Meeting Elliott Carter

In the spring of 2003, I was finishing up my undergrad thesis at the University of Southern Mississippi. I’d been studying Elliott Carter’s Quintet for Piano and Winds for months, and trying to make heads and tails of his newly published Harmony Book. When I learned about the premiere of Carter’s Boston Concerto, my wife and I decided we were making a trip. We scraped up the money (some of it might have been funded by a student loan) and flew to Boston. I thought (foolishly looking back now) that this 94 year old composer could not have many world premieres left in him so we should not miss this one.
So early April 2003, we were sitting in Symphony Hall listening to a splendid concert of Ives, Mahler, Bartok and Carter. As the last notes of the Boston Concerto rang out I remember shooting to my feet and applauding. I looked around and I saw one other young person had done the same. As soon as the entire concert was over I pretty much left my wife in her seat and ran out of the hall hoping to catch Mr. Carter. I arrived at the stage doors and one other person was already waiting there. It was the young guy that had also sprung up to applaud. I asked if he’d seen Elliott Carter yet and he said no. I said, “Elliott Carter is old. He can’t move that fast.” We turned and saw Elliott Carter and his entourage moving slowly toward the exit. I told the other guy, “Let’s stand between him and the exit. He’ll have to give us an autograph then.”
I stood there as he signed a program for the other guy. Mr. Carter looked at me. I was holding my copy of his Harmony Book. He exclaimed, “I can’t believe someone bought that thing! It was a hundred dollars!” I told him that I had purchased my copy on sale. As he signed my book I told him that I had come all the way from Mississippi just to hear the world premiere of the Boston Concerto. He said, “Wow! Was it worth it?” I was pretty starstruck and I couldn’t really say much more by this point. All I could do was nod yes.
I was speechless (which is rare for me). Carter’s music has always been an incredible influence on me. When I got the signed copy in my hands I broke down in tears. My wife and I walked to the BSO coat check and the older gentleman working there asked why I was crying. All I could do was point at the signed title page of the Harmony Book. He smiled and patted me on the back.
We then walked down the street to have dinner at Brasserie Jo in the Colonnade. I looked up and saw Carter and his entourage being seated at a table in a corner by themselves.
When asked where we’d like to be seated, I pointed at Elliott Carter and replied, ‘Right next to them!’ My wife yelled at me, “No stalking Elliott Carter!”
The maître d’ said no also. Apparently they’d asked to be seated in the back away from everyone.

My wife still likes to point out to me that the other guy waiting on an autograph was probably the only person to have their program signed by Mr. Carter and that I should have gotten my program signed also. It never really crossed my mind to get my program signed. The book was more than enough.
title page of Carter's Harmony Book

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Carter on Carter


Boosey and Hawkes has posted these two video interviews of Elliott Carter talking about his life.

Carter on Carter: The Early Years

Carter on Cater 2: Symphony and Opera

Red Ted Films produced this video. they have produced videos of some of the finest performers and composers of our time. Check out some of their work here in their online screening room.

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fine performances.

In February I had the opportunity to hear two great performances in the Hattiesburg, MS area.

The first one, was down the road in Laurel, Mississippi (hometown of the amazing Leontyne Price) at the First-Trinity Presbyterian Church. The concert consisted of the Durufle Requiem and the Gloria by Francis Poulenc. It had been ages since I had listened to the Requiem. I came to the piece early in my undergrad years and had listened to it many times, but I had not heard it in years. My musical ears and tastes have changed since I first heard the work. The performance was wonderful other than a couple late entrances. My wife loved the piece, I still liked it but not with the same fervor I did years ago.

Until I attended this performance I do not recall ever listening to the Gloria by Poulenc. I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it. The performance was excellent. Maryann Kyle was the soprano soloist and she did an amazing job! It was great to hear a local church choir perform these wonderful 20th century works. Not only was First Trinity Presbyterian a beautiful setting with wonderful acoustics for this concert, it was also one of the best concerts I have attended in a while.

The other performance I attended in February was the Integrales New Music Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi. This year, the festival celebrated the Elliott Carter Centenary. There were lectures given by S21 blogger Alan Theisen, Jonathan Bernard, and David Shiff. The concert featured performances by students, faculty and the incomparable Ann Schein.

The concert included a performance of Birthday Flourish. I had never heard the piece, and I am not aware of a recording. It was an exciting performance by USM students. The highlight of the concert came with the Piano Sonata performed by Ann Schein. I have always been a fan of the Piano Sonata, since the first time I listened to the work. I swear I have listened to the piece a thousand times. (Both the Charles Rosen performance and Paul Jacobs.) I was moved to tears. The Piano Sonata is a beast. It always surprises me when I hear it. (Also this was the first live performance of this work I had attended.) There is always something new to find and hear in the piece. (I also highly recommend Ms. Shcein’s recording of Carter and Copland.)

I had a couple of friends in attendance that knew very little of Carter’s music and were kind of weary to listen to his works. After this concert they were extremely eager to hear more. They were even asking people for their favorite Carter recordings.

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speech/unspoken

I was recently asked by trombonist Steve Parker to write a short solo piece for trombone. Hear Steve on myspace here. He is a fine trombonist and is working on a commissioning project that explores the link between language and music.

