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Radiant Tale-Telling

New York
The DiMenna Center for Classical Music
09/20/2023 -  
Richard Carrick: Atlas
Either/Or: Richard Carrick (Founder/Piano), Jennifer Choi, Pala Garcia (Violins), Kal Sugatski (Viola), John Popham (Cello)

R. Carrick (© Mark Davies)

But how could you live and not have a story to tell?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, White Nights

Two words encapsulate my experience of Richard Carrick’s Atlas. Elation and euphoria. True, confess to a certain wariness in going to DiMenna Center. While not having heard Mr. Carrick’s own compositions, he had founded and led his Either/Or ensemble in over 300 works, ranging from the aleatoric to the Boulez‑style controlled. All challenging, few worthy of elation. And the idea that the composer would use the insides of the piano was not intriguing. Two weeks ago, I had heard Adam Tendler play the Sonatas of John Cage. One session of prepared piano was enough.

Add to this Mr. Carrick’s peregrinating history. Born in France of Algerian-Anglo parents, an enduring relationship with Rwanda, Korea and the most eclectic worlds, a pianist and conductor... What strange voices would he bring to Atlas?

Verbally, his own answer was “Tales of exploring, belonging, revisiting...”

Musically, the nine sections of this hour‑long piece was a single word: ostinato.

Atlas ensemble

Mr. Carrick set a particular rhythm on the piano wires, and his Either/Or quartet of violins, viola and cello would either continue or remain silent, varying, transforming, transmogrifying, fattening or diminishing these rhythms. Their playing was serious enough, as befitting such technically skilled artists. Mr. Carrick sat at his keyboard with a Cheshire Cat smile, enjoying the “stories”, tending to his Either/Or flock with care, delight and, yes, elation.

In a way, while sweeping his inner piano, with a combination of brushes, drumsticks, tiny hammers, miniature brooms, his was the opposite of John Cage’s prepared piano. Cage relished the tiniest motives, the most infinitesimal sounds as worlds-in-themselves. Mr. Carrick relished the repetitions, the chance to have his musicians embellish, modulate, actually metabolize the original notes into sounds both gorgeous and grotesque.

And what were those nine ostinati? They seemingly had little to do with their titles. The opening Compass was twanged with the simplest three-note motif, extended then with increasingly complex ensemble pizzicatti, as if to say, “Nice, Mr. Carrick, but listen how we take those notes.

The following Seagliss started with string glissandi screams, but modulated to strings charitably evocative as feral-felines-in-heat. Comparisons are (in Shakespeare’s word) “odorous.” But this was a 21st Century replica of Maurice Ravel’s Duo miaulé, the cat duet from L’Enfant....

Mr. Carrick continued in Penumbra, with rhythm that could have been Brazilian or Ethiopian, a pleasing repeated motive, taken up with gusto from the ensemble. It was a cryptic melody both foreign and familiar. Only later did I read that it was a 6/4 rhythm, “Referencing the music in the film El Gust, of an Algerian Chaabi band made up of Muslims and Jews.”

Who knew? And–-outside of the wondrous image–Mr. Carrick had created a music far far away from verbal or painting images.

The other six sections produced similar tonal tales from the rare solo piano–resonating with harmonic pedal–, to an inner‑piano Hungarian cembalo. (Liszt would have been envious. “Why didn’t I think of that?”) Even, for one section, a mélange of sounds where some 18th Century cadences peeped through the 21st Century fabric.

The climax was predicable. The ensemble came together for a riotous anarchy, yet somehow, paradoxically, a harnessed anarchy, constrained by Mr. Carrick’s piano both inside and outside.

The result was structurally elementary. And impossibly complex. At its core, though, Atlas was a music of joy. A celebration of tales‑told, inspiration and sheer luminosity.

Harry Rolnick



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