Although composer Ryan Carter’s monograph Chamber Works contains work largely written for acoustic chamber ensembles and solo piano, the influence of modern electronic audio technologies is never very far away. Carter is, in addition to a composer of “classical” music, a programmer and electronic sound artist, one of whose projects uses a video game controller to create real-time electronic music.
Carter is particularly interested in the ways that technology informs, and at times distorts, the way people listen to music. It’s an interest that surfaces in his third string quartet, Too Many Arguments in Line 17 (2010), which was inspired by the glitches and loops of a badly buffered video Ryan was watching. The piece, which was written for the JACK Quartet who perform it here, mimics the jerky playback of the video with seemingly randomly repeated phrases broken up by hiccups, skips and other rhythmic interruptions.
If Too Many Arguments in Line 17 is marked by discontinuities of rhythm Grip, Carter’s second string quartet, is marked by displacements of architecture. The piece, performed here by the Calder Quartet who commissioned it in 2006, features synchronous and asynchronous layers of sound built up from glissandi, overlapping sustained tones, and tremolo bowings and plucking.
When All Else Fails (2016-2017) is a work centered on the sonorous qualities and interplay of two prepared pianos and two percussionists. The pianos sound at times like marimbas, gamelans and chimes; the preparations additionally alter the instruments’ pitch to throw out a hint of microtonality. The gradually becomes polyrhythmic as the instruments’ tempos go in and out of phase. It’s a highlight of the album and is played with characteristic verve by Yarn/Wire, for whom it was written.
The single work for acoustic instrument and electronics is On the Limits of a System and the Consequences of My Decisions (2016) for fixed media, piano and interactive electronics. Carter envisioned the electronics as another sustain pedal for the piano; they account for the intermittent drones and glassy, bell-like simulacra of the piano part. This latter, played by Keith Kirchoff, is couched in fragmented phrases scattered nervously across the instrument’s registers.
Chamber Works also includes the simultaneously hesitant and exuberant solo piano work Errata (2010), which wittily recasts Carter’s technical limitations as a pianist into technical challenges for the performer (Emanuele Torquati), and Break (2018) for piano and cello.