Thursday, December 25, 2008

Elliott Carter

Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. (born December 11, 1908) is an American composer born and living in New York City. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s, and then returned to the United States. After a neoclassical phase, he went on to write atonal, rhythmically complex music. His compositions, which have been performed all over the world, include orchestral and chamber music as well as solo instrumental and vocal works.

Elliott Carter Podcast One

Carter's father, Elliott Carter, Sr. was a businessman and his mother was the former Florence Chambers. The family was well-to-do. As a teenager he developed an interest in music and was encouraged in this regard by the composer Charles Ives (who sold insurance to his family). In 1924 a "galvanized" 15-year-old Carter was in the audience when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the New York première of The Rite of Spring, according to a 2008 report. Carter was again in attendance (see below) at Carnegie Hall, on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2008, when the orchestra, now under the baton of James Levine, again performed the Stravinsky piece as part of its tribute to Carter. [1] Although Carter majored in English at Harvard College, he also studied music there and at the nearby Longy School of Music. His professors included Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He sang with the Harvard Glee Club. He did graduate work in music at Harvard, from which he received a Master's degree in music in 1932. He then went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger (as did many other American composers). Carter worked with Mlle Boulanger from 1932-35 and in 1935 he received a doctorate in music (D Mus) from the Ecole Normale in Paris. Later in 1935 he returned to the US where he directed the Ballet Caravan.

From 1940 to 1944 Elliott Carter taught courses in physics, mathematics and classical Greek, in addition to music, at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. On July 6, 1939, Carter married Helen Frost-Jones. They had one child, a son, David Chambers Carter. During World War II, Carter worked for the Office of War Information. He later held teaching posts at the Peabody Conservatory (1946 - 1948), Columbia University, Queens College, New York (1955-56), Yale University (1960-62), Cornell University (from 1967) and the Juilliard School (from 1972). In 1967 he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Carter has lived in Greenwich Village since 1945[2].

Carter continues composing. Interventions for Piano and Orchestra received its premiere on December 5, 2008, at Symphony Hall, Boston by pianist Daniel Barenboim with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. The same musicians also played the work at Carnegie Hall in New York in the presence of the composer on his 100th birthday.[2] According to John Link, Carter "is now working on a song cycle on Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos."

Elliott Carter Podcast Two

Carter's earlier works are influenced by Stravinsky, Harris, Copland, and Hindemith, and are mainly neoclassical in aesthetic. He had a strict and thorough training in counterpoint, from medieval polyphony through Stravinsky, and this shows in his earliest music, such as the ballet Pocahontas (1938-9). Some of his music during the Second World War is frankly diatonic, and includes a melodic lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Barber. Interestingly, Carter abandoned neoclassicism around the same time Stravinsky did, saying that he felt he had been evading vital areas of feeling.

His music after 1950 is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. While Carter's chromaticism and tonal vocabulary parallels serial composers of the period, Carter does not employ serial techniques in his music. Rather he independently developed and cataloged all possible collections of pitches (i.e. all possible 3 note chords, 5 note chords etc.). Musical theorists like Allen Forte later systematized this data into musical set theory. A series of works in the 1960s and 1970's generates its tonal material by using all possible chords of a particular number of pitches.

Elliott Carter Podcast Three

The Piano Concerto (1964-65) uses the collection of three note chords for its pitch material; the Third String Quartet (1971) uses all four-note chords; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) all five-note chords; and the Symphony of Three Orchestras utilizes the collection of six note chords. Carter also makes frequent use of "tonic" 12-note chords. Of particular interest are "all-interval" 12-tone chords where every interval is represented within adjacent notes of the chord. His 1980 solo piano work Night Fantasies utilizes the entire collection of the 88 symmetrical-inverted all-interval 12 note chords. Typically the pitch material is segmented between instruments, with a unique set of chords or sets assigned to each instrument or orchestral section. This stratification of material, with individual voices assigned not only their own unique pitch material, but texture and rhythm as well, is a key component of Carter's musical style. Carter's music after Night Fantasies has been termed his late period and his tonal language has become less systematized and more intuitive, but retains the basic characteristics of his earlier works.

Elliott Carter Podcast Four

Carter's use of rhythm can best be understood within the concept of stratification. Each instrumental voice is typically assigned its own set of tempos. A structural polyrhythm, where a very slow polyrhythm is used as a formal device, is present in many of Carter's works. The solo piano work Night Fantasies, for example, uses a 216:175 tempo relation that coincides at only two points in the entire 20+ minute composition. This use of rhythm is part of his goal to expand the notion of counterpoint to encompass simultaneous different characters, even entire movements, rather than just individual lines.

Elliott Carter Podcast Five

Carter developed his technique to further his artistic goals. His use of rhythm allows his music a structured fluidity and sense of time perhaps unique in classical music. The music also is overtly expressive and dramatic. He has said that "I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble." He has also talked about his desire to portray a "different form of motion," in which players are not locked in step with the downbeat of every measure.

