There are lots of notes in Carter’s music. Lots of them. But for my development as a composer and listener, the passages (or entire movements) where Carter allows one note to carry the entire musical argument or at least the expressive content have been most telling.
The seventh Etude of Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (woodwind quartet, 1950) is a study on one note. The expressive arc of the piece is described through dynamics, accents, and changing instrumental colors. After composing his Brass Quintet for the American Brass Quintet in 1974, Carter gave them a Christmas gift called A Fantasy about Purcell’s “Fantasia upon One Note”. Carter’s arrangement of Purcell’s viol piece emphasizes the drone that sounds throughout the piece with changing colors and dynamics.
Carter’s Piano Concerto (1964) is a dramatic work exploring the relationship between an expressive individual (the soloist) and an oppressive group (the orchestra). Late in the Concerto’s second, and final, movement, the orchestra gradually builds a chord that leaves only one note in the middle silent, and the piano is “forced” onto that note at the climax of the work. In the Oboe Concerto (1988) the orchestra keeps coming back to the somber, sustained music that it plays at the beginning. Eventually the soloist repeatedly honks her lowest Bb (the lowest note on the instrument) repeatedly, in an attempt to get the orchestra on to another expressive mode.
Carter’s use of one-note passages in widely divergent expressive contexts has been a valuable lesson to me, not only in technical terms, but as a direct lesson in how important context is in determining the meaning of musical events. Additionally, I’ve thought of it as something of a bridge to my equal love of music that is more thoroughly built on limited means, like that of Morton Feldman and John Luther Adams. The commonalities between seemingly incompatible styles is often much more important than the differences.
Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)
Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)
Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)
Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)
Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)
Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)
Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)
Part 8: String Quartet No.5 (1995)
Part 9: Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961)
Part 10: Concerto for Orchestra (1969)