The Anatomy of a Song: Text and Texture in Elliott Carter's

"O Breath"


Brenda Ravenscroft


In an interview with Charles Rosen in 1983, Elliott Carter explained his interpretation of "O Breath," the sixth song in his 1975/76 song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell: "There was a poem about breathing, for instance. I made an accompaniment which sounded like one kind of breathing, a very slow rhythm that faded in and out, and juxtaposed against it a rather hysterical kind of breathing for the singer."1 Clearly the "slow rhythm" of the eight-instrument ensemble is intended to represent the regular breathing of the sleeping person described in Elizabeth Bishop's poem, and the soprano is meant to be the voice of the speaker in the poem.

Two compositional principles are apparent in Carter's statement about "O Breath." Firstly, music and text are closely related: Carter's musical choices are guided by his understanding of the text. Secondly, the textural design of the song is of primary structural importance. It is noteworthy that in his remark about "O Breath," made eight years after he composed the song, Carter recalls the textural layout above everything else.

Taking these two aspects, text and texture, as being central to an analysis of "O Breath," the structure of the song seems relatively transparent. The poem is about breathing and presents two breathers, one sleeping calmly and the other speaking hysterically. Accordingly, Carter creates contrasting musical entities, one instrumental, one vocal, to represent these personae. From a purely musical perspective the texture is a traditional one: solo voice with instrumental accompaniment.

However, if the structure were really that straightforward, this would not likely be a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, nor a composition by Elliott Carter. Bishop is known for her deceptively simple poetic surfaces, under which lie ambiguous and resonant multiple images. Carter is known for the complexity of his music, particularly in its linear, contrapuntal and rhythmic construction. A combination of these two sophisticated designers must surely result in a product of greater elegance and structural depth.

This hypothesis, based partly on prior knowledge, but also on an aural experience of the song, is the motivating force behind the present analytic essay. The purpose of the paper is to examine the relationship between the text of "O Breath" and Carter’s musical setting by probing beneath the musical and poetic surfaces that have been described above. Using the poem as a starting point, the essay elucidates how Carter's musical design reflects the form and meaning of the poem in multiple ways. In particular, an examination of the texture of the song provides the greatest insight into the ways in which Carter articulates his musical ideas and creates musical analogues to the text. In conclusion, the essay suggests that the analytical approach used for "O Breath" can also be applied to the other songs in Carter’s Mirror cycle, as well as to his vocal music in general.


In this intensely personal poem, reproduced below, a woman contemplates her sleeping lover and speculates about his/her feelings.2

Beneath that loved and celebrated breast,

silent, bored really blindly veined,

grieves, maybe lives and lets

live, passes bets,

something moving but invisibly,

and with what clamor why restrained

I cannot fathom even a ripple.

(See the thin flying of nine black hairs

four around one five the other nipple,

flying almost intolerably on your own breath.)

Equivocal, but what we have in common's bound to be there,

whatever we must own equivalents for,

something that maybe I could bargain with

and make a separate peace beneath

within if never with.*3

Formally the poem is relatively short in length and comprises a single stanza of fifteen lines. The stanza is divided into three long and convoluted sentences, rich with qualifying clauses, that follow one another without a visual break, except for the middle sentence which is offset somewhat by being enclosed in parentheses. Although there are no major visible structural breaks between the sentences, Bishop splits each line by spacing two mid-line words further apart than the others. This typographical device encourages the reader to pause in mid-line, and invokes the inhalation-exhalation breathing pattern of the sleeping person. That the speaker’s words are presented in the slow, deep breathing pattern of her sleeping lover rather than in a pattern more characteristic of someone who is awake, is representative of the speaker’s search for that which she and her lover have in common, her quest to resolve the isolation between them.

While the speaker maintains an intimate and contemplative tone throughout, each of the three sentences that comprise the poem presents a different focus or creates a different mood, corresponding to the emotional progression that she undergoes during the poem. In the opening lines the speaker observes her sleeping lover. She discloses some positive, although passive, feelings towards him by describing his "breast" as "loved" and "celebrated." In the next line, however, she expresses cynicism when she suggests that the silence of his breast is really boredom. She cannot see beneath the surface of his skin, so his chest is "blindly veined." This phrase introduces the theme of concealed processes, which is explored in the next lines. The speaker now speculates about her partner's feelings, which she cannot identify because they are hidden. She believes that there is something alive beneath his breast, "moving... with what clamor." However, she qualifies these beliefs in the second part of each split line with observations about the surface of his body, the movement occurs "invisibly" and she cannot hear the clamor because it is "restrained." Ultimately, she "cannot fathom even a ripple" of the hidden internal movement. The speaker's inability to perceive the movement and sound of this "something," presumably her partner's love or feelings for her, expresses her doubt about his feelings towards her.

