I am moved by Lady Percy. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories,
vulgar interests, detestations, responses, apologies, and - more
recently - learning to sing. I hold posts to 300 words* finding
less is better than more. I re-comment on comments and
re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Too hard? So was LvB once

I sought out Double Concerto (for piano, harpsichord and two small chamber orchestras) by Elliott Carter who died recently, aged 104. Why? Because Charles Rosen, who’s performed the piano bit a dozen times, says it is “Carter’s most brilliantly attractive and… most complex work”. For me, whatever Rosen says goes. Also not much was written for harpsichord in 1959.

It’s playing now. Parts are quite noisy (“four percussionists, each with a formidable array of about dozen instruments”) and harpsichords have middle-class voices. Never mind.

Rosen says “the final section… contains the most complicated rhythmic passage I have ever been asked to play… the right hand plays seven even notes to each beat, the left hand plays three.” Pfooie. In the full score the ratio becomes 21 against 9 and (Rosen’s italics) the accents of all four lines in piano and harpsichord never coincide.

I’m not attending yet it hangs together. That’s good, separation can be a problem with modern stuff. Forget music for the moment, think of irregular sound sequences: distant F1 cars racing, a metal workshop, children in a playground. Are you engaged, held? So combine them.

But the concerto is planned. Explosions of funny struck noises, dramatic trumpet outbursts, the harpsichord a mouse within the piano. It lasts 22 minutes so play it again. A third time and you anticipate a passage here or there. And no, it isn’t random. It’s no longer “it” and “you”. Play it again looking out of the window in another room. Switch off, lean back, close your eyes. What can you hear? Nothing? OK, there are no penalties. Something? Perhaps you’ll play it tomorrow. Music cannot be explained.

Quotes from Rosen’s Critical Entertainments, Harvard UP $17.95 ( more in UK)
LATER THIS WEEK: Sink draining racks


  1. Commenters on Youtube describe the piece as sounding like instruments tuning up. I'm more reminded of standing in the hallway between practice rooms and hearing lots of people rehearsing, until suddenly the doors open and the instruments begin responding to each other.

    Neither is too far off the mark, if we keep in mind that Carter favored making musical parts idiomatic for each instrument (so that the part fit each instrument in the most natural way) rather than passing musical themes back and forth between instruments, and paid attention to experimenting with stretching an interval this way or that, and also using themes in the same way. Of course, it takes extreme precision and practice to create such randomness and disunity on stage. I'm also impressed by the way he teaches us his language, so that by the end of the piece we hear the instruments responding to each other even within their discordance.

  2. Julia: I envy you your knowledge and your vocabulary. When I've time I'll listen again with what you've said in mind. Failing that I could only come up with repetition and that was working to some extent. In particular the way familiarity creates anticipation and anticipation helps in hearing the piece as a whole.

    I've heard other pieces like this (admittedly once through only) and haven't warmed to them as I did here. But then I was predisposed right from the first bar because of Rosen whom I admire greatly. This predisposition carried me through the business of tracking down the recording and then disbursing quite a large sum buying the CD in the USA.

    As a pro tem measure I'll keep the disc here in my study and play it whenever things are flagging. Then try to write more specifically about it, again. Thanks for being professional.

  3. Without understanding its language I am drawn to modern music as I am drawn to sounds generally, to the noise of traffic and chainsaws, birdsong and wind, hydraulics lifting and waves rattling shingle. Soundscapes, somebody called them. Thank you and Julia for describing the Elliot Carter piece so well.

  4. I presume the sink draining racks will have been converted into musical instruments?

  5. Joe: It's difficult to get across the appeal of certain types of modern music and I did try - not with any great success, I thought - to create a bridge via the incidental sounds of day-to-day life; that we often respond favourably to these even if, subsequently, we rationalise them away as uncongenial. I am glad to see we share this "honesty" if you like. I first noticed it at Brands Hatch many years ago at a F1 race where a hairpin bend forced drivers to change down several gears. One might have expected a non-musical roaring; instead it was a quick series of plangent whines (because the engines were very high-revving) which were very musical and which I anticipated with pleasure once identified. This process in me was at the heart of Carter conncerto although I'd have loved to have described it in rather more precise term.

    Sir Hugh: I fear it's far more calculated than that. Posts about music tend to turn off commenters; the intention was to reassure them that the above post represented only a brief session of BBC Radio 3 and that normal service (BBC Radio 4) would shortly be resumed.

  6. Whew! I noticed a big relief sigh as I read those words.