Fields of Sound

Fields of Sound

John Cage and Elliott Carter in Holland, 1987. Photograph by Geek Zwetsloot, courtesy Elliott Carter.

Most contemporary music aficionados already know that it’s all Elliott Carter at this summer’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, which started bright and early at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning and continues through Thursday night. I trekked up here late Saturday afternoon so as not to miss the Sunday 10 a.m. gig, which included the U.S. premiere of Refléxions, a work chock full of visceral sonorities ranging from clacking rocks to super-low contrabass clarinet utterances—already definitely worth the trip. And I’m sticking around through tonight’s concert which includes the world premiere of Mad Regales, Carter’s first unaccompanied vocal ensemble composition in more than sixty years!

But so far, for me, the highlight of this early 100th birthday celebration was another brand new piece: Sound Fields, a brief string orchestra piece played without vibrato and maintaining a constant dynamic level throughout. Carter has stated that it was inspired by the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, but to my ears it was bizarrely reminiscent of Morton Feldman or the late number pieces of John Cage. In a small exhibition of Carter photos and manuscript pages in Tanglewood’s Highwood Manor, there’s even a photo of Cage and Carter together, which perhaps should serve as a reminder that in the final analysis the various, seemingly irreconcilable strands of 20th-century American new music can, in fact, be reconciled.

Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein in Tucson, Arizona, 1950. Photograph by Sedley-Hopkins, courtesy Elliott Carter.

Once I got to Tanglewood, I learned that many of these performances are going to be made available for streaming on a special “Carter TV” portal on the BSO/Tanglewood website. The staged performance of Carter’s opera What Next?, which I journeyed here to see two years ago, is already up there. I’ll try not to think about the fact that I could have stayed home and still would have been able to see and hear all of this when I head to the Albany airport at 5 a.m. tomorrow to get the next event on my schedule. Still nothing beats being here and interacting with all the Carter groupies, some of whom have traveled from even further away than me to get here.

There’s something extraordinary about being in an audience hearing really challenging music and having it end with a unanimous cheer. Luckily Carter—yesterday wearing shorts and sandals—is still around to witness this, too.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Fields of Sound

  1. pgblu

    No reason to think that Cage and Carter didn’t get along personally. Each one helped the other by giving journalists something to talk about (controversy) and giving groupies something to defend against (the decline or the calcification of civilization). Of course the artists were above all that.

  2. ChristianBCarey

    Hi, Frank. I thought I saw you at Tanglewood. Glad you were there.

    Hearing some of the pieces live imparted details I’d seldom heard on recordings which I doubt could be captured by the web videos.

    This was particularly noticeable in Wednesday night’s performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. Watching and hearing a line start in the last desk of the double basses and move forward throughout the section is something that even the best surround system couldn’t replicate; hearing that and seeing Phil Lesh applauding the bassists at the end of the concert made being there quite an experience!

    Christian Carey



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.