, tones, and timbres without the obsessive melodic essence--just as contemporary painters concentrate on the planes, lines, colors, and textures of painting without the haunting landscape or nude. (2) Indeed, both A Mirror on Which to Dwell and Syringa can be read as allegories of music's loss of the melodic tradition that from Gregorian chant through Bach to nineteenth-century lied created the glories of Western song. But before I proceed with a consideration of these songs, I must identify the qualities of the art song with which Carter's music is ambiguously at variance.
CP One of the most arresting images in John Ashbery's "Syringa" is at once a description and a disclaimer of lyric poetry:
For although memories of a season, for example, melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure that stalled moment.
The idea of a world reduced into a "snapshot"--amonadic, all-encompassing symbol--is a powerful element in symmetrical,contrapuntal lyric poetry. (3) Shakespeare's "sonnetrooms," Donne's "compass" and "highnoon," Shelley's "West Wind," Keats's"Urn" and "nightingale's song,"Yeats's gold birds and towers: the reduction of theworld's multiplicity into a monadic symbol is at thephenomenological core (pun intended) of lyric poetry.
This is true not only theoretically but from almost any pointof view. From the perspective of prosody, a stanzaic pattern or metricalfoot becomes the heart of the matter. In investigating the"roots" of lyric poetry scholars have been led to themonads of riddle, emblem, image, ideogram, charm, chant, and rhythm, andrecent existential investigations of song have encompassed singer andaudience and have spoken of the tendency of songs to be centers of"self-transcendence" and "rituals ofsolidarity" in which all are "mystically" joined.(4)
In nothing is this monadic aspect of lyric and song moreevident and fulfilled than in the great lied of the nineteenth century.Of the broad range of possibilities of song setting within thattradition there are two extremes and the nucleus, comfortably inhabitedby Schubert. At one extreme song borders on absolute music, and the textseems like a pretext for that creation. Brahms's songs arefrequently like this. At the other extreme, the music seems no more thanan illustration of the text: declamation, rhythm, register, texture, andfigurative treatment are as important as the melody. The songs of HugoWolf come to mind. In the most perfectly achieved songs of the period,especially the masterpieces of Schubert, there is a perfect mingling ofthe melodic and the verbal. (5) The counterposed, symmetrical elementsinherent to lyric are expressed in the tonic-dominant tension inherentto tonality and the encompassing symbol of the lyric becomes a melodicphrase or an image of harmonic accompaniment. At the heart ofSchubert's mastery of the art song is the way his chordal orarpeggiated accompaniments to the melody are vertical equivalents of thehorizontal melodies, rhythmically grouped into a perfect image for theepiphany of the poem. This stunning achievement, which may seem"mystically" rendered to some, is in fact mathematicallybuilt into tonality Not only is the dominant an overtone of the tonic,but the numerical ratio of their vibrating sounds is 3:2, which ofcourse yields not only the basic duple and triple time of classicalrhythm but of Western poetic meters, so that anticipations andsuspensions of dissonances can be mirrored in the scored syncopations ofthe rhythm, the ritardando and accelerando of the performance. And justas the harshest dissonance Schubert may use is still anovertone--further removed--of the basic tonality, there is no rhythmicconfiguration that he cannot resolve into some combination of duple andtriple time. The rest is simply genius.
From the teleological unity of this musical system--thepurposeful use of an omnipresent mathematical design--combined with themonadic impetus of lyric poems come the glorious accompaniment"images" of Schubert's songs: slowly risingarpeggios to express dreams or visions, the gradual ripple of harmonicprogressions to reflect the glistening of water or hair, the associationof water with a series of figurations of the tonic triad throughout Dieschone Miillerin (1824), arpeggios gathered into dense chords torepresent rolling, breaking waves, threnodic D minor harmonies to depictthe pain of a departing lover, and something as simple as a descendingsemitone for the throb of pain (an affect known to J. S. Bach in Christlag in Todesbanden [c. 1707-13] and many other cantatas). The examplesare almost as numerous as the songs themselves, and I have selected buta few that spring to mind in connection with Carter. (6)
Practically Schubert's earliest great song, and one ofhis most simple, "Gretchen am Spin nrade" (1814) has herremember a lover, his kiss, her surrender to that kiss and to death. Therocking arpeg-giations of the tonic triad in the left-hand pianoaccompaniment throughout the song are a perfect symbol for both thespinning wheel and the obsession of the girl's love; theimportant points of the simple melody, which progresses to the dominantand back, are the notes of the chords, and the right hand of the pianorepeats a horizontal chordal skeleton of the rhythm of the melody. Thealmost frantic first mention of the lover's kiss is displaced anoctave above the tessitura of the melody. It rests on the tense leadingtone chord not resolved until the thought (Kuss) becomes imagined action(kiisseri) on the tonic chord as eros is resolved into thanatos:
Nothing could be more unified except, for example, thearchetypal melodic phrase that musicologists have uncovered as the basicelement in Mahler's many songs of ecstatic farewells to eternity.(7)
Of course, this blending of melody and harmony, of rhythm andtonality, of words and music, of tone and feeling, is not unique to thenineteenth-century lied. It is a classic principle as true of folk andpopular song and Bach and Verdi as of Schubert and Schumann. Musicalaccompaniment to sung words has traditionally been most successful whenthe voice is an integral part of the orchestral or instrumentalaccompaniment.