The poem “The Creations of Sound” by Wallace Stevens became the inspiration for the piece.

A couple lines in the poem sparked my imagination:

They do not make the visible a little hard
To see nor, reverberating, eke out the mind
Or peculiar horns, themselves eked out
By the spontaneous particulars of sound.

I composed the piece in eleven small parts that can be played in any order. Each section became a (kind of) variation on the previous one. I liked the idea of writing a piece in mobile form. The piece is roughly two and a half minutes in length, and the title, speech/unspoken, comes from the last lines o the poem:

We say ourselves in syllables that rise
From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak.

On a side note, right before I started composing this piece my computer died. Since I was without my notation software I composed the entire piece using the melody composer on my cell phone. (mobile form….get it!)

Tonight, Steve will be performing speech/unspoken along with other works from this commissioning project at the Steinway Gallery in Anchorage, Alaska.

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Pandora

Recently, I have been listening to a lot of music at work on Pandora.com.
Pandora allows you to create your own radio stations by typing in the name of a song, artist, or composer. Then Pandora will compile a station full of music that shares the same qualities. Pandora is a result of what is called the Music Genome Project.

Today, I have listened to the music of Beck, Amy Winehouse, Birtwistle, Stockhausen and Xenakis. Amazingly, I have managed to listen to the music of the latter three with out being harmed by co-workers.

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Baby Steps

2008 brought something new to Mississippi Public Broadcasting: HDRadio.

I had no idea HDRadio existed. I know more about it now, but I have yet to see an HDRadio on sale in any store.

The new year brought a change in their normal format. More talk shows, news programming, and less music. With an addition of an HD channel they have created a new station of just music programming.

And get this…..they have a show titled Modern Classical airing on Saturdays which I have managed to listen online a couple times. There is a new classical music director and she really seems to be attempting to change the Muzak feel of MPB.

I did start laughing when I listened to the first show and she said, “Every episode of Modern Classical will feature at least one work of a living composer!” That episode started off with Satie’s Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear and I thought “Oh, this is going to be the greatest classical hits of the early 20th century.”

The second episode did surprise me when it included Zippo Songs by Phil Kline. It is a very interesting piece and I was amazed to here it coming from MPB radio.

Here is a list of works I have heard so far on Modern Classical:

MilhaudLa Creation du Monde
RodrigoFive Childrens Pieces
Phil KlineZippo Songs
BartokViolin Rhapsody No. 1
HolstMars
Eric SatieThree Pieces in the Shape of a Pear
Morton FeldmanRothko Chapel mvts 4 & 5
ProkofievClassical Symphony
WebernSix Pieces for Orchestra op. 6
Bret Dietz – I think it was a piece for two marimbas…sorry.

I haven’t heard any Xenakis yet. Perhaps it’s coming?
Slowly acclimating the listeners to the new stuff I guess.

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composing No Way.

I recently finished my first instrumental work since Hurricane Katrina passed through these parts. It is a short solo work for clarinet titled, No Way.

The initial seed of No Way was planted into my brain earlier this year when Al Theisen and I were talking about writing a new work based off of one of our older pieces where each bar of the new work was a variation off of that bar in the previous piece. Something about that idea just stuck with me. A couple of months later I heard a performance by the USM clarinet professor Gregory Oakes, at the Integrales New Music Festival in March, of a work by Ken Ueno titled, I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea for amplified clarinet. That’s when I really started to churn around ideas for a clarinet piece.

Around June, I decided that the bar by bar variation idea using one of my old works could be successful for clarinet. The work I chose was for saxophone, and it was the first work I composed for that instrument. I have a little bit of a soft spot for that piece for that reason. The work was a serialist piece titled, Improvisation, which really wasn’t very improvisatory, but that was the name I branded it with. It has now seen a second life (a successful life, I hope) as a work for solo clarinet.

Since completing No Way, I have had a whirlwind of new ideas, and now I am working on a piece for pierrot ensemble plus percussion titled, Ice Nine. We will see how that goes. It has been fun so far.

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Independence Day playlist

Elliott CarterBoston Conerto
Symphony of Three Orchestras

Charles Ives Three Places in New England
Symphony No. 2
Conlon NancarrowPiece No. 2 for small orchestra
Ezra SimsString Quartet No. 2

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Letter to my wind sextet.

Dear Hydra,

I apologize. I have spoken ill of you for about two years now. I was convinced you were sub-par and ill-conceived. I even asked your dedicatee to forget about you. I had ideas of cutting you up and rearranging you into a new work, but not anymore.

Although your first performance was mediocre at best, I feel that you have yet to reach your prime. I have listened to the premiere performance with a score several times this weekend and I am deeply sorry for my past words. I realize all the charm you posess. I was blaming you for the mistakes of a few performers, and now I regret it.
So now I wish you a long life and many great performances.
All the best,
Everette Minchew
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Threnody

In two seconds flat (or so it seemed), Asa ravaged several cookies and my old Thriller cassette.
Thriller, PYT, and Billie Jean (in analog format), you will be missed.
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