Carter at 100: Part 2

9. Night Fantasies (1980)

By the time Carter wrote Night Fantasies in 1980, the structural heterophony of the Sonata and Duo was an integral part of his musical personality. Night Fantasies was commissioned for four prominent pianists—Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen—each of whom experience with the composer’s mature style, having played the solo part in either the Double Concerto (harpsichord and piano) or the Piano Concerto, so they were well-versed in Carter’s style.

Writing for four distinctive artists, each of whom would play the piece in terms of their own personalities, seems to have given Carter to express the multiple musical characters of his earlier works through one instrument. The metaphor through which Carter realizes this internal heterophony is that of “fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night”.

The musical “thoughts and feelings” of Night Fantasies are indeed fleeting. The ca. 20 minute, one movement piece is composed of dozens of contrasting, highly-characterized episodes. These character-episodes appear like unbidden thoughts, only to vanish and reappear later, altered and juxtaposed with different episodes. The expressive arc of the piece moves rapidly between moods and contrasting shades of light and dark.

Night Fantasies is a treasure trove of techniques that came to occupy Carter during his late period and his current late late period. The harmonic world of Night Fantasies is built on a collection of 88 twelve-note all-interval chords. These chords are made of one of each of the twelve pitch-classes (All C#s are members of the pitch-class C#, for example; therefore, an twelve-note, all-interval chord would contain one-and-only-one C#) deployed in musical space so that there is one occurrence of each interval (there are eleven intervals between a unison and an octave, ranging from the minor second [one half-step] and the major seventh [eleven half-steps]). These chords span five-and-a-half octaves, which is less than two octaves shy of the range of the piano, accounting for one of the sonic characteristics of Night Fantasies—the music moves over the range of the piano at a dazzling rate. It glitters in the piano’s upper register while the shadows loom in the lower.

While the use of twelve-note all-interval chords facilitate the rhapsodic placement of character-episodes in different registers when they reappear later in the piece, Carter’s use of a large-scale structural polyrhythm provides a temporal grid (note that the “grid” is one of the most potent metaphors in Modernism) on which to project the fantasies of the music. A cross-rhythm of 216 beats against 175 beats plays out over the 20 minute span of Night Fantasies—every beat sounds, but almost none of them are emphasized. Since the beats move at slightly different speeds, the temporal relationships between them are constantly changing, so the relationships between the various character-episodes are always changing.

None of this is meant to be “heard” on the surface of the music, like themes and motives would be. Rather, the chords and the cross-rhythms provide an underlying structure for the 20 minutes of flights of fancy and nocturnal rumination. It is often in this tension between technique and inspiration that one finds the frisson of artistic discovery.

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

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