Carter at 100: Part 3

8. Enchanted Preludes (1988).

“Above all, I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy” –Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
Carter used the phrase “thoughtful lightness” as part of his title for Con Leggerezza Pensosa (clarinet, violin, cello; 1990) but the philosophical and aesthetic point-of-view Calvino’s statement articulates could apply to most of the music Carter has written since the late 1980s. Many of these pieces are relatively short and have a textural transparency that was new to the composer’s music, except in special circumstances.

Carter’s career has been marked by periods of intense exploration, where new techniques and resources were discovered and studied, followed by periods where the advances in resources are explored and developed. The former periods are characterized big pieces that took the composer a long time to write. The latter periods include shorter, occasional works along with the big pieces.

Carter’s late late period is definitely one of the latter types. Since the late 1980s new compositions have appeared quickly—in fact, the pace of new works from Carter’s desk seems to be accelerating even now. One reason for this increased output since around the time he turned 80 is that the composer’s explorations have given him a set of resources (a limited number of chord types, for example) and techniques (structural polyrhythms and twelve-note all-interval chords, among others) that have proven to be versatile and flexible.

One of the first products of Carter’s late late period is Enchanted Preludes. It is scored for flute and cello and is in one short (about six minutes) movement. The music plays out as a series of high-spirited scherzo-like episodes. It is tempting to hear the cello in a secondary role, but I don’t think that’s the case. Most of the music lies in the cello’s upper register, to be sure, and it is more difficult to make the instrument speak as forcefully there than in its lower register, but the part is as nimble as the flute’s and as expressive.

Enchanted Preludes is built around a twelve-note all-interval chord (as opposed to the 88 such chords used in Night Fantasies), and the intervals are partitioned between the two instruments. For example, the flute is assigned the perfect fourth, while the cello plays perfect fifths, which are inversions (upside down) of perfect fourths. The instruments share the tritone, which is half an octave (six half-steps), and can’t be inverted.

The overall pace of the piece is set by a 45 (flute);56 (cello) structural polyrhythm, and the flute plays primarily in triplets and the cello in 4s. Most of the piece is, not surprisingly, fast, and it is very light on its feet. That is probably one reason the cello plays in its upper register most of the time.

The sprightly sound world of Enchanted Preludes is heightened by the frequent use of slightly extended performance techniques like flutter-tonguing in the flute and harmonics in the cello. These effects, along with the short phrases made of skittering notes or the little bursts of repeated notes that occur throughout Enchanted Preludes, give the piece that quality of “thoughtful lightness” that Cavino mentions. In fact, there are no emphasized downbeats in the entire piece—it never even touches the ground.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

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