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Elliott CARTER (born 1908)
A Labyrinth of Time
Directed by Frank Scheffer
Region Code: All zones
NTSC Picture Format: 4:3 Dolby Digital 2.0

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At the age of nearly ninety-eight, native New Yorker Elliott Carter is an utterly astonishing man. For seventy years Carter has pursued his uncompromising compositional path. For many years the journey was a particular lonely one as he pioneered an unswerving modernist aesthetic to a largely unsympathetic audience both in the USA and internationally. Only in comparatively recent years has he come to be deservedly recognised as one of the towering greats of late twentieth century music. Fortunately this recognition has coincided with a glorious Indian summer of inspiration and, two years from his hundredth birthday, Carter is as musically and intellectually alert as ever.

Film director and Frank Zappa enthusiast Frank Scheffer first became involved with Carter in 1982, his initial curiosity stemming from an interview in which Zappa expressed his admiration for the work of the elder statesman. A subsequent visit to the 1982 Holland Festival at which Carter was the featured composer was soon to provide Scheffer, then about to graduate from the Dutch Film Academy, with the determination to capture Carterís extraordinary life in film.

As Charles Rosen aptly points out early on in the film, one of the fascinating elements of Carter is his now solitary link with a world that no longer exists. His friendship with such figures as Charles Ives and Edgard VarŤse provides a fascinating and illuminating link to the past. His essentially classical training, most notably with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, helped ensure that his doctrine was and remains very much European in its outlook. As Rosen puts it, Carter synthesises the traditions of the early and late twentieth century whilst bridging the Atlantic in a way that no other composer before or since has achieved.†

At various points in the film Charles Rosen, Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez contribute their thoughts on Carter and his work although it is Carter himself that provides the narrative thread running throughout. It is a narrative that whilst leaving no doubt as to Carterís well known intellectual rigour, paints a picture of a charming, humble and thoughtful man who is deeply concerned that his work serves to reflect the tolerant society that he hopes can one day be found. An appropriate sentiment given what could be considered the parallel levels of complexity in both Carterís music and the socio-political climate of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

The passage of the film takes us on a journey that commences with Carterís earliest recollections of the outbreak of the First World War and a New York prior to the domination of the motor car. Sunday afternoon visits to spend time discussing music with ďMr IvesĒ are charted whilst Carter is seen reliving his time spent in Paris under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger. This was a relationship that originated from a suggestion by Walter Piston and which proved to be seminal in Carterís musical development, as the composer explains in some detail.

Considerable time is devoted to the rich seam of inspiration Carter has found in the latter years of his life, perhaps summed up in his only excursion into the world of opera, the one act What Next? Written as the composer approached the status of nonagenarian, the work is an astoundingly lucid summation of Carterís concerns with human interaction borne out in music and as such will always remain one of his most personal and striking works.††††

Numerous musicians closely associated with Carterís music play an integral part, amongst them the Arditti Quartet, pianist Ursula Oppens and cellist Fred Sherry. The discussions between composer and performer are always engaging but do not cross the boundary into technical analysis, rather concentrating on Carterís vision of how his music should be played; a one to one with Ursula Oppens on a passage from the Piano Concerto is particularly fascinating in this respect.

The most poignant moments in the film however are often personal ones. Carter lost his wife during the latter stages of filming (Scheffer subsequently inscribed his work to the memory of Helen Jones-Carter) and the footage that shows the composer and his wife in the New York apartment they occupied for many years reveals a couple deeply devoted to each other. As Carter relates, his wife was the only person who understood the requirements of being his secretary, hence she devoted her married life to looking after his affairs and allowing him maximum time for composition; devotion indeed.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

Frank Scheffer must be congratulated for a film that succeeds on two clear levels. Firstly Carterís life and work is captured with wonderful insight and warmth, placing his achievements in a historical context that reinforces his unique status in todayís musical world. Secondly, this is a hugely impressive piece of film-making in its own right. Imbued with a sense of atmosphere that remains from start to finish, the camera-work is beautifully done. This includes the occasional use of black and white footage of the composer and scenes of New York coupled with slow motion sequences that seem entirely natural given the composerís preoccupation with the passage of time and his well documented views on time in the context of his music.

The result is one of the most striking filmic composer portraits you are ever likely to see and comes with unreserved recommendation.

Christopher Thomas


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