Local polymetric structures in Elliott Carter’s 90+ for piano (1994)

Author: Poudrier, Ève

Publication details: Modernist legacy: Essays on new music, edited by Björn Heile, Aldershot, 205-223. England: Ashgate, 2009.

Weblink: https://taylorfrancis.com

Abstract: At the heart of early musical modernism was a desire to face the challenges of a rapidly changing way of life brought about by scientific discoveries, technological advances and industrialization with radically new forms of musical expression that reflected the experience of individuals coming to grips with an increasingly complex society. As Leon Botstein writes: ‘A heightened sensitivity to the isolation and alienation of the individual and a concomitant intensity of personal emotions accompanied the sense of newness and discontinuity that pervaded the first years of the century’. It is no surprise, then, that temporal stratification of the kind provided by the use of polymetre as structural device – that is, the layering of rhythmic strands based on two or more concurrent metric frameworks – emerged as an organizational strategy of choice in the practice of modernist composers, such as Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow and György Ligeti. In the music of the American composer Elliott Carter, rhythmic layering is associated with the use of simultaneous speeds generated by the subdivision of the temporal grid into two or more pulse streams: series of equally spaced time-points also known as pulses or pulsations. The composer’s concern for the perceptibility of contrasting rhythmic layers manifests itself in his use of ‘character-patterns’, the ‘association of intervals, metronomic speeds, polyrhythms and rhythmic characters used to dramatize the musical personalities of instruments and instrumental groups 206 and to make clear the stratification of texture’. The opening measures of 90+, a short piece for solo piano composed in 1994 as a birthday offering for the Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi, will serve to illustrate this.