One Note/One Phrase: Elliott Carter and his Quintet for Piano and Strings

Elliott Carter: Quintet for Piano and Strings

One quality of a truly remarkable performance is that there is often one note and/or one phrase that can encapsulate the grace, fire, virtuosity, subtlety, or authenticity of the artist. I believe it is the duty of all Listeners and Performers to seek out, catalog, & utilize these gestures as references to further inform their aural pallets.

It seems that this was the week for featuring aging American composers in the national news. This week I stumbled upon an interview in Bloomberg with the staggering 103 year old Elliott Carter. The interview itself was in promotion of Carter's newest premier for his work entitled Two Controversies and a Conversation which premiered last night June 8th. Please see the linked article for full details. 

However, this article also reminded me how funny Elliott Carter can be, in spite of his scary musical language. For me, this short interview was an effort to humanize the man so that both he and his work become more accessible to an audience. Most importantly, it got me listening to Carter again, and that is how I became reacquainted with his Quintet for Piano and Strings – which was written in 1997 right about the time the Backstreet Boys and the rest of the Mickey Mouse Gang was taking over pop culture.

The thing that makes this piece so incredible is that it unfolds its entire self for the listener within the first four seconds. Furthermore, this opening gesture tells you everything you need to know about Elliott Carter's atonal compositional language. This makes the piece a perfect fit for our feature One Note/One Phrase. The performers here are Ursula Oppens on piano and the Arditti Quartet. Give it a listen and catalog this language in your ears. You're not likely to find much else like it. You dig?