Sunday, September 24, 2017

Robert Carl: Crystallizing Time


The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes Robert Carl on September 29 for an artist talk and masterclass with graduate students. Currently chair of the composition department at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford (CT), Carl’s distinguished career began with an especially varied and extensive education, followed by performances at venues like Carnegie Hall, IRCAM, and New Music America, and awards, fellowships, and residencies from a surprisingly exhaustive list of major institutions.

Carl’s degree studies took place at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago. He also received a Lurcy Fellow for study at France’s highly regarded Conservatoire Nationale Sup√©rieure and Universit√© Paris-Sorbonne in 1980-81. His principal teachers included Iannis Xenakis, Betsy Jolas, Ralph Shapey, George Rochberg, Jonathan Kramer, George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Robert Morris—an unusually diverse group of composers, both aesthetically and geographically. He has received awards and fellowships from most major national American granting institutions (American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, and Tanglewood, and residencies from many of the most prestigious national and international residency sites (Copland House, Camargo Foundation, Bogliasco Foundation, Rockefeller International Study Center (Bellagio, IT), Youkobo ArtSpace, Tokyo Wonder, Site Yaddo, Djerassi Foundation, Ragdale Foundation, Ucross Foundation, and the MacDowell and Millay Colonies).


Carl’s early compositions cultivated dialogue between contrasting historical styles, perhaps most strikingly in the 1992 saxophone quartet Duke Meets Mort. This work takes harmonic commonalities between the musics of Duke Ellington and (former UB professor) Morton Feldman as a point of departure, imagining Ellington’s Mood Indigo in the musical voice of Feldman. In the video below, Carl speaks about this work.


In Carl’s recent work, reference to historical styles is less explicit and less specific. The 2008 Fourth Symphony constructs wave-like accumulations and dispersals of kinetic energy. The music emphasizes shifts in kinetic energy through interaction between textures distinct in rhythmic and melodic momentum; by approaching these two parameters, as well as harmonic rhythm, in counterpoint against each other, the piece achieves a multidimensionality of directional energies that is rare in post-tonal music. In the symphony, historical referentiality is hardly absent but is more diffuse than in the composer’s earlier work: Fourth Symphony converses with generalized symphonic conventions like four-movement form, figural/orchestrational topoi, and sweeping gestural rhetoric.

A common thread throughout Carl’s oeuvre is a focus on temporal experience. While the symphony emphasizes momentary shifts in density and momentum, the earlier saxophone quartet explores the implications of slowing down a historical musical material, subjecting it to (creatively imprecise) temporal magnification. In his artist statement, Carl writes that:
My work has always been concerned with time. At first this meant inventing musical techniques and forms that allowed for a peculiar flow of musical events, dynamic yet not always straightforward. Later, my "pre-musical" background as a historian reasserted itself, bringing more and more artifacts of my earlier life, earlier music, and other eras into my music, in a play of memory and shadow.
The composer thinks about time and temporal experience through concrete, even tactile metaphors:
For me, time is a substance both malleable and “crystallizable”. By shaping form in a manner similar to making a sculpture, I have found that I am able to create an ever-broader sense of space in my pieces, even when they are information-rich. As a result I hope that by creating a sense of amplitude into which the listener can enter, and trying to synthesize diverse historical elements, I can create something of a model for how s/he can cope with our increasingly fragmented, intense, and vertiginous experience of life today, and find a sense of energizing peace.
That “spatialization” of time is now allied in Carl’s practice to his exploration of harmony over the past 15 years (of which the Fourth Symphony is a prime example). He writes:

Tied into this sense of space, of rendering even complex events clear, is the way I’ve come to conceive of harmony in the last decade or so. I’ve been using “screens” of overtones from which to derive new harmonic combinations, and whose common partials create links for modulation. So far--it my ear at least--the result is a sound that’s fresh and satisfying. It also sounds “natural”, whatever that means. I do feel, however, that the flow and shape of my pieces is closer to natural phenomena than ever before, and the music is more “itself” than ever, with less need to symbolize something.


And having begun this practice with harmonic structures that follow overtone relations but remain in equal temperament, the composer as also begun a series of recent works to “unmask” the true relations with works that follow the same strategies but use just intonation.

Also active as a writer on new music, Carl has completed two books: an in-depth study of (former UB Creative Associate) Terry Riley’s minimalist masterwork In C, and a collection of essays on composition and new music entitled Survivable Music: The Emerging Common Practice. He also regularly contributes to Fanfare magazine and New Music Box. As editor, he completed his former teacher Jonathan Kramer’s Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, left unfinished by the late composer, and edited an issue of Contemporary Music Review on historicism in late 20th century American music. Carl’s writing spans a range of approaches, from academic musicology to more open-ended speculation on the realities of being a working composer: 
One world I live in is more scholarly, so it demands research, references, footnotes. Another is critical, intuitive and usually focused on a particular piece, artist, or some mix thereof. [Survivable Music] is something in between. …I’d like to think this is criticism in an elevated sense of the word, an examination of current musical practice, aesthetics, and possibilities, attempting to draw conclusions, and maybe shed some new insights…The form is the essay, the tone is that of a lecture, often very much off-the-cuff. Or perhaps it’s more precise to say these are journalistic dispatches from the aesthetic front.

To learn more about Robert Carl’s work, check out his interview with New Music Box below, or  visit his extensive website.


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