Elliott Carter Podcast Six

He has said that such steady pulses remind him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds that are not heard anymore in the late 20th century, and he wants his music to capture the sort of continuous acceleration or deceleration experienced in an automobile or an airplane. While Carter's atonal music shows little trace of American popular music or jazz, his vocal music has demonstrated strong ties to contemporary American poetry. He has set works of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and, most recently, Wallace Stevens. Several of his large instrumental works such as the Concerto for Orchestra or Symphony of Three Orchestras are inspired by Twentieth Century poets as well.

Among his better known works are the Variations for Orchestra (1954-5); the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1959-61); the Piano Concerto (1964-65), written as an 85th birthday present for Igor Stravinsky; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), loosely based on a poem by Saint-John Perse; and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). He has also written five string quartets[4], of which the second and third won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and 1973 respectively. Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-1996) is his largest orchestral work, complex in structure and featuring contrasting layers of instrumental textures, from delicate wind solos to crashing brass and percussion outbursts.

In spite of a usually rigorous derivation of all pitch content of a piece from a source chord, or series of chords, Carter never abandons lyricism, and ensures that a text is sung intelligibly, sometimes even simply. In A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) (based on poems by Elizabeth Bishop) Carter writes colorful, subtle, transparently clear music; yet almost every pitch in the piece is derived from the content of a single sonority. While Carter seems to set up rigorous systems for deriving the pitch content of a piece, he deviates from them on occasion: not every note can be explained with the same rigor as can be done, for example, in Webern. Most of Carter's music is published by either G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers (works up to 1982) or Boosey & Hawkes (works since 1982).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Maria Tanase

Born in the Bucharest suburb of Cărămidari, Maria Tănase studied at the Şcoala primară nr. 11 Tăbăcari making her first stage debut in Caramidarii de Jos, then on the stage of Ion Heliade Rădulescu High School. In 1934, she joined the Cărăbuş Theatre of Constantin Tănase on the advice of newspaper writer Sandu Eliad. Her debut took place on June 2, 1937 with the stage name of Mary Atanasiu in the musical hall theatres, Alhambra and Gioconda. She represented Romania at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937. Together with George Enescu, George Vraca and Constantin Tănase, she organized a series of shows for the injured soldiers on the battlefield.

On February 20, 1937 she made her radio debut and fame came shortly after in 1938, when she made her first recordings for Romanian Society of Radio. These recordings were destroyed in 1940 by the anti-semitic Iron Guard.

In December 1943, she sang at the Christmas festivities at the Royal Cavalry Regiment, where King Michael I of Romania, Ion Antonescu, Mihai Antonescu and all the members of the government were present as guests. After World War II, she performed in the Review Ensemble and the Satirical and Musical Theatre Constantin Tănase. She had parts in the plays The Living Corpse by Leo Tolstoy in 1945, and Horia by Mihai Davidoglu in 1956. In 1944 Maria Tănase sang in Edmond Audran's operetta Mascota (The Mascot). In 1946 she held the main part in the musical comedy The Hollywood Sphinx, by Ralph Benatzky. She sang in the movie Romania in 1947, and in 1958 she performed in both Ciulinii Bărăganului (The Thistles of the Bărăgan), and the short-reel film Amintiri din Bucureşti (Memories from Bucharest). In 1952, Maria Tănase was offered a position at the Music School No. 1 in Bucharest, in the newly created folk song department; 1962 found her guiding Taraful Gorjului (The Gorj Folk Music Band) in Târgu Jiu and the artists there, at her own request. On May 1, 1963, after a concert in Hunedoara, she had to leave the long tour of the famous folk ensemble, because of illness.

In 1955, she received the State Prize and in 1957 she was honored with the medals Ordinul Muncii (The Order for Activity), Premiul de Stat (The State Award), and the title Artistă Emerită (Honoured Artist of the Republic) for her contributions to the arts.

She toured many times in the last 15 years of her life, including over forty trips to New York City. She died of cancer on June 22, 1963 and is buried at St.Vineri cemetery in Bucharest, Romania.

Rosa Balistreri

Rosa Balistreri was born in Sicily in 1927, not exactly the Belle Epoque on the island. This was a province, still in the grip of a feudal system of incomprehensible brutality that is hard to come to terms with. Her life has much more in common with the tales of Charles Dickens, the same sense of having no control whatsoever over your life, especially if you had the double bad luck of being born both poor and a woman.

In her sincere discussion with Giuseppe Cantavenere, published as a little book "Rosa Balistreri: Una grande cantante folk racconta la sua vita" (Rosa Balistreri: A great folk singer recalls her life) in Italian by La Luna Editions, one can find her life's story, a life that was full of sorrow, poverty, famine, inhumanity but also pride and singing. A life that revolved around a mother who was sharing the same stream of bad luck and need to survive, and men (father, brother, husband, lovers) of little courage, much drinking, little money, many debts, little humanity, many faults, little culture, much exploitation. A life where a job as a maid became tolerable if she was allowed to share the same dinner table with the host family.

