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)
The Gift of the Mertz – a Tale for Christmas 2008ReplyDelete
By Roger Rudenstein
“Fred,” screamed Ethel. “There’s a baby in our garage!” The baby came with a mother, a foreign-looking young floozy with stringy hair and a dirty skirt that bared her bulging midriff. She was swarthy like a Mexican or, possibly, one of those Brazilians who had recently taking root in the area. “The homeless have invaded our happy abode,” Ethel whined and fixed him with one of those looks. “Do something, Fred.”
Fred Mertz, balding, somewhat comical, very concerned, went down to the laundry room and gingerly opened the door to the garage. Sure enough, what Ethel said was true (he had suspected it was the eggnog): the Mertz’s garage was inhabited by a poor person and her equally poor baby. Was there a father skulking behind the rusty barbecue in the corner or was that a shadow? Fred was afraid to know.
“Hi there,” he said gingerly. “I’m Fred Mertz and this here’s my garage. Excuse me if I’m out of line…” the shadow behind the grill seemed to be moving…”but what are you doing here? Are you lost?”
The woman looked exhausted and on the verge of tears. Suddenly she thrust the infant up in the air.
“They call him Immanuel,” she said.
The word seemed familiar but Fred couldn’t quite place it. Then it occurred to him that she was telling him the child’s name.
“You mean ‘Manny’, he said. “It’s Manny in our lingo. If you people are going to get anywhere in this country you got to learn English. Nobody here understands your jibber jabber. You got to fit in.”
An unpleasant thought crossed his mind.
“Unless, of course, you’re illegals. We don’t want illegals, comprenday? No wantum the illegals in our neighborhood. In the whole goddam country. No sir.”
“What kind of stereotyped red state stupid asshole are you?” hissed the poor girl. “If I wasn’t so damned tired, physically and mentally, I’d…”
“Leave my husband alone, “ cried Ethel entering the garage in high dudgeon. “You’re trespassing, you and your baby, and you have no right to insult the people who are…”
“Lucy, I’m home, “ bellowed Ricky from the living room.
It was Ricky Ricardo coming home, in his bumbling fashion, to the wrong house. Not so strange considering the Mertz home and the Ricardo home were identical down to the bristly welcome mat. “Lucy! he screamed. “Lucyyyyyyyyy!” Seeing a light in the garage he opened the door.
“Oh, Lucy, you been whoring around and now you’re with child.”
“Drunk,” said Fred to Ethel. “Meet our neighbor Ricky,” he said to the lady. “Ricky, this is Miss—“.
“Miriam,” she said in a small voice.
“And this is little Manny,” Fred said pointing to the bundle in her arms.
“Cute,” said Ricky, “and thank God not Lucy’s bastard love child.”
“There are ladies present,” said Ethel sarcastically.
“Ethel Mertz, I love you,” chanted Ricky in a drunken sally. “But who is Miriam?”
“I’m sitting right here, you know,” said Miriam. “Who am I and why am I here? And what am I doing in this fantastic land with people named for reruns?”
“And on Christmas, too,” added Ethel.
“If I told you my husband’s name is Jody would that ring your bell?” Miriam said. “Or that I’ve had some very close relations with a certain animal?”
“Ooh, I know,” Ricky chortled. “You’re that donkey girl from Tijuana.”
“…with…a…bird…?” Miriam prodded.
The three were silent trying to figure this out, although actually Fred wasn’t thinking about the clues but was wondering how he and this Brazilian piece of ass might hit it off after Ethel put her hair in curlers and passed out under the Christmas tree.
“How did you get homeless?” asked Ricky.
“Tell them how we became homeless, dear,” Miriam said as her husband entered the garage, a large ham-fisted man with a marine crewcut. Fred and Ricky instinctively took a couple of steps backwards as he approached. “This is Fred and Ethel and Ricky from next door…Ricky Ricardo,” she said carefully.
“Holy shit,” said Jody. “What a coincidence.”
“Or is it?” Miriam said meaningfully. “Tell them how we lost our home and wound up at the mercy of a bunch of stereotypical suburban dimbulbs.”
Before anyone could object to this characterization Jody sighed and sat wearily on an old tire. “We got one of those sub primes,” he said, “at an attractive rate. The broker said even though it was adjustable it would never go up by much. Boy was he ever wrong.”
Fred clicked his tongue and Ricky put his arm around Jody’s shoulder. “Us foreigners are so gullible.”
“That’s what makes this country great,” said Fred.
“I think you know what happened next,” Jody continued. “Even though the rate kept going up and up things were ok cause we could borrow against the equity. Then the real estate balloon burst and we ran out of wiggle room.”
Luckily, the Ricardo’s and the Mertz’s homes were safe due to residuals. Their idiotic sitcom had been dubbed a “classic” and even people whose jobs and homes had melted out from under them continued to watch since they had little else to do.
“But why did you decide to settle in our garage?” Fred complained.
“A star guided us here,” said Miriam. “A bright friggin’ star.”
“On a Google map?” Ethel asked, already composing the email flame in her head.
