Elliott Carter – What Next?


Valdine Anderson, Sarah Leonard, Hilary Summers, William Joyner & Dean Elzinga / Peter Eotvos, Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra

There’s a lot that is mysterious about Elliott Carter’s 1997 one-act opera What Next?, even if we exclude questions about how a nonagenarian could have created it. To begin with, have the five characters in the work (along with boy alto Emanuel Hoogeveen as "Kid") actually had an accident on the way to a wedding (possibly between "Rose" and "Harry or Larry")? Did they lose their memories/identities, or are they Pirandello-style ghosts never had either and are waiting for author or audience bestowal of such goods? Whether or not these specters exist in the manner their words imply, are there actually corporeal, if silent, "Road Workers" that "Mama, " "Rose," et al. at some point try to convince of their (apparent) predicament, or is someone just imagining that others later appear on this bizarre scene? The ECM packaging, which includes Paul Griffiths’s complete libretto, as well as an essay by David Hamilton and a "Gee-Whiz!—I’m-Actually-Working-Knee-to-Knee-With-My-Long-Time-Hero! " journal by the librettist isn’t terribly helpful on these matters. The printed "Situation" that precedes Griffiths’s libretto says, "There has been an accident. Of the six ‘victims,’ all quite unhurt as far as we can see, the five adults have different views of how they are related and how they have come to be in the same place at the same time." The Hamilton piece adds that " [t]he arrival of Road Workers (played by percussion players) reactivates the sonorities of the opening until they leave. " However, the libretto proper, at least as it appears here, has nothing whatever about the entrance of any characters at all after the curtain rises. (Further confusing this matter for me is a review of a live performance I’ve seen that suggests that the ensemble comes to be confronted not by paver/percussionists but by a policeman!) For its part, the Griffiths journal focuses almost exclusively on what seems like an intent to convince the reader that very significant work was contributed by the librettist (sometimes even during meals with the great maestro himself!!). For example, Griffiths informs us that he picked up some reference materials relating to the names of celestial bodies, that he wrote several drafts, that he thought or worried about the work while in bed on occasion, that he received 25% of some commission fee or other from Boosey and Hawkes for his efforts (half in advance), etc. But as to whether we may at least take the "Situation" literally, and so rule out any Malone/Unnameable "brain-in-a-vat" theories—whatever may be the case about the veracity (or sanity) of any or all of the characters—there is nothing. A Robert Craft journal this is not.

I hope the reader won’t take the foregoing as the foundation or prelude to an attack against the opera, the libretto, or even the packaging. The Beckettesque aspects of the work must preclude puzzled opera-goers from expecting answers to such mundane questions as “What the hell is actually happening here?” On the contrary, the fundamental haziness of the ECM booklet allows us the fun of focusing on other sorts of internal clues, both musical and literary, in order to develop our theories regarding the “story.” Here’s my current take…subject to later amendment, of course:

The piece opens with some raucous percussive banging. Naturally, this could represent a physical accident, like a car crash. But the first words uttered are:

MAMA: Sh – Ss – Sh – Sh
STELLA: SS – SH – Shh - tar
ROSE: Ss – Sh – arr
ZEN: Star
ROSE: Star
MAMA: Star
KID: Star
ZEN: Starts
ROSE: Starlings
MAMA: Starch
STELLA: Starkest
KID: Starve I’m Starving

