District5 needed a piece to work on while our fabulous hornist, Laura B, was recovering from her wisdom tooth surgery. I suggested “Let’s work on the Carter Quartet!!! It’s a great piece!” I admit I didn’t fully realize what we had gotten ourselves into! I wouldn’t consider this piece to be the most difficult piece District5 has worked on, but it has been one of the most maddening. Elliott Carter very brilliantly picked out the most challenging elements that a wind chamber group faces as an ensemble and then boiled them down to their most infuriating form. Carter very accurately labels the first 8 movements as etudes. An etude is: “an instrumental musical composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill.” And in fact, each etude in the quartet highlights a certain challenging element of wind playing.
We feel that one of District5’s fortes is our rehearsal techniques. Some of the music we have tackled as a group might possibly be the most difficult repertoire written for the wind quintet. In these pieces, we’ve been forced to find creative ways to solve issues our repertoire has presented. Carter’s 8 Etudes and a Fantasy proved to be the perfect test for our rehearsal methods.
Some of our techniques for this piece in particular have included:
● Recording ourselves and playing back at half speed to illustrate and enforce absolute precision
● Playing with the metronome on full blast!!
o this is not necessarily a technique that works for every piece—but it does for this one!
o putting the metronome so it is playing on the offbeat (really good for passages that need a ton of technical clarity)
● SINGING our parts!! All the time!!
● Transposing the movements into different keys and octaves (specifically movements 3 and 7)
o also works as a great warm up challenge
● Switching parts
● Slash marks on the beats ALL OVER the music (especially movement 4!)
The 8 Etudes:
Etude #1) It seems only natural the first note of the piece is unison, and thus a group’s intonation is on display from the very beginning of the first etude! It’s certainly a sign of more challenges to come! Wide intervallic leaps, distinct and varying articulations, and extreme dynamics call for an immediate consistency throughout the ensemble to make sense of what is on the page. Only once all directions are followed does the music sound intentional and organized to an audience member.
Etude #2) A 32nd note run consisting of 28 notes is passed around the quartet. Carter distorts the pulse of the movement by starting the run on different subdivisions of the beat. The run is passed off one instrument at a time but then is quickly placed closer and closer until it is played by all four instruments almost on top of each other. An intense feeling of pulse and technical precision is required for this movement.
Etude #3) This etude solely features a D major chord played mostly at piano. Carter gives instructions to have every entrance “sneak in” as quietly as possible. The difficulty lies in the changes of the voicing of the chord between the instruments. Your oboe player will love the slow tempo, especially when it comes to the low D…
Etude #4) There is only one rhythm played in this etude! Simple, right? Just a slurred two eighth note motif—but it gets passed around in rapid succession, mostly overlapping in patterns that feel unpredictable. Just looking at your individual part would not give you an immediate panicked reaction–similar to a cartoon character with question marks and exclamation points coming out of its head– like some music can– but this etude is a true test of rhythmic focus and consistency. You also must completely match the inflection of the eighth notes between registers and at a lightning fast speed. Basically– for this one, hang on for your life, and don’t dare miscount! Drawing slashes in your music for the beats may seem too elementary for you… but that micro-second of hesitation while counting rests can really send this etude spiraling out of control!
Etude #5) I really love this etude! It’s very contrasting to the other etudes because it has overtly expressive moments. Similar to Etude 1, Carter writes in the extreme ranges of the instruments in the individual parts. There are moments when the oboe and bassoon play in their highest range while the flute and clarinet play primarily in their lowest. Composers often write in the exact opposite registers for these instruments–therefore, the quartet must work harder to master the balance of the group.
Etude #6) For our group, we found that rhythmic precision in relation to the speed of tempo to be the biggest obstacle in this etude. There are also a few extended techniques such as flutter tonguing and harmonics that were somewhat revolutionary when Carter composed this piece in 1950. Of course, to this day most clarinetists will still not be thrilled to see that much flutter tonguing in the high register!
Etude #7) Woohoo!! Only one note!! There is only the note G. Intonation is of course an issue, exacerbated by the extreme rapid dynamic changes and interweaving timbres of the instruments—but overall this movement feels like a respite compared to the following etude…
Etude #8) Pure technical skill and evenness—It’s so…. fun. There are constant unison 16th note runs at a suggested tempo marking of quarter note=160. The 16ths notes are passed between all combinations of instruments (duos, trios, solos) through a range of dynamics. So technique, intonation, and blend are really put to the test in this movement. It’s like an eight-legged race (so four people whose legs are tied together) where each of you is wearing tennis shoes, ice skates, flip flops, and the other has no shoes at all. The slightest glitch in technique can easily throw off the flow of the movement. Given that each instrument has its own ergonomic and technical limitations— the absolute mastery of individual parts is absolutely essential for this movement. Our wonderful oboist, Alison, created a master version of this movement that has the run in its entirety written out for each instrument. Playing the movement with all parts included enhances the understanding of individual parts further than just an understanding of the score.
The Fantasy is an amalgamation of all the etudes combined with some new material, made more challenging by the addition of metric modulations to tie them altogether! Metric modulation is the crux of this etude, and miscalculations could lead you to tempos that can quickly derail the piece.
To summarize: This piece is difficult! This piece is awesome! This piece will likely make some member of your group want to walk out of the rehearsal. This piece will undoubtedly make your ensemble stronger if you master it.
Some of our upcoming blog posts will go deeper into rehearsal techniques and rehearsal etiquette- So stay tuned!