Even the most general discussion of Carter's styleindicates how contrary it is to this airtight aspect of song. Inmentioning his choice of Bishop and Ashbery, I have already referred tothe importance of a polytextual subscore and the focus on the multiplematerials of music as opposed to a single thematic and melodic element.Some of the other dominant aspects of Carter's music that runcounter to the tonal unity of classical period music are 1) TIMEMOVEMENT or what Carter has called "metrical modulation"as opposed to the unified key feelings of tonality, 2) the ever-presentimportance of CONTRAST in a myriad of ways, 3) FRAGMENTATION in as manydifferent modes, and 4) the general effect of MULTIPLICITY in everyaspect of the music.
If there is something essentially unified about diatonictonality, allowing us to associate specific keys with single emotions orfeeling in Mozart's arias (e.g. A major for love duets and Dminor for ideas ofvengeance) and Schubert's songs (e.g., A-flatfor nocturnal moods, A minor for lost contentment, and D major fortriumphant happiness), time in music is fundamentally multiple. In animportant essay on "Music and the Time Screen," Carterbegins with Suvchinsky's image of time as a screen onto which allthe other musical elements are projected. It is in this essay thatCarter describes his system of "metric modulation," asystem that permits him to pass from one speed to another by varying thevalue of the basic unit. He provides the following example:
The technique is illustrated in a passage from the "Canaries," one of the pieces for timpani. To the listener, this passage should sound as if the left hand keeps up a steady beat throughout the passage, not participating in the modulations and playing the lower notes B and E at the slow speed of metronome (m. 64), while the right-hand part, made up of F-natural and C-sharp, goes through a series of metric modulations, increasing its speed a little at each change. Starting with the same speed as the left hand-64 to the dotted quarter--the right hand substitutes regular quarters (m. 96) for them in the next measure, and in the third measure these quarters are accented in pairs, and then triplets (m. 144) are substituted for the two previous quarters. The notation is then changed at the double bar so that the previous triplet quarter equals the new quarter, which then in its turn is accented in pairs, for which, once again, triplets are substituted (these are now at m. 216). (8)
Carter's substitution of metrical for tonal modulationindicates the chief way in which his music--and much of modernmusic--moves away from the emotional aspects of music toward abstractmusical properties. It is tonality--from the affektenlehre ofMozart's time to the association of concepts with specific tonesin Hindemith's Marienleben--that has been associated withemotions and feelings.
Carter views his metrical flow in terms of contrast. Inalluding to "chromatic" or "real time" asopposed to "chrono-ametric" or"psychological" time in the "Time Screen"essay, Carter tells us how he arrived at one of the most constantfeatures--"contrast"--of his music:
A few years previous to 1948, I had come across the ideas of Pierre Suvchinsky in his article in the May June 1939 issue of La Revue musicale and in Igor Stravinsky's long discussion of them in La Poetique musicale. Here again, it was a question of the experience of time with an opposition between what Suvchinsky calls "Khronos," which appears to be a version of "pure duration" ("real" time), and the many different "psychological" times--expectation, anxiety, sorrow, suffering, fear, contemplation, pleasure, all of which could not be grasped if there were not a primary sensation of "real," or "ontological," time. Different composers stress different combinations of "real" and "psychological" time--in Haydn, Mozart, and Stravinsky, the music is what Suvchinsky calls "chronometric," since the sense of time is equivalent to the musical process of the work. Musical time is equivalent to ontological time, while the music of the Romantics, particularly that of Wagner, is "chrono-ametric," since it has an unstable relationship between the time of the music and the psychological time it evokes. Such thinking (which I am not sure I agree with) led me to the idea of the opening of the Cello Sonata of 1948, in which the piano, so to speak, presents "chronometric" time, while the cello simultaneously plays in "chrono-ametric" time. (9)
This type of contrast is present in almost every one of hismajor works: the characteristically plucked strings of the harpsichordas opposed to the struck chords of the piano in Double Concerto (1961),further accented by frequently giving one instrument an accelerandospeed and the other a ritardando speed; the contrast between thelyrical, slow music of the winds in the Adagio of the same piece and therapid figurations of the soloists and their associated instruments; thesingle repeated note of the soloist against the orchestra'ssounding of every other note of the keyboard in the Piano Concerto(1964-65) (10); the massive, deafening tutti chords of the threeorchestras in the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) punctuating thefloating, lyrical motives of the violins in the middle section; and,most recently, the sustained and dense chords interspersing thescurrying (scorrevole) pianistic figuration of Night Fantasies (1980).
Nothing would characterize Carter's later music more fora novice listener who at a sitting went through several recordings thanthe punctuation of massive chords followed by scurrying, arpeggiatedfigurations of individual instruments or groups of instruments,portraying the music in search of its fragmented identity. (The big bangfollowed by a universe of multiple galaxies? In a dust jacket to DoubleConcerto, Carter describes to us how he thought of this work in terms ofLucretius's description in De Rerum Natura of "theformation of the existing universe from the random swerving ofatoms.") (11)
Yet there is something almost distracting in these contrasts ofopposites in Carter because more to the point than the dualism is itsfragmentation into an infinity of atoms or universes. This principleseems to invade every corner of his music. Another immediate impressionthe novice listener would gain of Carter's later music is the wayat different times the spotlight falls on different elements of themusic: an individual instrument, a group, a motif, a rhythmic impulse.Carter is meticulous about the way the instruments he uses are to beplaced and about writing music--characteristic intervals, rhythms, andexpressive gestures--that underlines the individual voice of specificinstruments. All this has the effect of what has been called in some ofStravinsky's similar works the ability to see the orchestra withone's ears. It is as if Carter were mocking the effect of a TVcamera zooming in on separate instruments, an effect as pointed for himas it is absurd for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century symphonicrepertoire.
