“I think the importance of music …is a sense that one can produce something that has a special and rather strong meaning, because we’re increasingly surrounded now by things whose meaning is cat food or God knows what…..the problem of consumer life has become universal. I don’t feel I’m writing for consumers. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t consume –it’s something that is like a spirit: a lively spirit that gets into people and shows them all the different kinds of feelings they might have in life, even if they don’t experience them themselves”
(Carter in an interview with Marshall Marcus, Dec 2008)
Ponder and reflect on what Carter is saying, because it’s a key to understanding so much about modern music. The more dependent society gets on “soundbite thinking”, the more we need music that makes us think and feel. Carter’s music is not populist and probably never will be “easy listening”, but, as Pierre Boulez says, “A progressive and stubborn discovery with various and original means”. Music is a journey of awareness, which never ends, either for composer or listener.
This centenary tribute was in many ways a “meeting of friends” and communication. Dialogues, for example, is based on a fairly simple cell of patterns but is the basis for a vibrant exchange between piano and orchestra. Sometimes they are in harmony, sometimes they disagree, but it is an engagement. It’s a concerto, but one with such a lively sense of surprise that it feels like a freshly-minted concept. Aimard plays with lightness of touch, to emphasize the good-natured humour. Boulez shows that the soloists have “voices” here as if they were characters. The cor anglais is particularly droll.
More on the theme of fellowship followed. Matribute was written for James Levine to commemorate his mother, and Intermittences refers to chapter in Proust where Marcel is overwhelmed by memories of his grandmother. Both pieces are combined with Caténaires, written very recently for Pierre-Laurent Aimard who played it on the First Night of the Proms this year. Caténaires are the cables that link electric pylons, enabling the flow of electricity. Personal relationships mean a lot to Carter. By combining the three pieces, he’s showing how people connect and react off each other.
Hence the incredibly rapid rhythms, like the constant hum of electric cables. There’s a “buzz in the air” so to speak. Also striking are the sudden switchbacks and changes of direction. Each instrument is distinctly individual, yet they entwine like a cable, binding different but disparate threads into something new and strong. It’s a one-line piece with no chords. As Carter describes it, it’s a “continuous chain of notes….a stream of semi quavers constantly fast but also constantly fluctuating in register and in smoothness or irregularity”. Then, suddenly it ends, not broken, but as if it’s leaped into another atmosphere.
Since the Proms premiere, Aimard has grown even deeper into the piece, playing unbelievably fast flurries of notes so they seem to fly off the keyboard with a life of their own. Ensemble Intercontemporain, too, is in a totally different league from the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms The Ensemble was founded by Boulez as a specialist new music ensemble, each player chosen for his or her virtuoso status. The clarity Boulez gets from them is phenomenal, as it needs to be in music as precisely defined as this : truly the effect was electric. Many in this audience were musicians of the first rank, who really appreciate what it takes to play at this level. The tumultuous applause that followed was heartfelt.
Commissioned by Boulez for Ensemble Intercontemporain, Carter wrote the Clarinet Concerto specifically for Alain Damiens, the ensemble’s eminent soloist, whom we heard in superb form. Carter builds the piece around what he calls “family groupings” of instruments of different types, rather than the more usual blocks, which creates an unusual balance. Each of the seven movements has a distinct character, with sweeping swings of mood. Damiens moves between the different groups, creating a level of unity, a “caténaire”, so to speak, each new position subtly changing the dynamics. The final part, the Agitato is vigorous, all the players in action but in discrete cells.
Choosing Boulez’s own Dérive II to complete the tribute to Carter was an inspired idea. Carter and Boulez have been so closely associated for so long that the piece continues the idea of confraternity central to this programme. But it’s significant on a deeper level, too. Even at the age of 100, Carter is still writing, still finding new sources of inspiration. As he says, there’s “late Carter” and “late, late Carter” ! Dérive II exemplifies that open-ended, ever-renewing approach to creativity. The spirit that drives Dérive II is the spirit that drives Carter. This music isn't pre-packaged consumer product "like cat food", as Carter said, but "gets into people", constantly growing in their psyches. It was a perceptive affirmation of Carter's enduring vitality.
Dérive II grows out of Dérive I. Both explore the idea of development from simple cells, but with five extra instruments the possibilities expand exponientially. Sounds interweave and morph, sometimes pivoting on a single note, presaging, perhaps the switchbacks in Caténaires. It moves, unfolds, spirals, like a plant shooting out of the soil, its tendrils unfurling, turning towards the light. There are even lyrical passages where snatches of near-melody flit past, tantalizingly elusive. It feels like being in an enchanted forest of sound, each tree, branch, leaf vivid and different. Sometimes the forest is dense, sometimes the music opens onto clearings that reveal new ways of listening. Like Carter's own music, Boulez's is vital and vigorous, still evolving. Perhaps there will be "late, late Boulez" too, if he makes 100. Cat food fans beware !
It goes without saying that this was an astounding performance for this orchestra is so acutely attuned to Boulez's idiom that it was quite magical. I hope someone taped it for Carter to listen to. He would beam with delight !