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Elliott CARTER (b. 1908)
A Labyrinth of Time

Directed by Frank Scheffer
Featuring interviews with Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and others.
Released 2004, filmed in New York with archival footage from Berlin, Paris and other locales.

Dutch film maker Frank Scheffer has devoted his life to making films about music and musicians. He has amassed an impressive catalogue of work covering some of the most significant composers and performers of the twentieth century and now the twenty-first century. This has included award-winning films on Mahler, Stravinsky and Boulez, among others. This documentary about American composer Elliott Carter, who is now 99 years old, is the result of collaboration between Scheffer and Carter spanning more than a quarter century.
Scheffer as a film-maker is part visual artist and part documentarian. His eye for captivating pictorial montage is superb. His melding of image and sound is astute and compelling, and there is a hint of influence from Godfrey Reggio, who is an undisputed master of slow motion, stop-action and accelerated motion photography, especially when connected to music. A number of the exterior scenes from around New York City are reminiscent of such films as Koyaanisqatsi.
This is not so much a film about Carter’s music as it is about Carter himself, and what drives the man to create. Although there are abundant samples of his work used throughout, Scheffer eschews the approach taken by Christopher Nupen by which we hear and see long segments of music filmed in concert. Instead, we see Carter in the creative process, as he physically writes a piece, and as he works with performers to bring the music to life.
This film is an interesting and helpful way to come to terms with Carter’s works. To simply sit and listen to a piece of music by this composer takes an effort. Some might say too much of an effort. And yet, as you listen to this gentle nonagenarian talk about his creative processes, how he came to learn his craft and what he is trying to tell the world through his music, one is compelled to put forth the work necessary to understand his music. What is most telling is the Carter’s utter lack of compromise in either his standards or in the manner in which he wants his music to be played. He is calmly insistent throughout rehearsal sequences and does not quit until he hears the music as he conceived it.
I often rail against episodic and disjunctive music in these pages, but there seems, at least in these samples - oft relegated to the background, and difficult to sort out from the conversations under which they are played - to be a high degree of structure in Carter’s work. What is most evident in all of the music heard here is Carter’s slavish devotion to counterpoint, a value instilled in him by Nadia Boulanger.
This film is more than just a pastiche of interviews by and about the composer interspersed with bleeding chunks of music. Rather, we get an intimate portrait of a gentle man and his lifelong dedication to his art, his wife and his city. It is haunting to see images of the World Trade Center before its destruction, and then to hear Carter’s reflections on that day and its effect on his own life and work. His 1997 opera What Next?, which deals with the aftermath of a calamitous traffic accident, eerily foreshadows the changes that the September 11 attacks had on New York City.
Ultimately, one must ask this question of such a film as this: “Does it inspire me to seek out this composer’s music?” The answer is clearly ‘yes’. If one were to have a criticism of Scheffer’s style it might be that the rather stark pace and dark hues that come to the fore cause the overall tone of the film to be a bit too dream-like. That said, I still found it captivating. It would have been nice to have had, in addition to the excellent essays in the booklet, a printed list of the musical selections and the performers involved. They are credited at the end of the film, but fly by so quickly as to make it a chore to assimilate the information for any kind of written documentation.
Kevin Sutton
see also review by Christopher Thomas


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