Perhaps Carter's most extreme form of contrast andfragmentation occurs in the Third String Quartet (1971) in which hedivides the instruments into two duos and allots four movements to oneand six movements to the other. The movements are interwoven among eachother and appear, disappear, and resurface several times each. AndrewPorter is best at describing this aspect of Carter's music:"Two strands may be independent or related; one may seize uponand adopt elements of the other; related passages may be presentedsimultaneously or lapped, or even separated, leaving the listener tomake the connections." (12) In describing the Symphony of ThreeOrchestras, of all of Carter's works the one with the most variedand multiple textures, Andrew Porter put it this way:
Harmonic colors, instrumental timbres, varied textures, speeds, and kinds of figurations lap, clash, combine, cohere, then part. (13)
Fragmentation underlines multiplicity. When a theme in tonalmusic comes to a specific section of the orchestra, one primarily hearsthe familiar theme in a new light. When Carter comes to an instrument,through the music he focuses on the instrument's timbre,resonance, and mechanical properties. Nothing gave me quite such a senseof an intuitive grasp of Carter's music as happening upon areproduction of several cubist paintings while I was thinking about hismusic: several perspectives grouped together in the absence of thewhole. The harmonic variety of tonal thematic music has the effect ofreinforcing the character of its basic message. That is why at the endof a Bach fugue when we hear the theme restated in its original key weseem to hear it with profounder ears, having explored its radicalwholeness. Carter himself has provided us with a literary analog. Indiscussing his Variations for Orchestra (1955), he contrasts it withtraditional variations, which are like Theophrastus's EthicalCharacters: "held together by one common idea or purpose."What he wanted from his own Variations was "a more dynamic andchangeable approach":
Viewed as a series of separate pieces of sharply defined character, a set of musical variations resembles certain old literary works such as the collection of brief, trenchant delineations of Ethical Characters by Theophrastus held together by one common idea or purpose. Such a set implicitly gives expression to the classical attitude toward the problem of "unity in diversity." In this work I was interested in adopting a more dynamic and changeable approach.... I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted with so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists, in the life cycles of insects and certain marine animals by biologists, indeed in every domain of science and art. Thus the old notion of "unity in diversity" presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago. (14)
Without thematic tonality, variations present a sense ofinsular moments that could never be reduced to a snapshot. Nothing quiteso graphically illustrates this as Carter's own abstract of thestructure of his Concerto for Orchestra (1969) based on"thirty-eight possible five-note chords" (15): The onlything that seems to be absent from the music, score, and abstract of theConcerto is a musical distillation of the five-note chord. And yet oneknows it must be there to hear.
If we think back now on the identity between the 2:3 ratio ofthe harmonic and rhythmic aspects of tonal music and realize that in hislater music Carter has tended to associate specific meters withindividual chords (each with its own ratio) and to further identifythese ratios with the timbre of individual instruments, we get some ideaof the dizzying multiplicity and complexity of his scores. (16)
The effect of multiple elements is no less characteristic ofCarter's Bishop and Ashbery settings than it is of the rest ofhis later music, and the varied features of that music are present inthe songs to their own special purpose. In discussing them I shallconcentrate on 1) the special relationship between the development ofmusic and the word (logogenic melody) and 2) the particular thematicrelationship between Carter's songs and monadic art song. Indoing so I shall try as much as possible to illustrate literary themewith musical elements: meter, tone, vocal style, registral placement,relation of vocal line to accompaniment, rhythmic activity, timbre andtextural density, musical figuration and continuities. If the possibleextremes of the nineteenth-century lied are emphasis on melody oremphasis on the words, the extremes in Carter, as well as in much ofmodern and contemporary song, are the art songs' morphemicbalance of words and music on the one hand and the phonemic treatment ofwords as fragmented syllables of pure sounds on the other. The center ofthese extremes is, I think, the proper definition of Carter'ssongs, which is my goal. But I want to approach the musical settings bylooking at the thematic content of the poems first.
John Ashbery's "Syringa" (the name refersboth to the musical pipe and to the saxifrage flower) retells the storyof Orpheus's quest for Eurydice not so much as a fateful failureof will as a sign of the inevitable transience of all things. Not onlyis "Syringa" conscious of art song in its rejected imageof a snapshot, but true to its Orphic hero the poem is consistentlyabout music. An initial description reminds us of Carter's timescreen:
The way music passes, emblematic Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it And say it is good or bad. You must Wait till it's over.
"Syringa" also articulates smashingly--if withAshbery's usual ambiguous playfulness--an opposition to theexperience of a perfectly achieved song that once heard remains in thebrain as a melody transcending words:
The singer thinks Constructively, builds up his chant in progressive stages Like a skyscraper, but at the last minute turns away. The song is engulfed in an instant in blackness Which must in turn flood the whole continent With blackness, for it cannot see. The singer Must then pass out of sight, not even relieved Of the evil burthen of the words.
The final section of the poem continues its rejection. In atypically glittering but hollow Ashbery progression,"Stellification" is reduced to what it is not,"microfilm," and finally dismissed with an"indifferent" adjective:
Stellification Is for the few, and comes about much later When all record of these people and their lives Has disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm. A few are still interested in them. "But what about So-and-so?" is still asked on occasion. But they lie Frozen and out of touch until an arbitrary chorus Speaks of a totally different incident with a similar name In whose tale are hidden syllables Of what happened so long before that In some small town, one indifferent summer.
