Classic construction

I — What is the festival?

The 12th annual Great Lakes Music Festival consists of 20 concerts spread over 14 days (June 11-25). It’s a gem of the Midwest cultural scene, a chance to hear acclaimed musicians nail compositions by many of the usual suspects (Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven et al.) but also adventuresome enough to host two exceptional presentations, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (see sidebar) and an evening of pieces by modernist doyen Elliott Carter (with three of his other compositions interspersed throughout the festival). Live performances of these works are rare enough to make this a special event, and their uniqueness brazen enough to make them of interest even to those who aren’t necessarily chamber-music people.

II —Who is Elliot Carter?

Elliot Carter is the gray eminence of the classical avant-garde, 96 years old and still percolating. He’s a composer, a musician, a professor of mathematics and Greek, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a dedicated modernist (which entails a deep dissatisfaction with traditional music).

III — Is Carter difficult?

Yes, but not just because his music is atonal, rhythmically diffuse, and one long ribbon of non-repetitive melody. Coming to Carter’s music, particularly the thorny late period, can be like starting an intricate novel by reading the last few chapters first. Music, all music, develops along a stuttering line that leads to the dissolution of the strictly established rules of harmony, melody and rhythm, usually gradually, sometimes with revolutionary spurts. The musical development of any particular genre isn’t endless and once a certain point is reached it doubles back on itself and mines past insights. Meanwhile the avant-garde continues its way, seemingly connected to the music it rebelled against more by name than nature. At which point the concept of a new "cutting edge" becomes meaningless and moves from the hands of musicians to the mouths of publicists.

You can see this in jazz, clearly, and you wouldn’t want to introduce someone to John Coltrane by giving them his late-period free-form magnum opus Ascension. The progressive urge to eradicate formal strictures in jazz leads to the glorious dead-end of Albert Ayler, which leads to the retreat to the pedagogical hall-monitor jazz of Wynton Marsalis. As critic James Isaacs once commented "jazz isn’t dead, it’s just over" — which, unless you’re an innovation junkie, needn’t be taken in a negative way. Even rock went from a classical to an avant-garde stage (musical history’s only popular avant-garde stage), spearheaded by the Beatles’ in-studio sound experiments.

So Carter’s difficult, not in the sense that he’s impenetrable but in the sense that if you don’t have a context to put him in (he’s an end-of-the-line classical composer), then extra effort is required.

IV — What’s really important?

Carter has said that the varying tonalities and shifting rhythms of his compositions are a musical corollary to the way people generally receive stimulus from their surroundings, how we absorb two or more contrasting things at once, complete with interruptions. The trick is to have the various musical lines progress without leading to a sonic "traffic jam" (Carter’s phrase).

Not surprisingly, then, Carter’s solo piano pieces are his most accessible, being less cluttered and more exposed than the multi-instrumental pieces. For example, his Piano Sonata (written 1945-1946, revised in 1982), to be performed on June 18, doesn’t sound particularly strange or difficult as he builds to emphatic passages, dramatically milks climaxes, alternates intense and aggressive interludes with lighter, more reflective ones, drips melody before countering it with dissonance — all familiar strategies for a sustained solo, albeit one more associated with improvisation than composition. And a certain sadness is recognizable, and exquisite, as is a certain bright cleverness and confident energy. By contrast, his later piano piece Night Fantasies (1980), to be played by Ursula Oppens on June 20, conveys more restlessness and uncertainty (emotional, not musical, uncertainty), which is typical of his later compositions. The progress from the Sonata to the Fantasies is the progress toward greater ambiguity, which is freedom’s unsettling dividend.

The non-solo-piano pieces are a rangy lot as well, from the abstract but relatively warm Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) to the positively scary Fragment for String Quartet (1948). The virtuosity required by the musicians to do Carter justice is daunting; like a NASCAR race you can watch a performance to see if (but in this case not hope that) somebody bursts into flames. But behind and within the music’s complex edifice lies the emotional nuggets that indicate the human agency in its creation. You need only to listen closely to hear that it’s alternately off-putting, angry, pained, witty, perplexing, piercing and beautiful.


Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival runs June 11 through June 26 at various area locations. Go to for a complete schedule, or call 248-559-2087.

See Also:

Schoenberg’s controlled chaos
By Rebecca Mazzei

A musical maverick so radical he inspired his enemies.

Richard C. Walls is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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