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A creation of the composer’s lengthy “late phase,” as the Elliott Carter expert par excellence David Schiff terms it, Triple Duo (composed in 1982) already clues us in via its witty title to the strain of quirky playfulness that emerges from its complicated high jinks. Indeed, the opening gambit, with its mock warming up as the players metaphorically clear their throats, gives us a spritz of ultra-modernist Haydn. Schiff characterizes the Carter of this vintage as tending “toward an ever-greater lucidity.” Triple Duo was commissioned for The Fires of London and premiered in April 1983.

What is above all a Carter signature, Schiff points out, is the music’s need to speak in “plural voice.” Triple Duo’s six musicians are grouped into three pairings or duos: flute and clarinet, violin and cello, and percussion and piano (the last given a defining structural role in articulating the form). Each of these duos inhabits its own sphere as defined by timbre, characteristic intervals, harmonic features, and rhythmic patterns. Schiff neatly captures the distinctions: “the woodwinds gurgle, shriek, and coo like a pair of amorous love birds, the strings scrape and pluck comically, and the percussion and piano evoke the more angular variety of free jazz.”

 But this doesn’t make for a predictably schematic division of labor: over the two-part work’s uninterrupted span of 20 minutes, the volatile ways in which Carter cross-cuts their highly contrasting domains generates an enormous sense of drama and energy. At times the duos also join forces to create a larger combined entity (particularly in the unearthly beauty of the central part of the work). Commencing, like Éclat, with a gesture from the piano, Triple Duo splices together sections we’re used to encountering in a linear progression in conventional classical works. Schiff remarks that the musical layout resembles pieces from an Allegro, Adagio, and Scherzo that have been “chopped up and pasted together, a fine example of cinematic influence.” Carter’s focus on the material nature of the sonorities in each duo’s “repertory,” he adds, results in an “engagingly tactile quality.”

The piece eventually reconfigures its unusual contrapuntal perspective into an Allegro fantastico finale in which Schiff recognizes “an abstraction and magnification of jazz: ultra-bop.” Carter’s writing for the ensemble reaches a conclusion of delirious joy that stands apart in his oeuvre. In a survey of a century of the Pierrot chamber ensemble, the musicologist Will Robin considers Carter’s treatment of his instrumentation “a classic example of Schoenberg avoidance,” evincing “an entirely different kind of mania from Pierrot.”

- Thomas May