Bishop's six poems about love and natural phenomena arenot less conscious of music although in a more laconic way: the birds,bells, and whistles in "Anaphora" prompt the question"Where is the music coming from, the energy?";"Those cluttered instruments / one to a fact / canceling eachothers' experience" appear in "Argument"; in"Sandpiper," the bird dances obsessively to the obbligatoaccompaniment of the roaring ocean; the moon-in-mirror image of"Insomnia" almost belongs to a romantic popular song; in"View of the Capitol" trees are seen intercepting, then"catching the music in their leaves"; and, finally, in"0 Breath" music appears more specifically as the basicpulse of life and of words. "0 Breath" is troubled in amore quiet way than "Syringa," but troubled nonetheless.The poet--and, I think., composer--cannot be at one with the heartbeatof lyric. Something else is achieved:
Equivocal, but what we have in common's bound to be there, whatever we must own equivalents for, something that maybe I could bargain with and make a separate peace beneath within if never with.
This is not Ashbery's indifference, but neither is itthe classical unity of truth and beauty. The main thematic impression inboth Mirror and Syringa is of a contrast between wholeness and a morevolatile reality. In Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversationwith Elliott Carter, Carter speaks about the importance for him ofdiscovering Freud's concept of a subconscious reality. (17) Indescribing his own reaction to Elizabeth Bishop's poems he put itthis way:
I was very much in sympathy with their point of view for there is almost always a secondary layer of meaning, sometimes ironic, sometimes passionate, that gives a special ambiance, often contradictory, to what the words say. (18)
In an essay on Syringa, Lawrence Kramer describes what heconsiders the correspondence between the "polytonality"and "polyrhythms" of Carter's superimposed chordsand musical textures with what he calls the "polyvocality"of Ashbery's poem and the accompanying Greek fragments thatCarter has gathered) (19) I would simply rephrase this"polyvocality" between a poem of sustained romanticpassion (the Greek fragments) and one that is conscious of thetransience of all things, especially passion (Ashbery), to point outthat the contradiction is present in both poems. The collection of Greekfragments, which speak of Orpheus's failing in"heart" and "courage," is no less aware of"disaster" than Ashbery's poem.
The "found poem" in Carter's collectedGreek fragments is a substantial poetic achievement independent of thescore and its juxtaposition with Ashbery's poem. With itsorganizing polarities of passion and transience, the collection strikesthis reader as superior in resonance and cohesiveness to many ofPound's Cantos, which are its archetype. No less a poeticachievement is the juxtaposition and order of poems in A Mirror on Whichto Dwell. Their "polyvocality" is rather more difficult toperceive because it depends on a succession of literary modes that mightnot be visible without Carter's juxtaposition and score. Thelatter, as we shall see, creates as much of a unity as some of the greatclassical song cycles: the harmonic progression in Beethoven's Andie.ferne Geliebte (1816) or the gradual tonicizing of a few prominentnotes in Schumann's Dichterliebe (1840).
Having been helped by Carter's order, one can perceivethe following voices in the Bishop cycle. "Anaphora"begins with an ode celebrating the cyclic trajectory of a day fromsunrise to sunset and back to sunrise. "Argument" turnsthe cycle into a single linear day "stretchingindistinguishably" in the psychological reality of a personallove poem. In "Sandpiper" the always tenuous romanticreality abcesses and turns into the allegory of a microscopic obsession:"he is preoccupied"; "he is obsessed." In"Insomnia," the allegory has deepened into a symbol,although one that breaks the symbolic icon of the mirror intopsychological reality: "You love me." In "View ofthe Capitol," a new "distance," a new dimension, istried: this time a surrealistic landscape with domes as wall-eyed horsesand the passion of a musical strain intercepted by trees. "0Breath" returns to a realistic ode in which sufficientdistance--in the basic pulse of music as it turns out--has been gainedto "bargain ... a separate peace." These are profoundlydifferent voices and modalities to exist in a single work. How does themusic reflect them?
The complementary musical impression of both Mirror andSy-ringa is of two contrasting layers: in Mirror the chamber orchestralaccompaniment seems to comment on the soprano line not so much like aGreek chorus, where there is strong harmony, but like a Shakespeareanpublic, which is at odds with the heroic. In Syringa it is the bassvoicing the Greek texts that opposes the mezzo-soprano voicing Ashbery.The orchestral accompaniment there is like the Greek chorus commentingon first one of the voices and then the other.
Rephrasing Carter himself, Andrew Porter has compared theaccompaniment in Carter's songs to the use of orchestral motivesin opera--Mozart, Verdi, Wagner--that project another dimension ofreality beyond the singers. (20) Certainly Carter'saccompaniments are more operatic in this sense than they resemble themusical accompaniment in art songs, but with the major difference thatin opera--at least through Wagner--tonality allows for an integralwholeness quite different from Carter's. The great achievement ofthe vocal duets, trios, quartets, and sextets in opera is that theyallow several characters to exist with a simultaneity andinterdependency that poetic drama may aspire to but never quite fulfillsin the same way: the voices of the sextet at the end of the second actof Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) offer six different points of view, but inthe music they share the same poignant vanishing point of eros andthanatos. This is probably why a more appropriate term forCarter's songs is dramatic rather than operatic.
If in Carter's instrumental and orchestral works thepunctuating massive chords seem to be the energy from which thescurrying musical figurations derive, in the songs that source seems tobe the sung syllables and words finding their hidden realities in theinstrumental musical lines. That is the primary impression of thelistener. But several other Carterian qualities can help to approachMirror and Syringa. In discussing his String Quartet no. 2, Carterspeaks of "three forms of responsiveness" among theinstruments: "discipleship, companionship, andconfrontation." (21) This terminology strikes me as an example ofthe "studied" allusions in Carter's literarywriting, but it is not difficult to understand what he means in hisquartet, or even to apply it to the rapport between his sung Bishop andAshbery texts and their accompaniment. In the songs,"discipleship" is less important than"companionship" and "confrontation," and itwould probably be helpful--although not necessary here--to translatethese three primary colors into more musical language and, then, tocombine them into secondary forms of responsiveness: companionatediscipleship and confrontational discipleship, etc.