The ambiguity of what really lies beneath the surface is a recurring theme in Bishop's poetry and one that provides resonance to her images. In her book on Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Stevenson writes: "... there seems to be a discrepancy in her poetry between what can be seen and what can be known - between the surfaces of things which are observed and the significance or meanings of the surfaces...."4 Indeed in this poem a distance or boundary is described between the visual exterior and internal feelings of the observed person, which reflects the boundary between the fact of the relationship between the speaker and her partner and the ambiguity of the true nature or meaning of their relationship.5

In the second sentence, the parenthetical one, the speaker focuses on minute observation of the anatomical details of her sleeping partner's body. She concentrates on the body surface beneath which his heart lies, since she is concerned with his feelings towards her and the heart is the organ to which feelings are popularly attributed. In explicit, and somewhat disconcerting detail, she describes the hairs around his nipples by counting them. The word "flying" is repeated to emphasize the contrast between the movement which the speaker can see on the surface (the agitation of hair caused by his exhalations) and the movement (feelings) that she believes lies beneath the surface of his body, but which she cannot see. This contrast is painful to the speaker, and the flying movement occurs "almost intolerably" for her. Bishop places this sentence in parentheses to identify it as an interjection in which precise observation replaces speculation about feelings.

In the third sentence the speaker returns to the theme of ambiguity with the adjective "equivocal" that modifies the subject, "something," of the first sentence. This last sentence is no longer descriptive, but is devoted to musings about the nature of their relationship. She knows that the feelings that constitute their relationship, what they have "in common," probably exist, but she is unsure exactly what those feelings are ("what we have in common," "whatever," "something"). There is a sense of a growing alienation between the speaker and her partner and her tone becomes increasingly emotionally intense and pessimistic. She refers first to feelings that they have in common, then, in the next line, to equivalent (rather than shared) feelings, and finally she suggests that he might have merely "something" with which she could "bargain."6 In the next line the sense of isolation is reinforced through the phrase "separate peace," but the tone becomes less intense and slightly more optimistic as the speaker suggests that a reconciliation between them is possible, even if they cannot be as one ("never with"). She can bargain with him, but she cannot share equal feelings with him; her status must either be lower than his ("beneath"), or she must somehow be contained by him ("within").

In summary, "O Breath" is a personal exploration of the ambiguity between a visual surface and the emotional meaning beneath it: in the intimate setting of the lovers’ bed, the speaker describes the surface of her sleeping partner's body and speculates about his feelings and emotions. While never transcending a pervasive sense of isolation, the speaker progresses from relatively calm contemplation (first sentence), to minutely detailed description (second sentence), to more emotionally intense speculation in the third sentence, after which she achieves a sense of resignation.



Carter’s stated interpretation of "O Breath," quoted earlier, recognizes the two distinct personae depicted in the text, and his setting of the poem presents two musical continuities, the voice and the instrumental ensemble. Each continuity represents a persona in the poem by invoking its distinct breathing pattern. The soprano part, with the indication "as if out of breath," proceeds with abrupt melismatic melodic fragments in contrast to the slow, sustained sonorities of the instrumental parts, suggestive of the deep breathing of a sleeper. Carter’s choice of a "rather hysterical" kind of breathing for the speaker is interesting since this is not explicit in the text. It does, however, allow him to present a clear and dramatic distinction between two musical images, as well as to reflect the theme of distance separating the speaker from her partner, and the distinction between surface and underlying meaning. Furthermore, Carter ensures that the inhalation/exhalation pattern implied by Bishop’s spacing is maintained in the song. He places parenthetical apostrophes in the score to indicate places where words are spaced apart in the poem, and short strokes between words to indicate line-endings. With these indications, the soprano can perform the lines in such a way that their slower implied pattern of inhalation and exhalation is juxtaposed onto her own breathless outbursts.

