5 November 2012: composer Elliott Carter died at 103.
5 December 2012: composer Dave Brubeck died at 91 years old.
Taking five from writing on literature, I shift my attention to mark time with the passing of these two American icons. The two men couldn’t have been more different yet alike.
East Coast by birth, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was thoroughly grounded in European musical tradition, drawn to music after hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a student of Charles Ives (1874-1954) and at Harvard University, and further educated in music in Paris under Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), and who enjoyed a long, prolific career, with compositions flying off of his stand well after the centenary mark.
Dave Brubeck (1920- 2012) had more humble aspirations and beginnings: West Coast boy, son of a rancher. He struggled to read music. His brothers were the musicians but he was fast-tracked to become a vet for his father’s ranch. He learned music from his mother. A chance encounter and a fun night at the piano for the Red Cross during World War II started him on the musical road. A shy and quiet man, spiritually affected by his war experiences and physically damaged by a near-fatal swimming accident, Brubeck’s music blazed with unique tones and time signatures.
Where the two men share a common point is in their not having adhered to dogmatic theory. Brubeck and Carter shared the influence of Charles Ives; and this translated into experimentation with melody, with polyphony, the combining and recombining of melody like DNA strands, and in massive polyphony or “mega-counterpoint.” Carter witnessed it in Stravinsky and Brubeck encountered it in Ives’s music. Ives is why both men would become so innovative with rhythm. They understood that listeners “felt” and “heard” the beat. Musical time is the number of beats in a measure. 4/4 is the prevalent tempo in jazz, blues, and country western music. The top number tells you how many notes are in one measure. The bottom number tells you what note value gets one beat. In 4/4 time, there are four beats in a measure and each quarter note gets its own number. In 5/8, there would be 5 beats per measure and each eighth note gets its own number.
Brubeck is associated with jazz, but what is jazz? It is indigenous and quintessential American music, along with the blues and ragtime; it’s a blend of African rhythms, European instruments, mostly from military marching bands, and harmonic constructs that had its variants as musicians across the U.S. riffed on musical structure. Along came Brubeck who tweaked jazz’s 4/4 with his Dave Brubeck Quartet and gave 5/4 time in his 1959 landmark composition, “Take Five.”
Eleven years earlier, Carter established his place in music with his Sonata for “Cello and Piano” (1948). Not jazz, but it is conversational, with a back-and-forth quality that is characteristic of concerto…and jazz, although at this time Carter became more introspective and wrote for himself. Carter offered daunting musical complexity from 1948 onwards, but what does he have in common with Dave Brubeck?
Go and listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring again and try to figure what had grabbed Carter by the ears. Answer? Stravinsky had experimented with time signatures throughout the piece. Another shared characteristic between these composers? From Stravinsky, Carter would layer musical patterns one on top of the other to create texture, drama, and a multiplicity of instrumental sounds playing in different signatures. The expectation is discordance, a mess, but the result is theatre. Carter, as I mentioned earlier, was prolific, but his gift for theatricality is evident in his string quartets and most particularly, in his concertos. Brubeck, who may not have had the eyes to read time, had an uncanny ear or foot for unorthodox time. Like Carter, he had different instruments playing different time signatures. “Kathy’s Waltz” has one instrument, the saxophone, in waltz time (3/4), the drums in 6/8, with an interlude by the piano in 4/4, before returning to the bass this time in waltz time as the drums continued in 6/8. It doesn’t sound as if it should work when described, but neither does Carter’s “Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano.” The harpsichord and piano each have their own orchestra, sharing only one instrument, the horn. It shouldn’t but it does work…that’s drama.