A more fundamental aspect of the relationship between vocal andinstrumental parts is harder to articulate. Musicologists and prosodistshave considered that when music and words diverge--in composers likeBrahms or Wolf--pitch and duration reside in the score whilearticulation and phonetic timbre reside in the poetry. With twoadjustments this is evident in Carter's songs: he emphasizes thedistinction between vocal and instrumental parts more than othercomposers and he markedly reverses the roles. Carter's vocalscore is characterized by its use of pitch and duration while hisinstrumental parts are characterized through their timbre andarticulation. (Here again we are aware of Carter's interest inthe pithy nature of instruments. And he not only likes to contrast them,but he is fond of spicing and stressing their individual qualities byjoining them with exotic instruments like the marimba and bongodrums.)
This reversal is a general effect best observed in the way thepitch and duration values of the vocal score determine the structure ofthe songs: the repeated important names and words like"Orpheus" in Syringa and "Days" and"Distance" in "Argument" on the sameheld-out note (an austere form of the pitch-class sets in Webern); therepeated intervals (frequently wide and uncomfortable for the voice) inboth the works, especially at crucial points of departure; and the way aleap or rhythmic hitch in the vocal line will erupt into a stream ofinstrumental reticulation and commentary. In addition, this reversal ofthe usual role of vocal and instrumental scores is observable inparticular and highly unusual characteristics of the score: e.g., in bar73 of Syringa on the words "other things," where, in asort of mirror inversion of melisma, the words change on the same heldnote: (22) An especially striking effect within the context ofCarter's customary attentiveness to the sound and character ofwords.
Purely musical display at the expense of a text has alwayssomehow seemed in bad faith: right from the beginning in ancient Greecewhere Plato thought music separated from words was undesirable throughthe relative position of bel canto opera to the almost sanctified statusof Verdi, whose musical forms are strict translations of literary form,to Liszt's transcription of Schuberes songs and Petrarch'spoems into razzle-dazzle virtuoso piano exercises. The church, which isat the center of the development of Western music, periodically issueddicta ordering a cessation to dancing in the aisles. And thesedoctrines, recalling the primacy of the word, are as important as anytheories in the history of music.
In at least one respect, Carter is a conservative composer; inwriting the vocal score, he is generally attuned to the phonemicdimensions of words: a platonic mirror of the words' sounds inmusical notation. Although, as we have seen, he is after a morphemicsubtext, this is assigned to the instrumental accompaniment in Mirrorand to both instruments and accompanying bass voice in Syringa. Inconsidering the extreme possibilities in contemporary music, such asMilton Babbitt's experiments with the overtones of aword's phonemes or Luciano Berio's use of the pure soundof dismembered syllables and phonemes, Carter can seem almost academic.All of this is not to say that he does not set the Bishop and Ashberypoems with some melodic elements. Both cycles have lovely if fleetingpassages of melisma, word painting, and onomatopoeia in the vocalscores.
Melisma is most evident in the way the bass exploits thevocalic duration values of Greek throughout Syringa, but on a fewobvious words the soprano imitates these flourishes, e.g. on"singer" in bars 377-378:
In "0 Breath" from Mirror,a sixteenth staccato phrase that permeates the cycle picks up somebreathy word painting by the introduction of rests as the sopranorepeats the title in bars 5-8: (23)
In "Insomnia," five evenlyspaced thirds create an onomatopoeic effect of cares dropping down awell (bars 21-22): Less evident in the score is the onomatopoeic effectthat Susan Daveny Wyner achieves on the Columbia recording with anupward sixth leap to the high note of "Anaphora" and thenback again, describing the sunlight on "brilliant walls"(bars 12-13, reproduced on the following page).
Of course, as Donald Tovey has pointed out, the naturalvoice--a possible innate inclination to song--resists syllabic and scalearticulation. Melody is an art form created from tensional resistance.After the twelfth century there were roughly three possible melodiclines: 1) an initial leap, followed by a natural, floating descent, asin the melodies of Gregorian chant; 2) a struggle uphill, followed by aprecipitous cadence, as in the melodies of Bach; 3) and the classicalbalance of the former two with a gradual, perhaps undulating ascen.tmirrored in its descent. These melodic forms are also mirrors ofdifferent modes of the human spirits: a memory of paradisiacal bliss,the arduous conquest of good over evil, and the rational accommodationto the golden rule.
From all that we have seen of Carter's style, it can besaid that his melodic dimension--even in the absence of melody as weknow it in Schubert or Verdi--contains jagged leaps, fragmentation,layerings and overlappings, contrast, and a sense of one elementderiving from another: a scurrying line escaping from a dense horizontalor concentric cluster. Robotlike, frequent repetitions of the same note,long-held notes, and jagged leaps of wide, uncomfortable intervals arethe predominant sonic impressions of the vocal lines in Mirror andSyringa. The repeated and held notes can give the impression of a mentalstutter, the way someone may repeat a neutral sound until he/she hasrecovered a thought. (In Carter's songs the recovery comes in anoutburst of instrumental sound.) The leaps remind us of Carter'smanner of suddenly spotlighting different sections of the orchestra.Together repeated and held notes and leaps produce a ventriloquialeffect. We are not sure where the music is coming from. And theimpression of disembodiment is strong. An abstract painting without thehaunting nude or landscape. A song without melody It would be rather tooeasy to invent analogies here from modern history, psychology, andscience, and it is perhaps best--at this point in our understanding ofCarter--to leave them to the individual listener.
