SARAH WOLFSON on ELLIOTT CARTER
On Tuesday November 6th I woke up in Montpellier, France to be greeted by sad news. Although he had reached the ripe old age of 103, I was still sadly taken aback by the death of the extraordinary composer Elliott Carter. It seemed curious timing since I was in France to perform Rose in the French premiere of his only opera, What Next. I am fortunate to have met the man and spent time with him. In fact, my daughter has been blessed to have been born the same day as Mr. Carter. A mere 101 years distanced them. My husband, Jeffrey Milarsky, has recorded, performed, and premiered a great number of Mr. Carter’s works. And so it was with great joy that we took baby Olivia meet him at his New York City home. It was the same apartment that he had inhabited for so long and I remember being surrounded by beautiful sculptures (his deceased wife had been an artist) and innumerable books. In our youth-oriented culture it was a thrill to be conversing with a 101-year-old man who was making ME work hard to keep up. Beyond discussing the music that he was currently composing as well as what was on the horizon, he commented on his musical inspirations, and former and long-gone colleagues, as well as students of his. Names like Copland, Sessions, Ives, Berg, and Boulanger floated through the conversation. When there was a break in the discussion, I pointed to his copy of Proust. He was, of course, rereading Remembrance Of Things Past in the original French. I can’t say that my entrée into the world of Elliott Carter was anything unusual. Besides having studied his thorny Double Concerto for the obligatory drop-the-needle test for music history, my familiarity with his vast body of work was severely limited. That limited exposure began to change when I first started dating my husband and, like any good girlfriend, I became a regular at his contemporary music concerts. I soon found that Carter’s pieces always seemed to find pride of place on those programs. To my surprise, they often included vocal works such as A Mirror On Which To Dwell for soprano, Three Poems of Robert Frost for mezzo, and the formidable work, Syringa, for mezzo and bass. Since I was absorbing these pieces as a listener, I found the easiest way into his aural world was through the texts. Having been an English major at Harvard, Carter put much weight in words. In Syringa (premiered by the transcendent Jan deGaetani and bass Thomas Paul) there is a beautiful interweaving of John Ashbery’s poem about Orpheus sung by the woman, with fragments of Greek text sung by the male voice. For Carter, this was no compositional accident. The text of the Ashbury states: 'In whose tale are hidden syllables/ Of what happened so long before that.’ A taste of the ancient mingled with the modern. A reminder to contemporary music audiences that even a ground- breaking composer like Carter cannot avoid the past and its influence. This is true of language itself.
For a singer the first reaction to 12-tone-based composition is the fear that there will be no sense of melodic line. Singers live in the land of melody and tunes, but we also find comfort in the text. When I first delved into What Next I found shelter in the safety of the absurdist, yet ingenious libretto of Paul Griffiths. (Although, I have also had the pleasure of spending time with Mr. Griffiths as well and he is anything but absurd.) Since the piece was originally premiered in Berlin, it seemed apropos that he would indulge in a Dadaist style of writing. The six characters find themselves alone together after what seems to be some kind of car crash. Since the Dada movement was in reaction to the violence of World War I, it is appropriate to use a text style that is anchored in a feeling of post-trauma and a loss of sense of place. Even as moments of clarity emerge throughout the opera, the characters continually shroud that knowledge by contradicting statements. For example, there is even a character referred to as “Harry or Larry.”
In stark contrast to Griffiths’ libretto, Carter has laid out a composition that is in no way vague. He clearly marks tempos, dynamics, and accents. But even within his strict musical structure, there is a feeling that the voice can play. As I began work on What Next, I felt intimidated by the specificity of the vocal writing. Because he leaves nothing to chance, I feared that I would feel boxed in vocally. But Carter’s notation actually allows a singer the full range of the instruments’ colors and timbres. And unlike many composers who disregard the flow of the English language (while Stravinsky wrote wonderful music for The Rake’s Progress, he didn’t acknowledge normal English speech patterns), Carter beautifully lays out the prosody of Griffiths’ intriguing, but sometimes elusive prose. If done with precision, what Carter has notated, the rise and the fall of pitches as well as their note values and the appropriate rests, serve to clarify the text. It is in this context that the language serves the music and vice-versa. The balance of the two is utterly blinding when it is achieved. When it happened, it was as if the light bulb finally came on; although with Carter’s music it is not a matter of “how many musicians does it take to screw in the light bulb,” but how long it takes to wire the entire house. It was with this blissful revelation that I was able to absorb the seemingly foreign rhythms and pitches as though they were my own.
Perhaps that is the essence of singing, to appear to the audience that we have wholly made up the words and music right there, on the spot. Toward the end of his life Carter wrote quickly and ferociously. It was clear to me when I met him that musical ideas and expression emerged fully formed from his head. It has taken me many months (let alone years of training as a singer/actor), but I finally feel that his music is now my music. I know that the assumed punch line for Carter is “what next?”. After spending time in his world and embracing his music, I am quite sure that Carter is sitting alongside some of the greatest composers in history, still churning out compositions that will long inspire musicians to the end of time.