Hearing The Stream of Thought

By D. L. Pughe

Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1


Elliott Carter

Two paths emerged in 20th century music, each of which echoed earlier traditions. One was a style of Neoclassicism prevalent in pre-World War II Europe that was intent on revitalizing the forms and techniques of Romantic music. The other was Expressionism, followed by twelve-tone Serialism, both of which grew out of the Romantic interest in exploring harmonic patterns and a completely abstract language of music. Elliot Carter began his career as a composer under the influence of the Neoclassic movement, and, while he was drawn to the emotional explorations of Expressionism, he explains its ominous undertones:

Many people felt—and I certainly was one of them (perhaps not rightly) that the whole German cult of hypertrophic emotion could have been held responsible for the kind of disaster we were witnessing then in front of our noses (certainly Brecht came to hold this view). This is why, in my opinion, many of us became interested for a time in neoclassicism as a way of “returning to reason” and to a more moderate point of view about expression, as well as to a more accessible vocabulary.


Ludwig Meidner – Berlin, 1916-1917

 Later, after studying Sigmund Freud’s works, Carter conceded that mental and physical violence were deeper problems of the 20th century than those found solely within Expressionism. And he also realized the Neoclassic aesthetic he had been pursuing was a reaction similar to sweeping things under the rug.


Serialism was not the logical solution for Carter. Where Serial composers focused on mathematical grounding and were heading toward electronic means to achieve their thoughts in sound, Carter wanted to go in a very different direction. He felt that European Serialism led to an arbitrariness that was emotionally remote. Serial music, he said:

resembles the turning of a kaleidoscope and usually produces not much more—or less—interesting results. Indeed it can be fascinating to listen to the total repertory of pitches, note-values, timbres, registers, and dynamics being touched on in rapid succession and from a point of view we are unaccustomed to. But the cumulative effect of this is self-defeating since neither the attention nor memory is appealed to. For who can decipher, by ear, the complexities of total serialism in most works of the sort?

By the early fifties Carter had moved away from Neoclassicism and felt the need for a creative breakthrough. He wanted to fuse the emotional with the intellectual in a new musical aesthetic. His String Quartet No. 1 became this transition point in his early works, and offers multiple views from which to understand the complexities of his music.


While in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, Carter had seriously explored counterpoint and became fascinated by the ways the voices crossed, combined or sang antithetical lines.



Nadia Boulanger

He began to experiment with various compositional forms based on counterpoint, unusual time markings, and drew on his experience with philosophical studies of temporal awareness. He wanted to find or rather regain his own distinct style amid a confluence of 20th century trends and in order to do so, he decided to remove himself entirely from the urban artistic milieu.


Elliott Carter fled to the Lower Sonoran Desert in Arizona. It was there, in isolation from the buzz of the metropolis, from the musical community and also from audience expectations, that he found what he considered his own true voice.

SonoranDesertThe Quartet was begun, he tells us, for his own satisfaction and out of an effort to understand himself.  One of the significant qualities of the Quartet No. 1 is it’s emotional range, the tangled evidence of Carter’s exploration of his feelings. In contrast to a formalist statement of musical concepts, it is full of vibrant expression as well as complex intellectual associations and ideas.


Prior to his time in Europe, Elliott Carter had grown disillusioned by the conservative mood in the music department at Harvard.   He turned to literature, philosophy, mathematics and the Classics, all of which came to influence his music in unique ways. And he became one of the very few university-based composers to have taught Greek, philosophy and mathematics as well as music.  He is eloquent in describing his own creative process, particularly how the underlying images in the String Quartet No. 1 are drawn from his literary and philosophical background. The piece has been referred to as the first musical composition of the 20th century which rivals the formal daring of Eliot, Joyce, Proust and Eisenstein.