Music develops then as an accompaniment to words in more waysthan what we consider as "text setting." It is only withthe relatively recent development of notation that anything but wordsmarked the rhythmic and metric dimensions of music, and in a sensefamiliar to any singer attempting to communicate an art song to anaudience, notation has never been quite as accurate. We can hear Bachdefining the relationship between harmonic progression and rhythmicdevelopment as he sets his German texts--with the inescapableperiodicity of the German language--to music in his cantatas. And inbreaking this mold, Wagner had frequently to suppress the verbal metersof his texts. Debussy had an easier time with French, and in any case,he found Mallarrne's poem dispensable. Finally, so much of therhythmic flexibility of modern music can be derived from the variablemeter rhythms of the Russian language, first in Rachmaninoff andTchai-kovsky, but most especially in Stravinsky. All of these composersused texts some of the time, but one can safely assume that their earswere never deaf to the rhythms of their mother tongue.
This is a bird's-eye view of text setting because ourconcern is Carter's songs. To return: how do Bishop's andAshbery's poems fit in here? We should start first with theobvious principle that simpler and lesser texts have generally servedcomposers best. The awesome achievements of great poetic masterpiecesseem, in their complexity, to resist musical setting. (Carter himselfhas been frustrated in a lifelong desire to set the text of HartCrane's The Bridge to music.) In Bishop, what has been called her"Shaker plainness" facilitates the imposition ofCarter's modulating and polyrhythmic elements. Thus, Carter canfulfill his musical design easily and modulate the voice of his musicalsubtext to the poems from the ensemble in "Anaphora" tothe bongos, piano, and strings in "Argument," to the oboe"Sandpiper" imitation, to the muffled drums and winds in"View of the Capitol," and, finally, to the soprano voiceitself in "0 Breath." As a composer who associatesinstrumental timbre with different rhythms, Carter has obviously beenwell served by the understated quality of Bishop's texts.
In Ashbery, the discursive momentum of hollow rhetorical forms,the wacky, mangled syntactical disorder facilitates the same imposition.(24) To further illustrate a dimension of "Syringa" thatwe have already seen, Ashbery will use logical rhetoric forillogic:
"The end crowns all," Meaning also the "tableau" is wrong.
A cadence does not mean that the tensional polarities along theway were invalid. Or to stay closer to the music, Ashbery'scombination of rhetorical but unpoetic, multisyllabic words, such as"emblematic," "encapsulizes," and"Stellification," with proselike, monosyllabicexpressions, such as "Then one day," "But whynot?" and "But it is the," are hospitable toCarter's contrasts, fragmentations, and metric flexibility.
There is one rhetorical aspect of the poetry and music that Ihave not mentioned: the music's responsiveness to breaks inlarger stanzaic units. The first five Bishop poems are divided intostanzas, and the last has breaks in the line; and while the Ashbery poemis printed in his volume Houseboat Days without stanzas, as he goes frommeditation to meditation there are identifiable units within it. Inconcentrating on the relationship between words and music, I have ofnecessity slighted the other generative source of music, especially inits rhythmic dimension: dance. Perhaps this is the point to attempt somecompensation.
Without going back into early history, simply the names of atypical baroque suite indicate the importance of dance: Allemande,Corrente, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Gavotte, Minuet, Passepi ed, andBourree. These were, in fact, dances, and their rhythms became a part ofall Western music. The primacy of time and meter in Carter would alonedictate the importance of this aspect of music for his works: danceresponsive to music in a modern mode. The pioneer genius isBalanchine.
Carter--always verbally eloquent--speaks with special eloquenceabout Balanchine in Flawed Words. No wonder. What distinguishesBalanchine's choreography from all others is the way the line ofhis dance is characteristically not synchronized with the beat of themusic. The phrases of his dances do not fall on the beat, but arebeautifully counterpointed to it. Similarly. Carter's musicalphrases are not synchronized with the stanzas, caesurae, or other verbalunits of the poetry. In fact, there tend to be ties at these points. Butthe two rhythms exist in a successful relationship with each other. Ofcourse, the listener might imagine, at the dying fall of that vowel orthe aspirated tone of that consonant, one would hear the note of terroror the figuration of heroic struggle that Carter grafts onto thepoems.
Given the complexity of Carter's scores and thefragmented and multiple nature of his music, an analysis similar to mydiscussion of "Gretchen am Spinnrade" would not be valid.Instead, I have approached a discussion of Carter's words andmusic by, first, a general discussion of his music and, then, adiscussion--literary and musical--of his songs. If mydefinition--culminating in a sense of disembodiment--is accurate, muchhas been accomplished. Perhaps a good way to summarize and to pick uplost threads is to look at some segments of the scores.
Bars 14-26 of "Argument," the second song inMirror, include the second stanza of the poem:
Distance: Remember all that land beneath the plane; that coastline of dim beaches deep in sand stretching indistinguishably an the way, all the way to where my reasons end?
Before the beginning of the stanza with"Distance" on its repeated B-natural, the troubled subtexthas been articulated in the jagged figuration of the piano, cello, andbass; the scurrying is later continued in the almost eerie quintupletsof the bongos and then culminated in the scampering pianisticfigurations. As responsive as the vocal score is to the rhythms andphonemes of the text, there is justification enough for the instrumentalfigurations in the leap from F to E-flat on "sand": thepainfully difficult minor seventh interval. Why on "sand"?Perhaps because it points to the next song in which the staccatosixteenth-note articulation characterizes the sandpiper in the oboe. Wehave already heard a similar figure in the ensemble introduction to"Anaphora." It is picked up in our stanza in the voice on"indistinguishably"--the sand stretching out toreason's end. And this quirky figuration reappears prominently inevery song, returning with intervening rests to a breathy voice in thefinale.