The two musical continuities, voice and instruments, that Carter presents as metaphors of breathing are the fundamental linear elements of the texture in "O Breath." Beneath this surface, however, lies a secondary textural scheme organizing the eight-instrument ensemble into three coordinated pulses that project the "very slow rhythm" that Carter wishes to portray. The constituent pulses are all slow, and are similar in duration: one pulse is comprised of an attack every 43rd sixteenth-note (approximately MM 8.37 at q. = 60), the second presents an attack every 65th triplet sixteenth-note (approximately MM 8.31), and the third pulse comprises attacks separated by 37 dotted quintuplet sixteenth-notes (approximately MM 8.11). As we shall see later, Carter coordinates the attacks of the three pulses in such a way that the resultant cross-pulse connotes the slow, almost even, deep breathing of the sleeping lover.

While the three constituent instrumental pulses are consistent rhythmically, their instrumentation varies, evidence that, for Carter, the linear elements of texture are primarily rhythmic rather than timbral. The various textural components that have been described above, the "continuities" and the "constituent pulses," are best understood in terms of musical "streams," terminology borrowed from the field of psychoacoustics.7 The primary advantage of this terminology is that musical continuities are not restricted by their timbral qualities (e.g. "the violin part"), but can be comprised of "events" (notes) played by any instrument(s), or voice, having certain musical characteristics in common. This is particularly useful when describing Carter’s linear components, which frequently transcend the bounds of individual instrumental parts, as is the case in the three constituent instrumental pulses of "O Breath." Textural streams, then, are made up of a series of events, and are defined by their musical characteristics; changes in stream-defining characteristics constitute textural processes.

Using this terminology, the two-layered textural structure of "O Breath" can be described as follows. In the first scheme, based on Carter’s own remarks, the textural surface divides into two streams, the vocal stream and the instrumental stream, while in the second textural scheme, the instrumental stream breaks down into three coordinated streams defined primarily by pulse. Having established the textural framework in which this analysis is placed, the discussion will now elucidate how Carter uses aspects of texture to articulate his understanding of the form and meaning of the text, and to structure the song. Analysis of the ‘breathing’ textural scheme apparent on the surface of the music will be followed by an examination of the tripartite textural infrastructure, the ‘pulse’ scheme.

'Breathing' Scheme

Carter’s division of the texture into two streams, the voice and the aggregated events in the winds, strings and percussion, is achieved largely through the contrast between the defining characteristics of each stream. Aspects of rhythmic behaviour were mentioned briefly above: the high attack density and melismatic rubato rhythms of the vocal stream contrast with the low attack density and sustained pitch events that comprise the instrumental stream, as can be seen in Example 1.

The rhythmic behaviour of the instrumental stream is further defined by the grouping of constituent events into intermittent gestures separated by silence. Each gesture is contoured in a similar way, in terms of pitch, registral density and dynamic intensity. The graphs in Figure 1 illustrate these aspects of pitch and register. The first three gestures of the song are plotted on a pitch/time grid in the upper system, while the middle system plots the distance in semitones between the registral extremes of each gesture as that distance varies over time, and the lower system shows the registral density of each gesture by plotting the number of simultaneous events as it varies over time.

The middle system shows that each gesture has the same contour in terms of the expansion and contraction of the total registral space covered, although the actual placement of each gesture in the registral range changes.8 The repeating registral space contour of the gestures is supported by a characteristic registral density contour, as shown in the lowest system in Example 2, whereby the moments of greatest density are coincident with the points of greatest distance between registral extremes. The gestures’ characteristic registral space and density profiles are supported by the dynamic intensity contour, which, although operating within a very small band of ppp to pp, follows the same intensity pattern: a crescendo to the point of greatest registral density is followed by a decrescendo.

Example 1: "O Breath" mm. 1 - 6.

Figure 1: "O Breath" mm. 1 - 6, instrumental stream.

Other contrasting characteristics help to make the vocal and instrumental streams aurally distinct. In addition to the obvious timbral difference between the two streams, their interval repertoires are mutually exclusive.9 The instrumental stream features repeated intervals 7 and 10, usually expressed as perfect 5th and minor 7th simultaneities, freely associating pitches across the constituent ‘pulse’ streams. For example, in m. 5, reproduced in a rhythmically simplified form in Example 2, the F#4 of the B3-F#4 perfect 5th dyad in the winds also forms a minor 7th dyad with G#3 in the viola and violin, which in turn is part of a perfect 5th dyad in the viola as well as forming a minor 7th with the A#2 in the bass. In contrast, the vocal stream is defined by the absence of intervals 7 and 10 between successive pitch events. While it freely presents all other intervals smaller than an octave (including intervals 5 and 2, the unordered pitch class interval equivalents of 7 and 10, respectively), perfect 5ths and minor 7ths are consistently avoided. The two streams are further differentiated in terms of tessitura: the registral placement of the vocal stream is high relative to the instrumental stream, with vocal pitch events rarely being lower than gestural ones.