“No, a real one. I know it sounds ridiculous,” said Miriam. “Then there were those people calling little Harvey here ‘Immanuel’…”
“…and that disgusting thing with the bird. How could you!” bellowed Jody and he threw himself at Miriam raising his big fist high about to strike her.
“Whoa there,” said Fred grabbing his arm. But before anything could happen three men appeared in front of the garage and peered in.
“Excuse me. Is this the garage with the newborn baby? We have some presents for the little fellow.”
So said one of the three men standing in the entrance.
“May we enter?”
They didn’t wait for an answer but came inside. All three were dressed in expensive-looking suits and designer label jackets. Each man held a gaily decorated present in his gloved hands and sported a smile so huge and phony that you didn’t know whether to laugh at him or run.
“We’ve come to, basically, adore the baby,” said the one on the left.
“We brought gifts,” said the one in the middle.
“Hey, I thought we agreed that I’d be the spokesman,” said the remaining one.
The three huddled and when they broke the man on the right said:
“Greetings. We’ve come a distance, I can tell you. And it was hard since taking the corporate jet was no longer an option. As you already know, we have gifts, free gifts with no strings attached. None at all. Believe me, I’m sincere when I say this. We expect nothing back. Not a thing.”
“What’s happening, neighbors?” said a female voice from inside the Mertz’s home and then there was yet another person in the garage.
“Ricky Ricardo,” shrilled the newcomer, “did you come home to the wrong house again? Wait a minute. Whose baby is that? And who are you and you and you and you and you?”
“Isn’t the kid your bastard love child?” smirked Fred. “Ow!”
“My bastard what? Watch your language Fred. Ethel I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this kind of humor. Too Family Guy for me. Can’t we get those residuals without stooping to this level?”
“We can,” laughed Ethel, “but there’s no fun in it. Wanna be a dowdy Fifties girl forever?”
“Oh the hell with it,” Lucy said. “Who are the stiffs?”
“We followed the star,” said the spokesman. “It led us here, to this garage. We’ve brought gifts.”
“More like bribes,” contradicted Miriam.
“We know what you did with that pigeon,” said the spokesman knowingly. “The up side is the infant has powers. He can do things that make life better for everybody, not just us. For example, he can cure the Economy.”
“What’s wrong with the, uh, Economy?” asked Lucy.
“Baby, I didn’t wanna upset you,” said Ricky, “but our little nest egg is practically worth nothin’.”
“I told you not to invest in that stinking hedge fund, you Cuban jackass,” Lucy screamed and threw a tire iron at his head.
“Now Lucy, don’t get all upset,” Ricky said, dodging.
“This isn’t the fuckin’ sitcom,” she yelled. “This is real life!”
“Or is it?” Miriam said wisely. “Do you think in real life a baby could work miracles?”
“That ‘baby’ as you call it can save all our asses,” said the spokesman. “He’s hooked into the power of the Universe.” He drooped. “We thought we were Masters of the Universe, but as it turned out we were just puffed up CEO jerkoffs who were riding the wave of a cyclical economic bubble. The market hiccupped and threw us off our pedestals like we were nothing and now we’re reduced to…”
“Shhh,” whispered the two other rich men. “You’re giving too much away.”
“Screw it,” said the spokesman. “We might as well be honest. We made bad loans since our bonuses hinged on numbers, not reality. We made shitty cars that guzzled gas like it was water while they fomented Global Warming, which we denied over and over until we couldn’t cover it up any more. Not only are we greedy, selfish bastards but we’re incompetent and when we quit we’ll gobble up millions of dollars in golden parachute bucks while the masses see their own jobs evaporate. We’re the American Dream gone down the rabbit hole.”
The Ricardo’s and the Mertz’s applauded this little diatribe. “Very eloquent,” opined Fred. “Are you considering a run for the Senate?”
“ We’ve heard that this child can absolve all our sins,” said the spokesman, “and make everything right again.”
“Miracle child,” cried his companion. “I’m sorry I conned poor people into buying mortgages, and then sliced up the mortgages into really strange paper things that I suckered investors into buying. If you bail me out I’ll promise never to do that again. I have some really exciting plans in the works to sell derivatives based on used toilet paper futures…”
“No, absolve me,” said the third one, “I promise that we’ll cancel the Hummer line and really make cars that meet the minimum emission standards set twenty years ago. Honest Injun. And the conglomerate I run will stop commercializing culture and give real art a chance to flourish.”
“And a chicken in the pot for every family,” said the spokesman. “I speak for both Major Parties when I promise that. And no more idiots will be allowed to run the White House for the foreseeable future. Here, give these gifts to little Manny and beg him to save our bacon. We take our leave.”
And the three men walked off into the night. The star that had guided them to the Mertz’s garage shone brightly in the sky and Harvey, the baby, stared at his presents but didn’t try to open them. After a while he began to cry.
If you enjoyed this little tale go to www.theDevilandGeorgeBush.com to hear the new musical satire that skewers the great Decider, idiotic celebrity culture, reality shows and lots more. It’s free and it’s hilarious. Starring Kevin Corbett of Capitol Steps as the lamest of the ducks. "Way better than Carter," says one fairly well informed classical music critic.