This skipping pattern seems very appropriate to the chordsCarter employs in Mirror. In David Schiff's definitive study, TheMusic of Elliott Carter, he analyzes the kaleidoscopic series of chordsthat the composer uses throughout Mirror in multiple inversions andtranspositions and that also inform the vocal lines. (25) But as Schiffallows, these pass by too fleetingly to be identified by the listener.It seems to me that one of the most audible elements linking the cycleis the staccato sixteenth-note figures, giving the music, as I saidearlier, a classical song-cycle unity. "0 Breath" picks upmuch of the cycle. In this final song, the role of voice andaccompaniment are again reversed. The leaps, repeats, and singledrawn-out notes of pitch and duration are now sounded in the instrumentswhile the voice scatters in the textured sixteenth-note, word-paintingaccompaniment. This complements the progression toward distance andquietude in the cycle, most audible in the gradual shift to nonpitchedpercussive instruments from the more emotive language of marimba andbongos. The effect is of resolution or cadence, as the voice has beenliberated from (or into) its subliminal shadows.
David Schiff analyzes in Syringa six seven-note chords thatCarter employs in open position for the bass (wide intervals andspacious tessitura) and closed position for the soprano (tighter vocalline). (26) What's also worth looking at again in the Syringascore are not only the essential Cartesian contrast between soprano andbass and the instrumental echo, multiplication, and figuration of thevocal language, but the extraordinary reflection between the two voices.As if trying to exchange the duration and stress character of the twolanguages, the more naturally flowing, melismatic Greek bassoccasionally persuades the almost automaton language of the Englishsoprano to its side (and, less frequently, vice versa). The repeatedD-naturals and C-sharps with intervening wide leaps in the soprano voiceseem to elicit the nervous plucked sounds of the winds and marimba,piano and guitar along with the ever denser language of the strings: anervous and multiplying chorus protesting--one hopes--Ashbery'sfacile denial of poetry's transforming power (bars 330-338,reproduced on pages 95-97).
And no matter how all this disappeared Or got where it was going, it is no longer Material for a poem.
What is unexpected--and unexplainable--is the brilliantachievement that in the absence of melodic and tonal cohesion the lowervoice should be heard as coming not from a different spatial locationbut from the past. This too is the joy of song. This too isgenius.
If Carter's precise, almost anatomical interest in thebasic elements of music--immensely labored works devoted, in part, tothe character of an interval or chord on particular instruments, theeffect of combining these characteristics, of fragmenting, juxtaposing,or superimposing them, or of radically metamorphosing them within hisoften articulated concern for the overall structure of a work--if thismeticulous approach had yielded only the convincing effect of a voicereaching out of the past into the present as it does in Syringa, thatalone would be a considerable achievement. But all of Carter'srecent works have something as sonically impressive in them: the effortof impetuous thoughts succeeding each other in rapid flight in the firstmovement of his String Quartet no. 1 (1950-51); the haunting sense ofmovement and yet stasis as the accelerando and ritardando piano andharpsichord seem to pass each other (or become each other) whilestanding still (or remaining themselves) in the center movement of theDouble Concerto; the sense of one conception evolving out ofanother--generative and yet inexorably new--in the Variations forOrchestra; the floating, ineffable melodies of the strings against theclanging, massive chords of multiple orchestras in the Symphony of ThreeOrchestras; and the dramatic dialogue between impassioned chords andurgent runs in Night Fantasies. One would have to go back to themiddle-period piano sonatas of Beethoven to find music of similardramatic compulsion.
But Carter's importance is not in question. And it hasrecently been eloquently spoken for in several sources: notably inCarter's own writing, in the entries in the Dictionary ofContemporary Composers (Charles Rosen) and the new Grove's (BayanNorthcott), in the New Yorker reviews of Andrew Porter, and, finally andmost importantly, in the recently published precise, detailed, andthorough book on Carter by David Schiff.
What seems to me insufficiently acknowledged is the degree towhich Carter's music forges links with the teleologically rootedelements of music in the Western tradition. I am inclined to read anallegorical dimension i nto Syringa with its dialogue between modern andancient voices. While I think Ashbery's dismissive disclaimerthat Eurydice would have vanished into the shade even if Orpheushadn't turned around speaks accurately for his temper, I thinkCarter's vision is rather more complex. It could not be servedwith a single poem by either Ashbery or Bishop. Nor is Carter"ready to give up wholeness."
Much of Carter's music that I've discussed inthis essay is clearly involved in a dialogue with the past in an attemptto regain its wholeness. In the articulation of several staccatosixteenths throughout Mirror there is something--in its verydifference--like the images of Schubert's songs. More generally,there is the traditional language. Carter has eschewed synthesizers andany form of electronic or computerized music, which could liberate himfrom diatonic notes and intervals and their instruments. In fact, heseems more passionately addicted to the instruments of the eighteenthcentury--essentially the "modern" orchestra--thancomposers of that or intervening centuries. When he reaches beyond thatidiom, it is to intensely pitched percussion instruments, as if tobalance the absence of tonality in his work. Many of his techniques,such as metric modulation, echo traditional forms, such as harmonicmodulation. And his extremes, whether themes speeding or slowing to thevanishing point or total sound (all eighty-eight notes of the keyboard),have a way of evoking their center: a single theme or note as rooted inthe articulation of its pitches as in the placement of its rhythms. Andit's not too difficult to see his frequent use of tetrachordscontaining all intervals and hexachords containing all triads--and mostrecently, twelve-note chords--repeated without transposition and in keypositions as an acknowledgment of tonality. These elements are importantconstituents of Carter's often eloquent concern with the totalstructure of his work:
What is needed is never just a string of "interesting passages," but works whose central interest is constituted by the way everything that happens in them happens as and when it does in relation to everything else. (27)
Paradoxically, what the massive, all-interval chords thatpunctuate Carter's recent totally structural compositions aremost like in their absoluteness is not so much a tonic triad as a singleunison note out of which a cantus firmus would evolve.