Example 2: "O Breath" m. 5, winds and strings (rhythmically simplified)

The two distinct streams are easily perceived by the listener as metaphors for the speaker and her sleeping lover in the poem. The vocal stream represents the speaker, with her agitated rubato fragments accumulating into florid melodic lines in the same way as the speaker’s short phrases coalesce into complex sentences. The organization of instrumental events into intermittent gestures with characteristic pitch, registral and dynamic intensity profiles, as well as the low attack density, all contribute to connote the deep, slow and regular breaths of a sleeper. The sense of isolation between the two personae is reinforced by the contrast in musical characteristics and behaviours between the two streams - in rhythm, gesture, interval repertoire, timbre and tessitura.

Having established the textural structure and the defining characteristics of each stream in the opening measures, Carter then uses textural processes, in the form of changes in the established characteristics, to delineate structural features, and to depict aspects of the text. In m. 19, for example, changes in the behaviours of both the vocal and the instrumental streams help to delineate a structural break in the music that coincides with the break between the first and second sentences in the poem. The passage reproduced in Example 3 shows how the vocal stream undergoes an abrupt decrescendo and a dramatic recession in attack density when it starts to articulate pianissimo sustained pitches with the words "See the thin flying." While maintaining its characteristic pitch and registral contours, the instrumental gesture in mm. 19-20 contrasts timbrally and registrally with the gestures that precede it. The timbre of this gesture is transformed when the suspended cymbal enters with a shimmering roll, and the registral range covered by the pitch events that comprise the

Example 3: "O Breath" mm. 18 - 20.

gesture is significantly wider than any previous gesture. To illustrate this, the diagram in Figure 2 plots the three instrumental gestures occurring in mm. 15-20 on a pitch/time grid on the upper system, while the lower system plots the distance in semitones between the registral extremes. The textural processes that take place in these measures draw the listener's attention to a moment of structural articulation that heralds the start of a new section, in which the speaker presents her parenthetical observations.

Figure 2: "O Breath" mm. 15 - 20, instrumental stream.

Unlike the break between the first and second sentences of the poem, the structural division between the second and third sentences (m. 32 to m. 33) is not as clearly delineated by the textural scheme. While the voice rests for several beats in mm. 32-33, signifying a cadential moment, a change in the instrumental stream undermines the listener’s perception of a structural break. From m. 32 onwards the instrumental gestures no longer proceed intermittently, but are connected by a sustained pitch event, resulting in the last gesture of the parenthetical section being joined aurally to the first gesture of the implied third section.

In this case, the change in stream behaviour initiated in these measures is the first in a series of dramatic changes that culminate in a climactic passage in mm. 37-38, a musical climax which coincides with the emotional climax of the song. In other words, here

Carter uses textural processes to portray the meaning of the text, rather than to delineate structure. The most significant changes in stream behaviour occur in the instrumental stream when, at the end of m. 36, the gestural formation is abandoned and a crescendo leads to

an unprecedented forte level in m. 38. As can be seen in the passage reproduced in Example 4, the attack density and registral density of the instrumental stream increase as a result of the tremolo-type figures in the winds and the double-stopped dyads in the strings, accompanied by a roll on the bass drum. Other processes of intensification contribute to the sense of climax in this passage.10 The registral span covered by the instrumental stream expands, with the lowest pitch of the song occurring in the bass in m. 36 (F#1) and the highest pitch sounding in the violin in m. 38 (E flat 5). Similarly, the vocal stream intensifies in registral placement, crescendo-ing to its highest pitch in the song, B5, in m. 37, articulated, accented and fortissimo.

Example 4: "O Breath" mm. 37 - 39.

