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A beautiful view

img  Tobias

You take a look out the window of Elliott Carter's appartment and you think to yourself: This view is not particularly beautiful. Columns of cars are crawling forward through channels of concrete. Exhaustion fumes are merging with muddy clouds. Seagulls are circling round the massive metal constructs of distant bridges, their slender bodies outlined against the dirty, greyish sky. You take in the panorama and you watch Carter taking it in, his head turning slowly, but his alert eyes roving the scenery with sharp attention. Every story worth telling begins with a question so maybe this is the one: Why in the world did one of the most „advanced, idiosyncratic, characteristic and original“ composers of the 20th century (as his friend Charles Rosen will put it later in „Labyrinth of Time“) move here?

Rewind. Dutch director Frank Scheffers is a young man. He is sitting in his room, flicking through the pages of a music mag. He is reading a feature on Frank Zappa talking about Elliott Carter. The latter Frank says: I really like the music of this composer. The former Frank is intrigued. Shortly afterwards, Dutch radio runs a documentary on Carter and now Scheffers has made up his mind: He is determined to shoot a movie on him, no matter how long it will take.

He meets the man in Amsterdam, they talk and take to liking each other. They are both interested in music and the movies, they are both fascinated by time and its influence on our perception of the world. The composer mentions writers like Proust and Joyce to the director, whose admiration grows as his hopes of quickly realising the project dwindle. Time, Scheffers realises, is what he will need to complete his film if it is going to really capture Carter's integral essence and time will prove him right. In the end, it will take 20 years to complete.

One of the reasons is that here is so much to tell. Carter remembers most of it with breathtaking clarity. The legs of his life's race are flying past: His parents thinking it a bad idea for him to become a composer („They were probably right“). Meeting Charles Ives („I always called him Mr. Ives, never Charles Ives“). Walter Preston suggesting studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris („She made me copy one of my counterpoint pieces for the other students, because she thought highly of it.“). His love for Stravinsky's rhythmic power. His interest in Schoenberg's adaption of human speach into music. His synthesis of these two seminal traditions of the early 20th century into his music. Withdrawing to the desert and arriving at the first String Quartet. The list of memorable events is long and we're only half-way into the movie.

„A Labyrinth of Time“ is a documentary by name. But really, it is a whole lot more. Scheffers has dedicated a large portion of his life to this film and invested his entire energies as a visualist into it. Just like Carter's thematic lines, his images constitute constantly varying textures. At times, there are up to three different layers running simultaneously, next to or on top of each other. Consciously retro-fitted pictures flow into original archival material. Still images gradually seague into slow-motion animations. In many respects, the movie is like ballet and it is most obviously so in a pristinely realised scene of choreographed rain drops dancing to Carter's music.

Naturally, even a highly stylised film like „A Labyrinth of Time“ feeds from annecdotes, comments and observations of friends and colleagues. „The works are, of course, a reflection of our modern times“, notes Charles Rosen, for example, „And this reflection is especially interesting in Elliott Carter, because there is an enormous reticence. It is very striking, by the way, that there is as far as I remember no work of Elliott which ends with a big bang. That there always is a sense that the individual voice is left singing by itself, abandoned by itself.“ Daniel Barenboim. meanwhile, thinks back of the time when Carter presented his one and only Opera in Berlin at the turn of the Millenium: „It is symbolic if you want that the last Opera of the century was not written by a German, not even by a European, but (from European eyes) by one of these Barbarian Americans – who produce Coca Cola, Pop and Popcorn and all these terrible things. And suddenly it is one of them who is coming to this Mecca of high European culture in Berlin!“

Two memorable scenes are saved for last. In one of them, Elliott Carter is working on the solo voice of a Concerto with Pianist Ursula Oppens. Note by note, the two advance, with Carter displaying microscopically minute attention to the tinest fragments of his music. Even though his level of deep understanding is awe-inspiringly high, his approach is, all the same, intutive and instinctive. „You should decide how to play it, not me“, he laughs, before Opens repeats the phrase - and the debate continues anew.

In the other, Carter and Boulez are bent over the Piano, talking about mistakes in the scores of composers, with the French maestro in a remarkably relaxed mood: „Even when I'm playing some works by Ravel or Berg, if you have something unimportant marked 'forte' and something more important marked 'mezzoforte', I change it, of course! Otherwhise it gives the contrary impression of what you want to hear.“ Carter looks at him pensively: „But what do you think he had in mind when he did that?“ „I don't ask myself this type of questions“, Boulez smiles, „I correct!“

There are still more stories to tell, yet more possible points of departure for articles, essays, views and reviews. But „A Labyrinth of Time“ reveals itself less through its narrative strands but through the impact of its images and the cantability of its protagonist's thoughts. Certainly, Carter's approach to composing is led by ideas rather than formal schemes: „One of the fields of activity in a piece of music I write is the relative thinness and thickness, the density of texture“, he sums up an essential aspect  of his style, „There are textures that are sometimes so dense that it is impossible to hear what goes within them. This is partly due to the fact that I'm very concerned with the idea of confusion. It seems to me we are constantly overwhelmed by confused problems. And sometimes, to me, the expression of confusion is an important thing.“

Maybe this statement is a key to understanding his oeuvre in its entirety, which is marked by a desire to arrive at human conclusions to human dilemma. It may also explain why he opted to move to his new appartment: Far below, as if in an oneiric metaphor, life is taking place with all of its intricate miracles and turbulent little dramas. To Elliott Carter, there could never be a more beautiful view than this.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ideale Audience Productions

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