Finally, even his juxtaposition of Bishop's sixpoems--in the way it regains the wholeness of different modes ofexperience--is not unlike the unity of Dante's four levels ofexperience (the exemplar of teleologically centered literature):literal, historic, allegoric, and anagogic. Related to this are theperceptions of the wholeness of human experience revealed inCarter's literary allusions and descriptions of the naturalhabitats that have inspired his music. If in his later period Beethovenbroke the traditional constructions of music in order to liberate itsmelodic essence, Carter may be exploding the tonal and melodic forms inorder to probe further music's irreducible wholeness.
The score examples appear by permission of Associated MusicPublishers, Inc.
In its original publication, the essay featured the followingintroductory note referring to the title: "My title i.s an ironicallusion to a line in John Ashbery's 'Syringa'about the surrender of wholeness. I take that attitude as counter toCarter's music. Being neither a professional musicologist nor aprofessional musician, I hope that my description of what I hear andunderstand in Carter's music will not embarrass me. Most of what!have managed to learn about music I owe to a three-year sequence intheory taught at the JuilHard School by Michael Czajkowski. After alifetime in academia, I also managed to learn from Mr. Czajkowski thefull stature of teaching as a discipline and an art. I owe many otherdebts for this essay, but none greater than to Eric Bernard forencouragement, support, and suggestions during the many months of itsgestation and composition."
(1.)/ Probably neither Carter nor his "atonal"(the term is debated) predecessors and colleagues would recognize theindivisibility of tonality and melody. However, I note that theexhaustive and brilliant theoretical entry on "Melody" byAlexander L. Ringer in the new Grove's is inconclusive on thissubject. Further, it seems to me that in song--because of the particularmonadic nature of lyric that I discuss--the marriage of tonality andmelody is strongest.
(2.)/ Carter discusses this aspect of abstract painting at somelength in "Chronicle," The Writings Elliott Carter, ElsaStone and Kurt Stone, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1977), 178.
(3.)/ I use "monad" in the sense of a totallyunifying symbol defined by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 366. Significantlyfor my discussion, monad and monody are derived from the same Greek root(monos meaning "single, sole").
(4.)/ See Andrew Welsh's The Roots of Lyric (Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); for the"transcendent" ispects of song see VictorZukerkandl's Sound and Symbol (Pr i nceton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1956) and Mark Booth's The Experience of Song(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981).
(5.)/ These melodic and literal extremes of song and theirSchubertian balance are a commonplace of musical criticism. They arestated and exemplified especially well in Eric Sams's BrahmsSongs (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972).
(6.)/ Every music lover has his own trove of Schubertian"images." They are especially \veil discussed in MauriceJ. E. Brown's Schubert Songs (Seattle: University of WashingtonPress, 1969).
(7.)/ Philip Barford, Mahler Symphonies and Songs (Seattle:University of Washington Press, 1971), 11.
(8.)/ The Writings of Elliott Carter, 349-350.
(9.)/ Ibid., 349.
(10.)/ Ibid., 358-359.
(11.)/ Nonesuch H-71314.
(12.)/ Andrew Porter, New Yorker, January 8, 1979, 56.
(13.)/ New Yorker, March 7, 1977, 101.
(14.)/ Album notes, Variations for Orchestra, LouisvilleOrchestra, LOU-583.
(15.)/ The Writings of Elliott Carter, 362.
(16.)/ In a recent definitive study, The Music of ElliottCarter (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), David Schiff provides thefollowing chart of the chord-tempi ratios in Carter's PianoConcerto (page 231).
(17.)/ By Allen Edwards (New York: Norton, 1971), 61ff.
(18.)/ Album notes, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, ColumbiaM-35171.
(19.)/ "'Syringa': John Ashbery andElliott Carter," Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery,ed. David Lehman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980),255-271.
(20.)/ Andrew Porter, New Yorker, January 8, 1979, 56.
(21.)/ Album notes, String Quartet no. 2., NonesuchH-71249.
(22.)/ My score of Syringa is a photostat copy of themanuscript provided by Associated Music Publishers, New York.
(23.)/ A Mirror on Which to Dwell (New York: Associated MusicPublishers, 1977).
(24.)/ My phrasing here is indebted to one of the best essayson Ashbery, "The Tactfully Folded-Over Bill," by CalvinBedient, Parnassus 6, no. 1 (Fall/ Winter 1977): 161-169.
(25.)/ Schiff, 281-294.
(26.)/ Ibid., 302-313.
(27.)/ Flawed Words, 92.
Chart 22 Chord-tempi ratios Tempi - MM Chord Piano Orchestra Ratios VII 126 21 1/7 18 1/6 II 110.25 1/8 X 108 18 1/7 II 105 15 IV 98 1/9 14 VIII 94.5 1/8 IX 90 15 VIII 88.2 1/10 I 84 14 12 1/9 XI 73.5 1/12 V 72 12 IX 63 1/14 9 1/12 III 60 10 XII 58.8 1/15 VI 56 8 VI 54 9 1/14 X 50.4 1/15 I 49 1/18 7 VII 48 8 VII 42 7 1/21 6 1/18
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|Title Annotation:||RICHARD SAEZ|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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