Tag Archives: classical

Elliott Carter: Individualist at 103

Elliott Carter

Today, December 11th, 2011 marks the 103rd birthday of Elliott Carter, one of America’s foremost living composers.  And not only has Elliott Carter surpassed 100 years of age, but he’s remained artistically active from before World War Two to the present day.  Carter studied with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst in Boston before moving to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger in the 1930’s.   Since then, he’s had over 70 years of artistic productivity, something any of us I think would count as an absolute blessing!  In the past 3 years alone, he’s composed over 14 works for wind ensemble, individual instruments and even voice and chamber orchestra and more, a feat I am certainly envious of in my 30’s.

There’s been a lot of talk in the jazz world of late regarding cultural roots and such, and there certainly is a validity and point to categorizing music as a cultural phenomenon.  But to me, very often, the worth of an artist needs no cultural justification and an artist’s output transcends his time and place; merely being a creative individual producing works that have artistic merit is in itself enough for me.  For example, what I think is important about JS Bach is his monumental contribution to counterpoint and the genius of his works; the fact that many of his works were religiously based or that he was an 18th century German I view of secondary importance.  Bach’s achievements transcend his time, the Baroque movement, and 18th century Germany and Europe.  Does he stand as the summum bonum of German Baroque music? Yes, but in my view, his music transcends that and stands timeless, in and of itself.   I suppose in this view, I stand more with individualists like Nietzsche, Emerson, Ives and Nancarrow, though I don’t care to make all sweeping statements regarding cultural heritage and its relationship to music; for example, folk music is precisely its name, a music born of a specific cultural heritage, geographical area, and time, as in the case of the blues or Greek rembetika.  So I am not saying that we can simply separate music from the culture in which it is birthed, but I am saying that music can transcend its time and place.

For me, Elliott Carter stands as a modern example of that individualism I speak of.  He represents the artist as an individual, honing his craft and continually pushing the envelope of the music he creates, seeking to expand the medium past 100 years of age. He did not partake in a serialist tradition, although I am sure there are other ways we could quantify his work (as in a 20th century New York City urbanite…incidentally, Carter does quantify himself as an “American” composer and compares his compositions to the jazz idiom utilizing a “written out improvisation”).  He has continually sought his own unique vocabulary and way of approaching music, phrasing, and more as he has explored sonorities, soundscapes, and textures. But through all that, you can somehow hear that this is a man that has digested counterpoint, polyphony, and classical form on a deep level. As such, I don’t even feel I have to even like Carter’s music to recognize that it stands for something of great value.  In fact, Carter is not someone I listen to on a regular basis or find great beauty in (as I would Messiaen, Morton Feldman or Takemitsu); I place Carter in the “research and development” category of my listening: music I listen to in order to expand my ears, get new ideas, and break myself out of the sounds I’ve been hearing and producing.  There is certainly a beauty in some of his works, but not any kind of lyricism or groove/pulse that I can identify with; and ironically, this is precisely his allure for me.

What always strikes me about Carter’s music are the visceral sound clouds, the tension and release he creates without delving into traditional harmony, nor serialism or random abstractness.  Yet there are always enough structural elements in his works to draw me in and intrigue me. In his own words, “Every composition I write has to be an adventure.”  I think no more words are needed.  And even if his music doesn’t aesthetically entice you, I think we can all pay homage to a man who has successfully dedicated himself to an artform for over 70 years without pandering to popularity or giving up the desire to explore music and push his own boundaries.  In fact, Carter cites his composing as a reason to live. I believe that in itself is of the utmost value to society and the world, whether we listen to his music or not.  May Mr Carter’s journey continue for many more years!

This week’s musical offering includes a few bootlegs I’ve acquired over the years from various concerts, including his Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra,  Duo for Violin and Piano (featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard),  Mosaic for Harp and Chamber Ensemble,  his Flute Concerto and more.  Enjoy!


you can find him interviewed on Charlie Rose here:


In the Listening Room: Miles ’67, Krzysztof Meyer, and Patrick Cornelius

I think every jazz musician dreams of that ultimate gig: touring 6 months out of the year playing listening venues with a creative group that you aesthetically love and can develop in musically. Unfortunately, such situations are quite rare (and besides the modicum of such extensive touring opportunities, fulfilling those musical requirements is pretty rare as well).  So as a musician interested in the creative process of the historical bands that did have those opportunities (when you could actually play at a single venue for a week or two), I’m always open ears to newly released live recordings from the day.  When I heard about the new Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe ‘67 box set, my ears perked up, but I remained a skeptic. Could there possibly be high quality unreleased material that has taken over 50 years to see the light of day?

I have a musical confession to make…I’ve never been a big fan of the legendary Miles Davis 60’s quintet with Wayne, Tony, Herbie, and Ron.  I love all these musicians in the projects they worked in as leaders and sidemen. But though I recognize the innovation and high artistry of the quintet in this configuration, the music just never appealed to me on a deep personal, aesthetic level (I know, it’s almost anathema to say! And I do really like the album Nefertiti). Nonetheless, I still own practically every Miles album and put in my study hours on their group interaction, dynamics, textural changes, metric modulations and more, as it’s a must for any contemporary jazz musician.