The entire crew then goes on to talk about stars, starts and startles, and there are numerous references to various celestial bodies (Alpha Canis Major, Sirius, etc.) as the piece goes on. "Stella" even claims to be an astronomer on her way to the observatory at the time of the "accident. " I take from this—and from the fact that the percussion blasts opening the work go on too long to be representative of a discrete, crash-type event—that these people (I’m not quite willing to make the leap to each singer representing one or more aspects of a single person or some other entity, like humanity as a whole) are "seeing stars. " I concur, that is, that they are awakening confusedly from something (anesthesia, or coma or nothing at all), or perhaps, like the characters in one of Sartre’s plays, they have just died. The point is that the proximate cause of these "stars" is as likely stroke or congestive heart failure as a pile-up on Route 9. This interpretation makes the subsequent non-responsiveness of the "Road Workers" more sensible—to me, anyway. Whether they’re physically present or not, they simply can’t see or hear our heroes. Of course, they could be deaf and blind—or just uncaring representatives of an overly bureaucratic world. Was there going to be a wedding? Was someone on her way to work? Quien sabe? Finally, before I turn from the narrative (such as it is) to Carter’s music and its performance, it is worth noting that the above excerpt from Griffiths’s libretto should not be taken as representative of the work as a whole, which actually contains any number of complete sentences and even a few jokes. For example, in response to Rose’s questions: "Do you believe in God? Do you believe there is a creator? Do you believe we are in the hands of another being? " "Zen" answers, "It depends on what you mean by 'believe'. " Keeping in mind that this response is from a character whom the "Situation" strongly suggests is a megalomaniacal fraud, it’s hard not to find this cutely anti-Clintonian.

Speaking of Canis Major, after about ten times through this knotty 40-minute work, I began to wonder why there isn’t more in the text about Ursa Minor. The rising minor third (along with a rising tritone) seems the most prevalent musical motif in the work—making its appearances apparently unrestricted to any particular instrument, ensemble or character. At any rate, those two pitch shifts are what now cling to me most doggedly after the last note of the work is heard. As is his wont, Carter has linked particular instruments/groups with specific characters or ideas. Here, the easiest coupling to discover is the pairing of flowery soprano, "Rose," (who may or may not be a singer still buzzing from audience cheers after a recent concert) with piano. If these sorts of associations sometimes seem only half-hearted in Carter’s mature scores, it is largely because there are always at least forty other intervallic, rhythmic, timbral and dynamic associations simultaneously being developed, any number of which can obscure the connections we’ve noticed. What I’m referring to can be described (with only a dollop of exaggeration) along these lines: "When the second flute repeatedly plays dotted-eighth G-sharps in its lower register, one can expect a reference to early Blake—except, of course, when this pattern is accompanied by a lightly trilling oboe and celli sul ponte an octave down, when these instruments together imply either the tragedy of the commons, or, if flutter-tonguing is used, Leonardo’s prefiguring of such tragedy. " That level of nearly insane complexity has always been Carter’s stock-in-trade, so one shouldn’t expect Wagnerian leitmotifs or Peter and the Wolf instrumentation schemes. What’s most amazing about Carter, however, is that this extreme multi-level approach has never been pure gamesmanship or allowed to spiral into unintelligible muck: it has simply provided rich rewards to repeat listeners. While there is almost no end to the depths of understanding one may reach regarding many of his works (Ph.D. theses no doubt proliferate), they are also often very beautiful to those who have no use at all for that sort of analysis—so long as these listeners are willing to let a fair measure of dissonance flow into their lives. Carter’s works are thus like forests, or oceans, or life itself. In What Next? Carter’s ability to create gorgeous and intensely moving surfaces is perhaps best heard in the orchestral interlude entitled "The Singing Stage. " This brief, wordless scene is filled with longing and nobility and is lovely, whatever connections we mortals are likely to be missing. (His facility is also made quite clear throughout the dizzily spinning Asko Concerto, a 12-minute piece for chamber orchestra from 2000 included on this ECM disc. I won’t discuss that work here except to say that it is lovely, a good deal lighter and more quicksilver than Carter’s 1970 Concerto for Orchestra, and that it is brilliantly performed here by Eotvos and his Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.)

