On Aug. 8, this year’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music opens with a performance of Elliott Carter’s 1951 String Quartet No. 1. Carter was a quintessential East Coast composer, a Harvard man and a New Yorker. But the First Quartet is a western. Carter wrote it on a self-imposed sabbatical in the Arizona desert; it was a stylistic breakthrough. “I decided for once to write a work very interesting to myself,” he said.
During his sojourn, Carter reconnected with another composer, this one in permanent exile. Conlon Nancarrow fought in the Spanish Civil War with the leftist, anti-Franco Abraham Lincoln Brigade; in 1940, with the United States government refusing passport renewals for his fellow Brigade veterans, he moved to Mexico. Carter visited Nancarrow (with whom he previously had taken a few Spanish lessons), bringing back a score of Nancarrow’s “Rhythmic Study No. 1” — which Carter had published, to Nancarrow’s surprise — as well as new ideas about rhythm.
For both men, self-imposed isolation led to profound advances in musical time. Nancarrow’s ideas, full of exotic, irregular rhythmic ratios, musical layers moving at different speeds, were so complicated that Nancarrow had taken to realizing them by hand-punching player-piano rolls. Carter, too, was fascinated by independent tempi, developing a shifting metrical pulse to keep the layers in constant flux, a perpetual upbeat — techniques first fully explored in his First Quartet.
Carter returned to the East Coast and the classical-music establishment, his new style cementing his place in the postwar avant-garde. Nancarrow remained outside that loop, staying in Mexico; only in the 1970s would his music begin to be widely known and appreciated. For all their divergences in style, the two composers maintained a friendship, one commemorated in the First Quartet: The final movement opens with an echo of Nancarrow’s “Study No. 1,” a nod and a wave from a pilgrim to an anchorite.
The New Fromm Players perform Carter’s String Quartet No. 1,
Aug. 8, 6 p.m., Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. 888-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org