Robert Carl: A Sound-Mirror Held to the World
By Kyle Gann
When people used to ask the young Charles Ives what he played - meaning what musical instrument - the precocious organist/baseball player would wryly answer, "Shortstop." I suspect that it's with that same bemused self-concealment that Robert
Carl calls himself a "Midtown" composer. In the long-hallowed politics of the Manhattan music scene, "Uptown" refers to the cerebral composers of 12-tone and atonal music in the universities; "Downtown" to the T-shirt clad guitar-bangers and pattern-repeating minimalists who play in informal lofts. But "Midtown" refers to the neoromantic symphonists who stick closest to the European classical tradition, and Carl is a long way from that tradition. I see him metaphorically as a bridge, arching the distance from Uptown to Down- without really touching down in the middle. And yet - his musical center hovers somewhere over Midtown.
After all, Carl's pitch language remains basically angular, atonal, classically modernist. And yet his music is only occasionally abstract in the modernist mode. More often, it shows a passionate engagement with the world, and not just the world of culture, but
this whole problematic fin-de-siecle period - especially the music on this recording, which documents what one could call the wilder, more referential side of Carl's output. The world music influence on Roundabout, the dogs barking in El Canto de los Asesinados, the
jazzy improvisation of Lesgedowdaheah, the homey tunes on decrepit piano of Nell Miller, Op. 1 - these elements come not from traditional musical language but from a desire to deal with the wider world artistically. This is a "Downtown" trait, and Carl's electronic works especially would feel right at home in the lofts of Downtown Manhattan. And yet, listening to details of musical construction and phrasing, it's difficult to forget that Carl once did his dissertation on the craggily dissonant Sun-Treader by Carl Ruggles, with its leaping intervals and unsingably angular lines.
The tension is certainly audible in Roundabout: a meditative work, reflecting from a Western perspective on the sound and techniques of Indian sarangi playing (the sarangi being a short-necked, bowed string instrument). Complexly harmonic, room-shaking drones and virtual drumbeats were synthesized on a Synclavier II keyboard. The double bass merges with its background - the purpose of Indian tuning, after all, is "to become one with the drone" - and yet the bass's slowly evolving melodic line, drones aside, is classically atonal, circling sets of chromatic pitches and leaping in sevenths and ninths.
El Canto de los Asesinados (Song of the Murdered Ones) is something else altogether - a setting of a Garcia Lorca poem, ironically celebrating the death and funeral of the moon, fused with an image of those who are mysteriously murdered, whose disappearances are kept secret. Carl's master stroke is to have couched such dark images in the context of a children's clapping game, abstracted from its Andalusian origins into a subtle rhythmic process and dotted with simple melodies of "Do Re Mi." The work's menacing opening of electronically altered dog barks was inspired by the pack of wild dogs that prevented Carl from visiting Lorca's house in Grenada. Somehow the shaman's intoning of the poem and the saxophone's angular line fuse into a single voice.
Bells Dance, Drums Ring is quieter, with reverberating sonorities that hover in the air (bringing the late work of Olivier Messiaen to mind) colliding with drums in ever-changing patterns. The idea here is of diverse weather patterns that come together to
create new conditions, resulting in simultaneous layers of rhythm worthy of Charles Ives.
The Haiku of Buson show Carl's versatility as a tone poet, painting the ancient Japanese verses with the lightest of touches. The poems are clearly chosen for their sonic imagery, and the sounds spring from the images. Between the sixth and seventh is a quiet
shakuhachi improvisation by Carl himself, perfectly in keeping with the spirit.
From the eternal concerns of the Haiku we swing to the very temporal exigencies of Lesgedowdaheah, a kind of wordless satire in response to Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" of 1994 - and not a very approving response, either. Something on the
crescendo pattern of Ives's Central Park in the Dark, Lesgedowdaheah starts in a slow continuum of drones and repeated figures, with plenty of grumbling and angry anticipation before the riot breaks out. Once it does, individual improvisation breaks loose within a
groove-based setting. What's really interesting, though, is how close many of the angry lines that burst out, like calls from competing congressmen, are to quoting Sun-Treader's stentorian opening melody.
And then, from the political to the natural. Die Berliner Hornisse (The Berlin Hornet) is an update on Rimsky-Korskov's Flight of the Bumblebee in late 20th-century terms. The first movement buzzes through chromatic lines in the sax, with tremolo and
multiphonics, while the pianist hums and plays lightly on the strings (and on the closed lid of the keyboard). By the second movement, the hornet has clearly been disturbed, and starts
leaping through Coltranesque sheets of sound.
I've swept through these pieces rather quickly because the key to them all lies in the disc's last piece. Made through sampling live sounds on the Synclavier, Nell Miller Op. 1 is an interview with Carl's grandmother in which she talks about musical conditions in
rural Alabama at the turn of the last century, intercut with examples of the music she invokes. On one hand, this is a charming search for Carl's Southern musical roots, but it's even more than that. "I imagined," says Nell, "that I could hear music in the trees, and in the
water, everything." "Did you ever try to recreate it on the piano?", asks Carl. "I did that all the time," the old lady replies.
And there we have the common thread to these pieces, and to so much of Carl's output. The music in the buzzing of the hornet; in the collision of weather patterns; in the uprising of aggressive politicos; in the barking of dogs - it all turns into Carl. His is an extroverted music in the strict Jungian sense, looking out into the world for its inspiration. Somehow he inherited from his grandmother a need to own the sounds of the world around him, to process them and turn them into his own means of expression. "I always wanted to be a musician," Nell muses, "which I never did have the opportunity... but I have produced a grandson that has done it for me.... And I can see him doing things that I wanted to do." As Charles Ives wrote the music his father wasn't destined to write, Carl has channeled the family desire to turn the world into music. The musical language he inherited for that purpose is Uptown, or at least modernist; the aim itself, especially when carried out more literally, is Downtown. And the unclassifiable result is entirely Robert Carl.
Kyle Gann, a composer, is Associate Professor of Music at Bard College, and has been new-music critic for the Village Voice since 1986.
Robert Carl (b.1954) studied composition with Jonathan Kramer, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, and Iannis Xenakis. His music is performed throughout the US and Europe, and is published by American Composers' Edition (73 Spring St.; NY, NY 10012), Boosey&Hawkes, and Roncorp, and Apoll-Edition. He has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, Tanglewood, Connecticut Commission on the Arts, Camargo Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Bogliasco Foundation, Djerassi Foundation, the Aaron Copland House, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the recipient of the 1998 Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Other CD releases of his work are found on Neuma, Koch International, Lotus, Centaur, Vienna Modern Masters, E.R.M., and The Aerial. Mr. Carl has written works for soloists Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Robert Black, contrabass; Kathleen Supové, piano; and John Bruce Yeh, clarinet, among others. He is a co-director of the Extension Works new music ensemble in Boston, chair of the composition department at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, and writes extensively on new music for Fanfare Magazine.