These processes of intensification in the vocal and instrumental streams correspond to an emotional intensification in the text as the speaker becomes more emotionally distraught. She describes the feelings between her and her partner in ways that are increasingly distant, climaxing with the pessimistic suggestion that, instead of shared feelings, he might have "something that maybe I could bargain with." What is interesting in this passage is the way in which Carter uses textural processes to create another layer of symbolism. For the first time in the song, the instrumental stream does not simply represent the sleeping lover by connoting his breathing, but contributes to symbolize the speaker's intensifying emotional state. The sleeper’s deep, slow breaths slowly mutate, and acquire an agitated internal life (the swelling tremolos) that are more symbolic of the hammering heart of the emotionally upset speaker than of the peaceful rhythms of the oblivious sleeper at her side. In the same way that the soprano has the sleeper’s inhalation/exhalation pattern juxtaposed onto her breathless outbursts, the instrumental stream now also crosses the boundary between the two personae, momentarily symbolizing the "something" that the speaker hopes they "have in common."

After this climax, the speaker proposes some kind of reconciliation, the emotional intensity is diffused, and by m. 40 the overall texture of the song is reminiscent of the opening measures. The organization of the instrumental events into gestures separated by silence resumes in m. 39, and the breathing gestures of the sleeper, with their characteristic profiles, are once again perceptible. Recessive processes take place in the stream’s attack density, registral density and dynamic intensity as they decrease to their former levels. Further recessive processes occur in the vocal stream in the last four measures (reproduced in Example 5), and the musical resolution, or cadence, that is achieved by these processes mirrors the reconciliatory, resigned tone of the speaker in the text. The song - and the cycle - ends with a solo vocal event symbolizing the speaker's perpetual isolation ("never with"), despite the tone of reconciliation.

Example 5: "O Breath" mm. 42 - 45.

‘Pulse’ Scheme

As in the poem, where the speaker assumes that "Beneath that loved and celebrated breast" there is "something moving but invisibly," so the instrumental stream has a hidden internal mechanism that shapes the characteristic gestures of the textural surface. This secondary textural scheme, as was mentioned earlier, comprises three instrumental streams defined primarily by pulse. Although wind and string events participate in all three streams over the course of the song (percussion events do not articulate any of the pulses), local associations of specific instruments with individual pulse streams do occur, and changes in the established instrumental profiles of individual streams are often used by Carter to signify moments of structural importance. For these reasons the streams will be described in terms of both pulse and timbre.

In the opening measures, the three pulse streams are timbrally consistent. (The reader is advised to refer back to Example 1 - the full score of mm. 1-6 - as well as to Figure 3, in which the first six measures of "O Breath" are diagrammed to illustrate the pulse stream structure.) Stream A presents an attack every 43rd sixteenth-note, and comprises events in the winds. Stream B articulates an attack every 65th triplet sixteenth-note, and consists of events in the lower strings, the 'cello and/or the bass. The third stream, Stream C, is defined by an attack every 37th dotted quintuplet sixteenth-note. This stream is somewhat less timbrally distinct, as it too comprises string events - in the violin and/or viola, and occasionally in the bass, too. The diagram in Figure 3 plots the attack points (represented by dots) of the events of Streams A, B and C in mm. 1-6, showing their timbral properties by grouping the instruments that initiate each stream into a distinct layer. (Attacks in parentheses indicate where instruments double one of the pitches articulating a pulse by entering on that pitch after the articulation of the pulse. These parenthetical attacks are almost imperceptible, do not disturb the rhythmic scheme, but simply alter the timbre of the pulse pitch. For example, the G3 in the violin in m.1 enters ppp to double the viola's G3 pulse attack.)

Figure 3: "O Breath" mm. 1 - 6, pulse stream.

The three pulse streams are carefully coordinated in rhythm so that their constituent events group into the intermittent gestures that characterize the instrumental stream of the ‘breathing’ textural scheme. In all three pulse streams the attack points initiate sustained pitches, whose durations are chosen so that, while attack points of events in different streams do not occur simultaneously, there is always an overlap of sounding duration and a shared duration (usually short) of silence. The gestural format is indicated in the diagram in Figure 3 by the shapes that enclose groups of events. (Percussion events are included in this diagram since they participate in the gestures, if not in the pulse streams.)

While the intermittent gestural format is easily heard by the listener, the perceptibility of the three individual pulse streams is more questionable. Perhaps, like the speaker, who has sporadic insights into her lover’s inner feelings, our perception of the pulse streams tends to fade in and out of focus. Initially, the streams are relatively easy to perceive because they are timbrally consistent and distinct. As a result of the similar durations of the pulses, the order in which stream events occur within the gestures is fixed: each gesture comprises events from Stream A (exclusively winds), followed by Stream C (violin, viola and occasionally bass), then Stream B (predominantly 'cello and bass). However, the potential for the individual streams to fuse with each other - to lose their distinctiveness and to merge together into a single stream - is already apparent from the way in which their events group into gestures, and from their lack of intervallic and dynamic differentiation (discussed earlier in reference to the ‘breathing’ scheme). Later we will see that fusion and splitting - the reverse process, whereby streams resume their individual identity once again - are two of the most important textural processes that occur in the song.

