Elliott Carter - Eight Pieces for four timpani

Elliott Carter
Eight Pieces for four Timpani

Florent Jodelet
Percussion solo

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

Eight Pieces for four timpani 1949-1966

At the end of the 1940s, Elliott Carter was attempting to find the elements of a musical thinking, to discover what the "fact of formulating musical statements" signified fundamentally, in particular in the Eight Pieces for four timpani (1949-1966), the String Quartet No.1 (1950-1951) and Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1949-1950), for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. One of those etudes, based on a single note, presents different types of attacks, forte and piano. Another is built entirely on a minor second, all the instruments successively transposing this interval… The limitation of material, in the image of a desert, constantly changes throughout the work, whereas the vocabulary and basic elements remain the same. "When I was writing a piece on a single note, I was seeking to give life to interrogations such as : what can be extracted from a single note? How to transform it into a piece of music? What can you do with a single chord? How is it that an instant of music has a sense?"And the choice of instruments, timpani or string quartet, implies further pushing the possibilities of dramatic contrast and interaction offered by their specific character. Thus all signification fits into a rhythm or a note.

The Eight Pieces for four timpani individualise a rhythmic approach. To the six pieces composed in 1949, two of which (IV and V) were published under the title Recitative and Improvisation, Elliott Carter added two new pieces, Adagio (III) and Canto (VI), with the help of percussionist Jan Williams, in 1966. The virtuoso writing, in counterpoint textures of crossed accents, essentially varies speed and accentuation with such complexity that these pieces were not at all intended for performance. But percussionists began to play them in public. "Hearing them, I was not at all satisfied, because I found they didn't succeed in making a clear distinction in pitches. Thus I went to Buffalo (New York) with a percussionist, and there, for three days, we carried out a quantity of experiments for succeeding in making the sonority more interesting." While Adagio and Canto call for pedal timpani, from the instrumental point of view, the musician diversifies the playing methods and uses the wooden handle of the timpani drumsticks (March, VIII), side drum sticks (Canto, VI) or sticks of felt and wood (Moto perpetuo, II). Saëta (I) is inspired by an Andalusian song, and Canaries (VII) by a dance from the 17th and 18th centuries.

By around 1944, Elliott Carter had become aware that "the interesting aspect in music par excellence was time, the way it passes". Acquaintance with the philosophy of Whitehead, literary works by Joyce, Eliot, Proust and Thomas Mann, Balanchine ballets, Eisenstein films and works by Charles Ives had a decisive influence on his thinking about time : "All technical or aesthetic consideration in music must really begin with asking the question of time." Various articles bear witness to this, in particular his analyses of works by Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions and Charles Ives in "The Rhythmic Basis of American Music" (1955) and "The Time Dimension in Music" (1965) and finally "Music and the Time Screen" (1976), in which Elliott Carter writes about four aspects of time borrowed from Charles Koechlin : pure duration (or passing/flow), psychological time (or the duration relative to circumstances of life), measured time (by mathematical means), and musical time, creator of a counterpoint between measured time and the psychological time of illusion, projected into pure duration. The modulation of tempo, or metric modulation, introduced for the first time in the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948), was to ensure a continuity between the conceptions of time, and the musical flux could constantly unfold and evolve in an apparently natural way.

The Eight Pieces for four timpani are a step along the way of this metric modulation. The origin of this writing technique is found not in jazz but in the music of Stravinsky and the theories of Joseph Schillinger, who suggested the possibility of beating a four-beat bar as if it were in three and inversely, so as to obtain a sort of polyrhythm. Elliott Carter also mentions the works of Henry Cowell and Charles Ives, Chopin and Scriabin, but especially music of the Renaissance and the English composers of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. At the beginning of the 17th century, John Bull, organist, virginalist and organ builder, inserted in his works seven notes in a three-beat bar, then, in an improvised manner, made another rhythm arise from those seven notes. In other words, the musician uses his polyrhythms as the starting point for other polyrhythms, thereby obtaining a rhythmic dimension in constant evolution, according to a process found in the variations of Beethoven's late piano sonatas. And Elliott Carter reminds us that the rhythm of our breathing differs from the rhythm of our heartbeat, and that each of them is subjected to change.

