Elliott Carter's What Next?: Communication, Cooperation and Separation
By Guy Capuzzo
University of Rochester Press; 204 pp. $75
Elliott Carter was one of the most eloquent, advanced composers our country has ever produced. That he continued to compose until shortly before his death last November at age 103 is astonishing; that the music he wrote into his nineties and beyond is so impassioned is something of a miracle.
Carter's career is often divided into five distinct stylistic periods — "Early" (1936–48), "Breakthrough" (1948–55), "Mature" (1959–80), "Late" (1980–95) and "Late, Late" (1995–2012). The composer's voice evolved from a Coplandesque, open harmonic idiom through increasingly chromatic complexity, ultimately arriving at music that uniquely synthesized the spectrum of his musicality in a language that was both intellectually rigorous and lyrically appealing. Dating from 1997–98, What Next? was Carter's sole opera. Based on a brief scene in Jacques Tati's classic modernist film comedy Trafic, the one-act forty-five-minute opera features a libretto by Paul Griffiths and is filled with sardonic humor and ambiguity that recall Sartre's No Exit and Beckett's Waiting for Godot. For many listeners, myself included, What Next? marked the beginning of a golden era of Carter's music.
Capuzzo's book amounts to an in-depth study focused on how the music itself was created. To get the full rewards of this book, one should have some background in music theory, particularly in terms of set theory applications in contemporary music. The reader should probably be comfortable with knowing the difference between all-interval tetrachords and all-trichord hexachords. Indeed, much of the text is written in abbreviations, as is standard in advanced theoretical monographs. That said, the dauntless casual reader who lacks this background but is willing to put in some extra time and effort will still glean much of worth from these pages, aided by the fact that Capuzzo's prose style is plain-spoken and approachable. Capuzzo very eloquently explains how Carter's music — from the macro level down through the choice of specific pitch and rhythm combinations — illustrates the composer's decades-long concerns with communication and individuality among his musicians. In showing the inner workings of his opera, Capuzzo reveals Carter to be a master of musical elements on a par with the grand paragons of previous ages.
What Next? deserves an esteemed place in the canon of American opera. Not only is it a great work, it also happens to make for an entertaining theatrical experience. Guy Capuzzo has done us all a great service in creating this deep, close study of the opera. In common with What Next? and Carter's larger canon, Capuzzo's treatise is complex and challenging yet, for those who persevere, lively and rewarding.
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