As with the two streams of the ‘breathing’ scheme, the processes that the pulse streams undergo contribute both to the structural delineation of "O Breath," and to its symbolic content. Timbral changes in one or more of the pulse streams are used by Carter to indicate moments of structural articulation, which coincide with points of structural articulation in the text. The most significant of these occurs in m. 19, when Stream A, the 43 sixteenth-note pulse initially articulated by wind events, is articulated exclusively by strings for the first time. (This is illustrated graphically in Figure 4 by a long, vertical line, joined to the Stream A horizontal line, that connects dots representing simultaneous attacks in both upper and lower string timbre groups.) Since the events in Stream A initiate the gestures and are preceded by silence, they are the most prominent aurally and this change in timbre is easily perceived by the listener. Furthermore, the timbral transformation in Stream A instigates changes in the timbral profiles of all three streams. As of m. 20 Stream C now comprises events in the winds instead of the strings. And one of only two subtle deviations in the consistent timbre of Stream B occurs in the same measure when the pulse is articulated simultaneously by winds and strings, before it returns exclusively to string events.

Figure 4: "O Breath" mm. 19 - 24.

The timbral changes initiated in m. 19 function structurally by coinciding with the beginning of the parenthetical sentence and the second section of the song, thereby reinforcing the processes taking place in the ‘breathing’ scheme (discussed earlier with reference to Example 3 and Figure 2). The moment of clarity in mm. 19-20, however, is short-lived. From here on, the pulse streams are characterized by timbral fluctuation, which, together with an increased number of attacks not associated with any of the pulses (shown in the diagram in Figure 4 as unconnected attack-dots), renders Streams A, B and C less distinct - and they fuse into a single stream. The attacks conforming to the system of three pulses continue in the same ratios, but it is very difficult for the listener to perceive the three individual streams. The gestures into which the events in the streams group, however, are maintained with most of their characteristic behaviours.11

Further changes occur, starting in m. 31, to articulate a structural division which is coincident with the end of the parenthetical comment in the text and the start of the third section of "O Breath." Specifically, the process of splitting begins to reverse the fusion of the previous section. Splitting is initiated when the Streams A, B, and C start to resume their distinct and consistent, but not original, timbral properties again. From here until the end of the song Stream A comprises events in the strings exclusively (predominantly the upper strings), and Stream C comprises wind events. In other words, these two streams, after a period of fluctuation, undergo an exchange of their timbral properties. Stream B continues to comprise events in the lower strings, and these events initiate each gesture consistently through to the end of the song.

The structural role played by Streams A, B and C during these measures, however, is somewhat obscured by other processes that take place. As was discussed earlier in relation to the ‘breathing’ scheme, after m. 31 the gestures are no longer separated by silence and are joined by a connecting sustained pitch, which undermines the prominence of the initiating pulse events of each gesture. The processes of intensification, for example in attack density, that lead to the climax in mm. 37-38 also mask the behaviours of the pulse streams. It is only after the climax, starting at the end of m. 39, that the distinct pulse streams become perceptible again, as can been seen in the diagram reproduced in Figure 5. The listener becomes particularly aware of the increasingly close proximity of the pulse in Stream C and the pulse in Stream A, articulated by events in the winds and strings respectively.

Figure 5: "O Breath" mm. 39 - 45, pulse stream.

In addition to the formal role played by the pulse streams, where timbral transformations articulate structural divisions in the music corresponding to structural divisions in the poem, they are also related to the text by the symbolic role that they play. The relationship between the streams, in terms of timbre and temporal proximity, can be seen to represent the speaker's perception of her relationship to her partner. When the emotional state of the speaker changes as she contemplates different aspects of her

relationship, so does the relationship between the streams. Initially, the speaker is relatively calm and emotionally detached, and the three pulse streams are distinct and consistent in their timbral properties. As the speaker becomes more confused about how her partner feels, in mm. 19-31, the streams fuse and lose their distinctiveness. Even once the confusion has cleared in terms of the timbres (after m. 31), the clarity of the separate pulses is obscured until after the emotional climax, when the streams become distinct again. Only when the speaker becomes less emotionally intense and more objective do the streams separate and become perceptibly distinct in timbre. In addition, as she reaches a sense of reconciliation in the last lines, the pulses in Streams A and C get increasingly close in proximity until the one overtakes the other in m. 44 (evident in FIgure 5). The irony of her reconciliation, where they can never meet on an equal footing ("beneath/ within"), is reflected in the fact that, given their starting points, and the duration of the song, the pulses articulated by the streams can become very close to each other, but can never meet.12