In his article "Music and the Time Screen", Elliott Carter takes an example drawn from the seventh of the Eight Pieces for four timpaniCanaries : "The left hand maintains a regular beat, not participating in the modulations, playing the low notes B and E at the slow speed of MM 64, while the right hand, on F and C sharp, goes through a whole series of metric modulations, which imperceptibly increase the playing speed. Beginning in the same speed as the left hand (MM 64 for the dotted quarter note), the right hand substitutes, as of the second bar, quarter notes for dotted quarter notes (MM 96). In the third bar, these quarter notes are accentuated by two, then change into triplets (MM 144). At the double bar, the notation changes in such a way that the quarter note in triplet in the previous measure now equals a quarter note, which then goes through exactly the same acceleration as in the previous three measures. We have thus gone from MM 64 to MM 216. In the twelfth measure, the process is repeated once more. The quarter note has arrived at MM 324, with a left hand, henceforth noted in sixty-fourth notes, which continues its beat at 64. The fact of maintaining two layers of rhythm - and in this specific case an unchanging beat against a gradual acceleration - will often reappear from my pen. But the essential thing is to note that, quite obviously, in a piece like this, constructed exclusively on four pitches, the important thing is, with such minimal material, to succeed in creating contrasts, building ideas capable of conducting a large phrase, and constructing a valid form."

Born in New York on 11 December 1908, Elliott Carter met Charles Ives in 1924. After studying music and literature at the Longy School and Harvard University (1926-1932), with Walter Piston, Gustav Holst and Edward B. Hill, he became a student of Nadia Boulanger and enrolled at the École Normale de Musique in Paris (1932-1935). Musical director of Ballet Caravan (1937-1939), he wrote criticism for Modern Music until 1946. From 1940 to 1942, he was professor of music, Greek and mathematics at St John's College, Annapolis (Maryland), and worked in the Office of War Information (1943-1945), before teaching successively at the Peabody Conservatory (1946-1948), Columbia University (1948-1950), Queens College (1955-1956) and Yale University (1960-1962), finally being appointed professor of composition at the Juilliard School of Music (1964-1984). At the same time, he participated in numerous seminars, particularly in Salzburg, Dartington, Tanglewood, Avignon and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Recipient of the highest international distinctions, including the Pulitzer (1960, 1973), UNESCO (1961) and Ernst von Siemens (1985) prizes, a Fellow of the Guggenheim and Ford Foundations and the American Academy in Rome, where he was composer-in-residence on several occasions, member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1956) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1963), the Berlin Akademie der Künste (1965) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1969), doctor honoris causa of numerous American and British universities (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Boston, Cambridge…), he is also a Commander in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1987) and Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1991). In 1998-1999, he composed What Next?, a one-act chamber opera on a libretto by Paul Griffiths.

Laurent Feneyrou

Florent Jodelet


Born in 1962, Florent Jodelet studied percussion with Michel Cals then with Jacques Delecluse at the Paris Conservatoire, where he obtained a First Prize in 1983. He completed his training with Jean-Pierre Drouet, also receiving tuition from Iannis Xenakis at the University of Paris and from Michel Zbar (in electroacoustic music). His taste for creation has led him to collaborate intensively with contemporary composers, and his concert career has enabled him to play numerous works: concertos for percussion and orchestra; solo pieces and chamber music, both in France and abroad.

In addition, he has built up a discography of the contemporary percussion repertoire with discs devoted to Philippe Fenelon, Michael Jarrell, Maurice Ohana, Kaija Saariaho and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Since 1988, Florent Jodelet has been soloist with the Orchestre National de France and since 1998, assistant-professor at the Paris Conservatoire.

Set of 5 Adams Symphonic Timpani



Elliott Carter 1908-2012

Eight Pieces for four Timpani 1950-1966 (première partie)
Improvisation (Piece V)
Moto Perpetuo (Piece II)
Recitative (Piece IV)
Canto (Piece VI)

Eight Pieces for four Timpani 1950-1966 (deuxième partie)
Saëta (Piece I)
March (Piece VIII)
Adagio (Piece III)
Canaries (Piece VII)
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