After a few rave reviews from friends and a recommendation on the high sound quality for a live concert, I made the leap and got this Live in Europe ’67 box set (which includes a DVD of 2 dates as well) and was not disappointed.  This set of live recordings has definitely become my favorite of the group.  The sound quality is great for a live “bootleg”: not overly compressed, all instruments distinct and separated, and the bass prominent throughout (often a missing element in bootlegs/radio broadcasts).  The band is absolutely burning, and each song is marked by an exploratory fervor made even more brilliant by the group personnel having been together for three years.  This is the quintet with another level of freedom than you hear in the studio albums, and a few more years developed since the famed Carnegie Hall ‘64 Concert and ’65 Plugged Nickel recordings.  Tony Williams is on fire with marked dynamics and tempo superimpositions, complemented by Herbie throwing out interesting idea after idea. On practically every track, Herbie grabs my ear with fabulous accompaniment ideas, not to mention endings (a 5/4 pattern over Footprints, a 7/8 pattern over Agitation, and more). And from a musical perspective, it’s fascinating to hear 5 nights of music from a single tour with almost exactly the same setlist; hearing how the group approaches the same material with different ideas each night is a study in itself.  For me, this European set of live performances trumps the Plugged Nickel by far and features a Miles much more on top his game.  And from a historical perspective, the last acoustic quintet album Nefertiti was recorded in June/July of ’67;  these live dates stem from a European tour in Oct/Nov 67 and comprise the last recorded material I know of with the quintet in an acoustic format. This release is entitled Vol 1 and the liner notes hint of more concert releases on the way, so I am looking forward to more quality gems like this if they’re out there!

Now since the music is copyrighted, I can’t offer you a download, but I certainly can offer you a live bootleg from the same time period.  Here’s the Quintet on the same tour, from October 30th, 1967 in Rotterdam, also of high quality sonically and musically.  The files are in FLAC format, you can play them in XBMC, Play, or some similar media player (not supported on Itunes/Ipods). Or convert them to Mp3s with a program like Toast if you want Ipod compatibility.   Here’s the ’67 bootleg from that same tour:


Driving in the car the other day, I chanced across a string quartet on WNYC that caught my ear (no easy feat).  It featured driving rhythmic elements reminiscent of Bartok, non functional harmony, memorable melodic and thematic development, and symmetries and shapes guided by the ear rather than serialism or such.  I was stumped as to who this composer would be, a composer exploring chromaticisms and sonic textures without sacrificing lyricism and classical development. The mystery was revealed with a composer who I immediately added to my music library: Krzysztof Meyer.  Meyer (b.1943) is a contemporary composer from Poland who presently teaches in Cologne.  He studied with Nadia Boulanger as well as Lutoslawski, and spent years performing contemporary music as a pianist as well. In the 60’s he explored aleatoric music as well as twelve tone technique before moving to a more “traditional” style which I find much more appealing (I am not a lover of serialism).  For me, Meyer’s string quartets are intensely visual, and always informed by and accessible to the ear without being overly esoteric or abstract.  In his own words: “I would like my music be meaningful sound-stories told with musical elements that the listener would care about, and not just a stream of acoustic stimuli that involuntarily fly past the ears.”  And that’s precisely what I hear in his music which I miss in so much contemporary abstract classical music.  This music is grounded, developmental in classical terms while not adhering to traditional forms, and does not dispense with lyricism. But instead of trying to describe his music with inadequate words, take a listen!  Here are some links to the 1st and 3rd movements of his 6th string quartet, featured on youtube.  I love the texture in the first movement (as well as the “walking bass” and rhythmic drive)  and the chromatic lyricism of the 3rd. Not to mention, this was my introduction to the Wieniawski Quartet, who are spectacular and earn my added praise as the rare string quartet that understands the necessity for rhythmic accuracy and drive.

I’ve known and played with alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius for years now, and expected that his albums would be high quality, swinging jazz.  But finally acquiring his 2010 release Fierce, what really caught my ear beyond the top shelf playing was the fact that Patrick put together a stellar sounding recording that highlights the musicians on the album.  If you want to make a good sounding recording, the sound starts with the players and the instruments, and that’s a given with a lineup of Johnathan Blake on drums, Nick Vayenas on trombone, Mark Small on tenor, and Michael Janisch on bass  (the unknown for me with a deep, rich full bass tone, strong attack, and solid quarter note rooting the music). If you want to capture the essence of a band’s sound and dynamic, you need a good recording with good microphones, a good room, and a solid engineer and leader/producer at the helm. And then you need to write material that highlights the band, which is exactly what Fierce does. The sound of this album is superb, something I think every jazz musician should take note of and follow suit with!  Patrick recorded this album at Bennett Studios which sadly enough closed this fall, falling victim to a failing economy, high overhead, and the death of the recording industry and declining recording rates. But by no means do I mean to overlook the music, which is most important.  This is great writing and playing; a few odd meters (The Incident, New Blues) serve as vehicles of exploration and colors rather than esoteric intellectual exercises. The group is also chordless, which I find texturally appealing as a welcome change from most releases and allowing for the transparency of horn counterpoint and harmonies.  Patrick just released a follow up album Maybe Steps, and the CD release party is this Wednesday November 16th at the Jazz Gallery at 9pm. Check it out!  www.patrickcornelius.com