It was Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain which provided the first powerful undercurrent to the String Quartet No. 1. As a Zeitroman, or novel about the passage of time, Mann wove a spellbinding allegorical tale that takes place in a remote alpine setting. Mann describes how the isolation and the natural rhythm of daily time change the characters notion of duration, and in particular how the phenomenon of a snowstorm can compress hours into minutes of experience. In the Sonoran Desert, Carter discovered a similar enchanted terrain, and began explorations of the natural habitat with his colleague Joseph Wood Krutch:

It was indeed a kind of ‘magic mountain’ and its specialness (for me) certainly encouraged the specialness of the Quartet as I worked on it during the fall and winter of ’50 and the spring of ‘51

The chapter of Mann’s novel that Carter found most compelling is called “By The Ocean of Time” where Mann writes:

It would not be hard to imagine the existence of creatures, perhaps upon smaller planets than ours, practicing a miniature time-economy…And, contrariwise, one can conceive of a world so spacious that its time system too has a majestic stride…

Carter’s String Quartet No. 1 embodies these complex and contrasting ideas of time. First, in designing the sections of the piece, Carter designates four movements (Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole, Adagio, and Variations) but only three are discernible.  Often the pauses within the movements themselves are longer than those between movements, disorienting the normal expectations for the flow of the piece. Then, utilizing his background in counterpoint which he acquired in Europe, Carter built the first movement as a contrapuntal fantasy of four main and several subsidiary themes each of which is in a different speed and character. He explains that the first violin has intervals of the minor third, perfect fifth, major ninth and major tenth which is in contrast to the rhythm. The second violin is more regular with metronome markings of 140, 70 and occasionally 280. The viola has rhythmic relationships in 2:3 and 3:5 ratio. And the cello has no predicable tempo but has what Carter calls ‘accelerandos and ritards built in.’


Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist artist and filmmaker, also played an influential role in Carter’s notions of time in the Quartet. His film Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of A Poet) shows the repetitive slow-motion image of a tall brick chimney being demolished from an explosion set below. In the film, the action is repeated again and again, but suspended in mid-fall and only at the end of the film do you see the chimney collapse finally on the ground.


Jean Cocteau – The Blood of A Poet

The concept of suspended time is a fascinating one, and in the String Quartet No. 1., Elliott Carter explores the difference between external time and the dream time of the repeated image. Instead of a chimney, Carter opens with a cadenza that leads to others and then the original reappears as a flashback at the end to create a circular rather than linear sense of time. He was also interested in how the speeding up or slowing down on themes would affect the piece. In the last movement he uses a set of variations consisting of several ideas that become slightly faster with each repetition until they reach the ‘vanishing point,’ or as Carter writers, “Until they can no longer be perceived as the same idea.”


Of the philosophers influential to Carter’s Quartet, Alfred North Whitehead, helped to form his ideas about the organic patterns of thought. When experiencing the natural ecology of the Sonoran Desert, he grew fascinated by the interconnected web of natural life there. The complexity of the number of creatures and forces of nature is echoed in Carter’s layered approach to his composition. William James’ concept of the ‘stream of consciousness,’ as it is employed in the controlled manner of James Joyce, was also an important aim of the String Quartet No. 1. as Carter explains:

…whereas a painter is dealing with a flat, static surface, the musician is working with a constantly flowing stream of sound—so that how you make the stream flow and what obstacles you put in to stop it from flowing or to modify the flow, and so on, become fundamental, and this is what I’m trying to deal with.


As a precursor to phenomenology, William James was fascinated by the perceptual possibilities beyond those predicated on reason alone.


William James – Streams and Fringes of Consciousness on the Horizon

And James notion of ‘fringes of awareness’ ties both to Carter’s ‘vanishing point’ and to the phenomenological concept of the ‘horizon’ of all thought. When Carter was composing his string quartet on the Sonoran Desert, the horizon became an important metaphor in his work:

Like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written, the First Quartet presents a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters—one woven into the other or emerging from it—on a large scale.

The literal phenomenon of the horizon corresponds to the more abstract concepts of horizontal and vertical composition developed by Carter. He describes how this grew to a creative strategy:

What began to interest me was the possibility of a texture in which, say, massive vertical sounds would be entirely composed of simultaneous elements having a direct and individual horizontal relation to the whole progress or history of the piece—that is, simultaneous elements, each of which has its own way of leading from the previous moment to the following one, maintaining its identity as part of one of a number of distinct, simultaneously evolving, contributory thought-processes or musical characters.

Carter achieves this effect in his String Quartet No. 1 with an ‘all-interval’ four-note chord which he uses:

vertically to join all the intervals of the work into a characteristic sound whose presence is felt “through” all the very different kinds of linear intervallic writing. This chord functions as a harmonic ‘frame’ for the work…(like) a linguistic frame which makes all the events and details of a piece of music feel as if they belong together and constitute a convincing and unified musical continuity.

