The poet Richard Wilbur once compared the thought process to a bat that flies blindly about its cavern, knowing through the darkness exactly where the walls are; the difference in the brain is that in certain moments of concentrated thought, "a graceful error may correct the cave." So much of Carter's music seems exploratory -- not in an unfinished, experimental way, but rather as a conscious effort to test the boundaries and limits of all aspects of the aural experience. Within a certain harmonic system, for example, he might exploit the varied ways in which registral contrasts render the same pitches or intervals. His rhythmic processes stretch time into an elastic substance. In his Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for woodwind quartet (1950), Carter explores the sonic possibilities afforded by the instruments of a wind ensemble, producing a rich palette of textures and colors.
"Etude" usually implies that a work's actual or at least vestigial purpose is to serve as a technical study for the performer. Here, however, the "study" is directed toward the composer -- or, more accurately, his students. The work originated as a series of exercises for an orchestration class Carter taught at Columbia University in 1949. At the class' disposal was a quartet of woodwinds, for which the students were assigned to compose pieces. Apparently Carter, unsatisfied with the students' efforts, put chalk to blackboard to demonstrate a more imaginative set of possibilities. Each of Carter's sketches took as its basis a particular figure or concept and explored its coloristic and textural possibilities. Later, the composer developed these sketches into the now well-known Eight Etudes and a Fantasy.
The first etude in the group seems to provide some preliminary aural diagnostics. Within its 24 measures it bounces between the rafters and the basement of the instruments' ranges -- the flute's first gesture, for example, is a descending leap of more than two octaves -- while also devising various kinds of relationships between the voices: unison, imitation, etc. Some of the etudes are exercises in pure sonority. Etude III, marked Adagio possibile, consists of a long-sustained D major chord. Voices enter and exit seamlessly on different chord tones, demonstrating the various colors possible within very fixed parameters. This idea is taken a step further in Etude VII, which consists of articulations of a single note.
Some of the etudes are more figural in their focus. Etude II is comprised almost entirely of a single, dizzying, arching string of thirty-second notes. The germinal figure, which fills the better part of two measures, is passed from instrument to instrument, appearing at a different but consistent transposition in each voice. Carter's description of this etude sounds like one that might come from Messiaen: "four birds...sing as birds do, sporadically, the same song over and over." Strict rules govern Etude IV, a game in which every figure is a quick half-step motion followed by a rest. At times the instruments are lined up in a row so that a chromatic line runs though the ensemble, while at others the voices create intermittent parallelism or undulating crosscurrents. Etude VI is peppered with trills, flutter tonguing, and special fingering effects. The registral acrobatics and intricacy of coordination among the instruments in Etude VIII make it one of the most challenging pieces in the woodwind repertory. The concluding Fantasy takes shape as a fugue, the episodes of which recall various moments in the previous studies.