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What Next for Elliott Carter?

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Elliott Carter and Paul Griffiths, What Next? / Asko Concerto, Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, Peter Eötvös
ECM New Series 1817
As noted here earlier this month, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter were both born 100 years ago this year, on December 10 and 11, respectively. The latter happens to be still alive to celebrate his centenary, and we will be featuring their music as much as possible all year long. (Also note Alex Ross's mini-capsule on the two composers for the February 4 issue of The New Yorker.) Although my tastes are skewed much more toward Messiaen than Carter, the American occasionally pens something that my ears actually want to hear again. At the top of the Elliott Carter essential (the wags will surely add "mercifully short") listening list is the composer's only opera, an existentialistic black comedy of a chamber opera called What Next?.

Set to a libretto by the music critic Paul Griffiths, its six characters have just emerged from a car crash (depicted in a clatter of percussion in the opening measures), an idea that Carter said was inspired by Jacques Tati's movie Trafic. The injuries are serious enough to have left them a little hazy on how they all ended up in this situation. For whatever reason, they all speak as if they are characters in a Gertrude Stein novel ("The spider in the lane is a spider in the lane"). Judging by the music they are hearing in their heads, Dr. Oliver Sacks will soon be compiling their case histories for a future book on head trauma and madness among opera characters. After the opera's 1999 premiere under Daniel Barenboim and this 2003 CD release, the work has seen a flurry of performances, at Tanglewood in 2006 (reviewed by Richard Dyer for the Boston Globe) and just last month at Columbia (reviewed by Martin Bernheimer for the Financial Times).

Elliott Carter, composer, photo from William Gedney Collection, Duke University LibraryOn one level, the work is about performance, a facet especially contained in the character of Rose (Valdine Anderson), a soprano eternally in search of listeners ("Why did they go? / There has to be an audience"). One can hear Carter entertaining himself with the traditional tools of operatic writing, in the coloratura exercise for Rose in the introduction to Other Worlds (no. 23) and her extended virtuosic aria -- there is no other word for it -- The Story Continues ("she begins to make sounds, to make sounds, once again her voice has escaped / It goes on out in front of her / You rush to catch up"). This is odd since Carter's outlook seems mostly removed from opera and even from the voice altogether.

Buried among Paul Griffiths' journal entries relating to the genesis of What Next?, reprinted in the liner notes, is the following gem: "I put forward the idea that we need an ending which is a real ending within the story, but also open, like the ending of Così. Elliott asks me to remind him how that opera ends." (Jens will be happy to know that Carter did not even hear Puccini's La Bohème until he was almost 70 -- and disliked it.) Among the same notes are Carter's thoughts on the role of Rose: "Rose will sing throughout, in her role as performer; the whole thing will be, for her, a performance in which she tries out various parts. 'And of course the meaning of this', Elliott says, 'is that it's like music: nobody knows what it means, but it goes on and on without stopping'." One of the hallmarks of Carter's mature style is concision, and the storyline and texts, no matter how nonsensical, help the mind to unpack the music in a way that his more abstract works do not always allow. That difference is immediately made clear by comparison of this 40-minute opera with a 12-minute concerto composed for the ASKO Ensemble around the time of this live recording (Amsterdam, 2000).


jfl said...

Carter did not even hear Puccini's La Bohème until he was almost 70 -- and disliked it.

I envy him.

Meanwhile: Hard to believe that La B. and Carter are nearly exact contemporaries.

Charles T. Downey said...

Heh, yeah, great point. Hard to get a handle on that 20th century.