In discussing the performance of a work as obviously difficult as What Next? I want to stress that I have not seen the score, and, even if I had one handy, would need to take a tremendous amount of time and trouble before I could comfortably make any assertions regarding accuracy. Anyone can hear, however, the beauty of tone of both singers and instrumentalists as well as the apparent effortlessness of the production. I’m old enough to remember a time when only one pianist in the world could perform Carter’s Piano Concerto—and then once a year. Times have obviously changed: Eotvos and his Dutch masters toy with Carter’s metrical modulations, cross rhythms and other former near-impossibilities as if they were Flemish folk tunes for children. Everyone in the orchestra is perfectly wonderful, but I’d feel remiss not singling out the English hornist, the four percussionists, and the pianist for special praise. The cast is just as good. It includes the nervous, here-and-now "Mama" (soprano Sarah Leonard); cynical wiseguy "Harry or Larry" (baritone Dean Elzinga); Con man guru "Zen" (tenor William Joyner); narcissistic coloratura "Rose" (Valdine Anderson) and the tough, star-gazing "Stella" (contralto Hilary Summers). All seem entirely undaunted by the rigors and difficulties of the Carter/Griffiths approaches to melody, rhythm, prosody, and expression. Further, words are always clearly enunciated, despite the score’s demand for consummate athleticism, and they deliver their lines with just the right balance of emotional involvement and dreamy detachment.

It is amazing to me, as it must be to so many others, that, even at 90, Carter was able to create a first rate work in a genre new to him. Perhaps even more striking, however, is that What Next? is radical in ways that many supposedly avant-garde operas by younger composers are not. To give a couple of examples, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre and Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico are delightful and original pieces, utilizing such devices as car horn choruses and “coloraturas of the sea,” but both also contain, if not traditional arias, at least “set pieces” in which particular instruments or easily identifiable themes, rhythms or sonorities are relied upon for significant periods during discrete scenes. There are "hooks, " or at least footholds. As indicated above, that’s not Carter’s way. Nor is Carter the type to include dancing Maoettes or references to languid Brando movies in his works. (Still, What Next? demonstrates that he’s not completely arid: he didn’t keep Griffiths from throwing in a reference to Big Macs.) There’s no question that the composer is more at home with Ashberry than with South Park, and his opera is no exception. What Next? fits comfortably into Carter’s heady vocal catalogue alongside Mirror On Which To Dwell and Syringa. By now, I suppose it’s pretty clear that Carter, like Cecil Taylor, Pierre Boulez and Derek Bailey—to name three other 20th Century icons of stubbornly difficult music—is not a crowd-pleaser. By his own admission, he was never quite at ease during his brief 1940s foray into the world of consonance and relatively easy tonality. He preferred to follow Ives. But it wasn’t Foster or Sousa or "Nearer My God To Thee" that he wanted to bring to the contemporary concert hall, it was Dunne, Milton, Bowen and Einstein. Carter has always been an intellectual’s intellectual, ever refining his page-long algorithms, consistently offering layer upon layer of meaning for those interested in diving deep. Even so, he has never sacrificed the beautiful to the lesser divinities of the intricate or the cerebral. His priorities have invariably been flawless. As a result, Elliott Carter of the most prolific creators of profoundly beautiful art—not only of our time, but of any time.

~Walter Horn

Posted by joe on June 3, 2004 6:51 AM

Good stuff Walt & thanks Al for posting. As everyone will know by now, this is a co-production with Paris Transatlantic (but don't let that stop you visiting this month's PT too, haha!)

Posted by: dan warburton at June 3, 2004 7:56 AM

that should be, "thanks, Joe!"

This has certainly raised my interest in Carter. Huge fan of his Piano + Sting 4tet.

Posted by: al at June 3, 2004 9:48 AM

Oops sorry - thanks JOE (which one of those photos is you?)
Yes, the recent Mode disc with the Piano Quintet (available as both DVD and CD - see PT a month or so back for refs) is one of the great releases of the past year. You may remember I referred to Carter's Double Concerto in an ancient thread on the Amplify box: I'd encourage any Bags punter to play this back to back with the MIMEO Hands of Caravaggio on Erstwhile - makes for a great comparison.

Posted by: dan warburton at June 3, 2004 11:51 AM

Yes, FWIW, it was probably the double concerto (as well as the first string quartet) that put Carter on the map. Stravinsky called it a masterpiece, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Posted by: walto at June 4, 2004 8:16 AM

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