Carter also borrowed musical ideas from fellow contemporary composers Conlon Nancarrow and Charles Ives. Nancarrow’s rhythmic idea from his First Rhythmic Study is quoted at the beginning of the Variations movement of the String Quartet No. 1. And Charles Ive’s opening theme from his First Violin Sonata is played on the lowest register of the cello after each of the other instruments has entered near the beginning of the Quartet.[vi] Similar to Schumann’s quotations of Beethoven, Carter quotes his colleagues works as a homage to their music and with respect to the conversations they shared during his writing of the piece.

Another significant feature of Elliott Carter’s approach to this works is that each instrument has its own character, or ‘character-structures’ as he calls them.[18] Unlike Serial and Minimal composers who might deny the quality of sound implied by certain instruments, Carter acknowledges their tendencies. He believes that each instrument is suggestive of musical sonorities and musical behavior. He conceives of his works as a dialogue between the instruments, and, similar to all discourse:

there must be areas of overlap and interchange as well as points of divergence. Thus in my music there is a kind of ongoing dialectic of affirming and contradicting the character of the instruments involved, which nonetheless have an organic relation to the character of the musical ideas and to the formal-dramatic conception of the whole work in each case.

Where the warmth of the strings in Mozart’s Minuet implies a consonant family, Carter’s dissonant strings in his String Quartet No. 1 portray a family of richly complex characters, each with their own accumulated experience. Their conversation is full of discontinuity and divergence. And you find, rather than an imagined group of individuals, each instrument blurs into threads of thought within your head. Similar to Joyce’s convergence of subconscious inner language and outer speech in Ulysses, Carter captures the interplay of stimulus as it forms pre-introspective thoughts which then melt into each other like dissolving views. He describes for us William James’ ‘felt time’ in which moments coexist and overlap.  And the instruments, rather than collaborating in a discussion with question and answer, instead interrupt, override, exclaim and disappear. The Quartet suggests the modernist fragmentation and thirst for meaning forever complicated by alternating hopefulness and despair.


The Quartet opens with deep mournful descriptions of the cello full of exclamatory remarks, interrupted by the plucked violin, which is more absently going about a repetitive task. Then the second violin floods in with its own lamenting high-pitched narrative, while the viola separately rushes around offering fleeting comfort. From this beginning one realizes that these are thoughts rather than personalities, and they change so rapidly you recognize the ‘felt time.’ Challenging ideas appear followed by nagging worries. Hopeful glimpses of color and light arise alongside dismaying everydayness, and then everything is shot through with slow bullets of doubt. Contradictions abound and merge: the urgency of passion coalesces into the hurriedness of deadlines, and an unexpected moment of insight arises within a banal gesture. Collisions of feeling are collapsed into sound where you reach for an eloquent quote and grasp a childhood rhyme, where you ache for meaning, a moment of truth, and find instead a fleeting instant of regret.

These are unfiltered and uncertain thoughts and emotions. Sometimes they resemble the creeping images of hypnagogic silence, crawling towards you shadowy and indistinct, luring you to sleep. Then dark, strident and insistent shapes of sound invade your dreams. There are singular moments of abjectly beautiful harmony, a collective recognition, sometimes followed by tender by almost painful reminisces. The palpable tension created by the different speeds and rhythm of each instrument grows and grows in the high strings and punctuated by the heavier voices, it becomes more urgent, grasping and then languorous, slowly forgetful. You find you are being held by the music for a split second of time: illusionary arms captivate you in the rush of sounds. In the final movement, the variations illustrate how an idea will unthinkingly repeat itself, turning over, twisting, transforming, and becoming something else. There are very few moments of stability where one can regain a foothold or clue. Instead you find yourself clinging by your teeth. The seemingly casual trills find you fumbling for coherency just as a new insect-like swirling onslaught of sound encircles your thoughts. Then presto they’re gone. Carter has wholly captured the ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ of unmediated experience described by William James.  The piece ends with a slow high-pitched sigh which hints that nothing truly stops: the sounds simply subside and recede to the back of your mind. They linger there and could return again. And again.


Elliott Carter tried to give his dramatic musical events no decipherable exterior shape: The end result is a complex assembly of facets of experience. They are deeply personal but as they involve us in their messages, we find instants we recognize. The seams between moments, between movements and between ourselves and the music are obscured to the point that all our barriers are drawn down. It allows us to dwell for a time not on our consciousness, but within it.


About D. L. Pughe

Freelance writer and artist. https://thedreamofknowledge.com/about/
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