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Magna Carter | The Nation

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Magna Carter

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The orchestral concerto of the twentieth century was essentially a new genre. The most famous ones are by Bartók and Lutosławski, and both spotlight the virtuosity of the various sections of the orchestra: strings, winds, brass, percussion. Carter interpreted the form differently; in his concerto, every member of the orchestra becomes a soloist at some point in the score. Instead of dividing the orchestra along the usual family lines, Carter grouped it into four ensembles of instruments playing in the same register, as if each instrument in a string quartet had morphed into a mini-orchestra. The flutes, for instance, don’t play with the bassoons, but rather with the violins and glockenspiel, and the trumpets play with the violas, not the trombones. Carter redivided the orchestra in space as well: the published score includes a semicircular “stereo seating” diagram that places many instruments far from their accustomed locations. Eight percussion players surround the orchestra and play virtually continuously throughout the piece, so that the timbres of drums, bells and rattles fuse with the strings, winds and brass; piano, harp, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone and glockenspiel help to link the percussion with the pitched instruments. Carter also splintered the usual string choir into four separate groups—violins, violas, cellos and basses—that rarely play together; at many points in the piece, he assigned each player within each group a separate part in a dense thicket of polyphony. All this derangement produces a hallucinatory effect as the sound washes from one direction to another in changing combinations of timbres. The derangements also make the music very hard to play, and Carter’s rhythms—his derangements of time—present even more of a challenge.

About the Author

David Schiff
David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College, is the composer of the opera Gimpel the Fool and author of books on...

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The concerto begins with barely audible drums and low gongs that crest and subside like waves striking the shore after a long calm. As their sounds ebb, flickering tones emerge in the strings and winds and rouse a second crescendo, this time a cacophonous tsunami for the entire orchestra that peaks just twelve measures into the music. The apocalyptic explosion of the first climax is created by the friction of different rhythmic values. While the conductor gives six beats to the bar, some instruments subdivide these beats into three, four, five or seven parts; few of their notes coincide. These precisely calculated nonsimultaneities would be difficult enough to perform if, as in a string quartet, just one musician played each of the clashing subdivisions. In Carter’s piece, though, groups of instruments share each rhythmic strand and so have to articulate the subdivisions precisely together (one rationale for rearranging the orchestra’s seating plan). The piano and xylophone, for instance, must play fourteen even notes exactly together while the conductor is beating six. Making the rhythms even more challenging, Carter often accented these temporal divisions counterintuitively, stressing the relatively easy triplets in the second violins in groups of four rather than three.

In Cleveland, the players were bewildered during the first read-through of the score. Tensions flickered and were fanned by Boulez’s effortless, if glum, command of the music’s complexity. He could sing any instrumental part with exact precision, and in the proper solfeggio syllables—do re mi. Whenever players were not precisely together in pitch or rhythm, he would stop and sing the phrase at them again, a call-and-response repeated with growing exasperation to the ticking of the rehearsal clock. Boulez could instantly hear if a note or a player’s timing was off, and he had no inhibitions about locating the exact source of error. If several repetitions failed to produce an accurate rendering of the score, Boulez would angrily declare that the entire cello section needed to go back to “conservatoire” to correct their glaring inability to count. Any conductor who spoke to an orchestra that way today would lose his job before the next rehearsal. After he took over the New York Philharmonic a few years later, Boulez became known to its players as “the French Correction.”

Throughout the frustrating stop-and-go of the first reading, Carter sat quietly behind his huge score, letting Boulez be the disciplinarian; as soon as the first break arrived, however, many of the players made a point of telling him how much they disliked his piece. One violinist confided that he had been playing passages from Der Rosenkavalier because they were undetectable in the general din. Slightly more conciliatory, a tuba player told Carter that he hated the music but appreciated that the score contained a big tuba solo. Carter turned the other cheek several times, though without ever apologizing for his music, and the rehearsal continued. Everyone knew that, no matter what they might think of the concerto, it and the three other works on the program—including Sergei Prokofiev’s raucous and still challenging Scythian Suite—would have to be played to perfection by Thursday night.

As the rehearsal continued, the professionalism of the players overrode whatever doubts they may have had about the music; the piece began to emerge, though still hobbled by Boulez’s insistence on precision above everything else. The percussionists and the management agreed to arrange a much-needed extra sectional rehearsal. As the technical problems of the music receded, Carter intervened more, sometimes asking to hear apparently minute details, but more often trying to clarify the overall character of the music, the poetry in the notes. At the loudest climax of the piece, Carter had called for a ratchet, a noise-making device that Strauss employed for comic effect in Till Eulenspiegel. Carter wanted to hear the ratchet more clearly and asked the percussionist, who was playing one the size of a Purim grogger, to use a larger instrument. The player found one the size of a baseball bat, but at first he played it a bit tentatively. “Can you swing it over your head, like children at a birthday party?” Carter asked. The ratchet’s wall-rattling racket sounded like a machine gun and brought a smile to the composer’s face, though it was clearly a more visceral and dramatic gesture than Boulez had imagined.

Boulez, I thought, heard Carter’s piece, quite plausibly, as a modernized version of Debussy’s La Mer; Carter was aiming for something more prophetically transcendent, like Ives’s Fourth Symphony. The wild and visionary quality of the music eluded Boulez, but these were expressive qualities few would have expected from a composer who throughout the week was polite, soft-spoken and never self-aggrandizing. Despite all the rough and tumble and the endless stream of insults from the musicians, Carter never lost his composure. Over the years that would follow, I would better understand how Carter’s benign Pickwickian demeanor caged the bulldog within.

There were three performances. I thrilled each time to the power of the music, like a force of nature. The audience was politely hostile, the critics uncomprehending. Boulez and the Clevelanders may not have revealed every secret of the score, but they solved its technical challenges—a task that remains daunting to this day. Forty years after its premiere, the New York Philharmonic has yet to revive Carter’s piece, even though Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s first American maestro since Bernstein, conducted Gruppen last year to general acclaim.

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