She broke out of this circle of violence and intolerance, when in the early Sixties things got so bad for her that she got on a train and fled to Florence. It was there that life first smiled at her, when she found herself, partly by luck and partly by sheer talent, hanging around with a circle of liberal friends who for the first time treated her as a human being and as an equal. Her battered self-esteem needed that break and she embraced her only chance with all her strength. Suddenly, her only escape from a dire life became her window to a better world, and her unique talent thrived in the environment of a much more prosperous Italian north, where the feudal system was far less strong; she was becoming someone.

A few years later she was back in Palermo, this time, however, away from the suffocating environment of rural ignorance and everlasting poverty where she grew up, but instead as an equal in a circle of intellectuals of the Left who allowed her to express herself without fear. The records kept on coming, the music that was brewing inside her for all the previous years, now finally coming out. Her music moved from traditional songs to songs written especially for her, some of them her own compositions.

Following the late Seventies, she moved away from the public eye, establishing an axis with Florence, where she also moved again for a period.

She died in 1990, the time when Sicily (as the whole of the Italian south) was finally catching up with the spirit of the Italian north, a time of great upheaval in Italy and great changes, when the Sicily of her youth was finally coming to an end as well.

The unique voice of a unique past had nothing more to say, except those words in a song which is also something of her testimony:

"When I die
act as I'm still amongst you
tell everyone
what I have told you myself
When I die
Don't feel alone
For alone I shall not leave you
As solely my body will be away" - "Quannu moru"

Rosa Balistreri possessed a voice whereupon her whole life was depicted: the trouble, the pain, the clear cloudless skies of the Mediterranean summer, love and desire, the happiness of finding dignity and respect when you had given up. It is truly a voice from another timespace, as strange to our ears as it is familiar in its timelessness.

I find it very difficult to describe Balistreri's music in a detached manner. It seems highly inappropriate, as she is truly a 'folk' singer, rather than a vernacular one: her style has more in common with Joan Baez than a lady in the street. Her guitar was more than an accompaniment, it was also a way for her to describe what she was singing about, when her voice was busy recounting stories. Her renditions of vernacular songs, therefore, are on one level rather too faithless to the tradition - no fancy vernacular instruments for her or passionate research of original sounds. Her repertoire was partly researched songs and partly her own memories of vernacular songs from her youth. What it may be missing in ethnomusicological fidelity, however, is more than made up with this voice, hastily recorded sometimes but deeply penetrating, that speaks of times and places as faraway as a fairytale, but equally real.

It is, therefore, a bit strange to consider that the records that Teatro del Sole has issued (a full list here) will probably most appeal to those who are most interested in researching the roots and the history of traditional music, than the general public who just want some beautiful or thought-provoking music to listen to. This is, however, music that is impossible to reproduce today: it is Sicily itself singing through Rosa Balistreri, this is the voice of a people and of a land that has seen a lot of injustice and a lot of pain, but also a place where (perhaps for that reason) the simple pleasures of life somehow were projected at the appropriate grandiose dimensions. There are love songs from people who were never able to be with the ones they desired, protest songs of those who could only protest (and not too loudly) as there was no chance of putting right the wrongs, lullabies by those for whom the only hope was that their children might end up living better. And all those songs came true through a person who lived long enough to accept that fate for herself, before somehow miraculously being able to rise above her fate and become the person that she knew she could be.

One should also note the excellent job done by CieloZero and Teatro del Sole, the record and publishing companies responsible for the re-release of Balistreri's oeuvre. It is clear they have a deep affection for Balistreri and have treated her work with dignity and love, the two things she was most respectful of.

Although in many cases, the songs of Rosa Balistreri sound dated, a product of their times, as well as far removed from our times, there is still an incomprehensible power associated with them.

Although her voice is not exactly what might be called 'beautiful' or 'haunting,' it is nevertheless unique and overcomes our presumptions and removes the barriers between people; it touches us on a subconscious level, making us aware of a past more inhumane than most people have experienced, coupled with the deep love of life that only one who has been through the worse can attest to. Her songs remind me time and again of the original American blues, or the Greek rembetika, music of people who life had dealt a raw hand, but who were fighting on, unwilling to give up.

Joan Baez, feudal societies, the blues, arranged marriages, rembetika, a powerful Left, Amalia Rodrigues (who some have considered Balistreri to be the equal of): there is something deeply old-fashioned about Rosa Balistreri, a sense of "they don't make them like that anymore." It's funny, that a radical person like her would be associated with nostalgia. It's also strange because then you think again of her life and realize that there is nothing to be nostalgic about, that it is wonderful that the life she encountered as a child has been blown away, never to come back. Nonetheless, you are glad that someone first thought of teaching her to play the guitar and someone else to record her, before the life she knew would become the realm of fairytales.

"When I die
act as I'm still amongst you
tell everyone
what I have told you myself
When I die
Don't feel alone
For alone I shall not leave you
As solely my body will be away"