In summary, by probing beneath the deceptively simple surfaces of the poem and the music, this analysis of "O Breath" reveals the intimate relationship between the text and Carter’s musical setting. Specifically, Carter uses musical texture to articulate the form and meaning of the text, to attune his musical voice with the poetic voice of Bishop, in effect, to synchronize their breathing.

Two concurrent systems of textural organization structure the music. On the surface, the textural layout (as mentioned by Carter and quoted in the opening paragraph of this paper) comprises two streams. The vocal stream represents the breathless speaker, while the gestures in the instrumental stream represent the breathing of her sleeping partner. The pulse streams, A, B and C, whose aggregated events constitute the gestures, operate in a secondary textural scheme that lies beneath the musical surface. There is a clear analogy between the two textural schemes and the text. The distinct breaths of the sleeper, as seen by the speaker, on the surface of his body - his chest rises and falls - are represented by the contour gestures that are perceptible on the musical surface. Beneath the sleeping lover's skin are the hidden mechanisms that make his breathing possible, as well as his invisible emotions. The pulse continuities are the equivalents to these subcutaneous forces, propelling the music through time.

The textural processes that these streams undergo function formally to articulate structural divisions in the song that coincide with structural divisions between the sentences in the poem. They also contribute to the symbolic representation of the text. In accordance with Carter’s comments about the song, the two streams on the textural surface are used to connote the two distinct personae for most of the song. However, in the song’s climactic passage the boundaries become blurred and the instrumental contour gestures symbolically fuse with the vocal stream to represent the speaker's intensifying emotional state. These processes are reversed in the final measures of the song when the speaker achieves a sense of resignation and the isolation between the two personae is reestablished. The pulse streams play a more abstract role where the relationship between them represents the speaker's perception of her relationship to her partner. When she is objective about her relationship with him, the streams are distinct and have consistent timbral properties, but, when she becomes agitated and confused about their relationship, the streams lose their distinctiveness and merge. There is also perhaps a kind of formalistic irony in this tripartite scheme: in the outer sections the singer is concerned with internal processes, while in the inner section the singer focuses on externals. Carter's setting mimics this formally generated irony: the pulse streams (internal workings) are most clear in the outer sections, and, when the speaker focuses on external features, she loses touch with the internal processes.

In conclusion, the analytical system presented in this essay is particularly appropriate for an analysis of Carter’s song, "O Breath." The close relationship between text and music, suggested by the composer himself, is best revealed through analysis of the textural structure of the music. The examination of texture in terms of "streams" is especially useful for Carter’s music, since his linear entities are not restricted by timbre, and are frequently defined by other musical parameters such as rhythm. The system lends itself readily to the analysis of other recent vocal music by Carter, such as the songs in his 1986 cycle, In Sleep, In Thunder, where the musical settings are similarly shaped by the text, and are characterized by Carter’s established polyphonic compositional style.


1 Charles Rosen, The Musical Languages of Elliott Carter (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1984), 40.

2. In the absence of a suitable gender-neutral pronoun, and to avoid unnecessary awkwardness, I will simply assume a male companion in future references to the sleeper in the poem.

3 * "Oh Breath" from THE COMPLETE POLEMS 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop Copyright 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, LLC.

4 Anne Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966), 107.

5 The ambiguity that pervades this first sentence is reflected in the contrast between repeated phonemes. The reiterated sibilants are comparable to the hissing sound of exhalation and symbolize the speaker's unity with the sleeper. The repeated [b]'s interrupt the soothing poetic flow created by the sibilants and symbolize the speaker's anxiety and disharmony with her partner.

6 This series of decreasing emotional connections is parallel to the decreasing series of his involvement which she described in the first sentence, "grieves," "lives and lets live," and "passes bets."

7 Theories of psychoacoustic streaming define a stream as a sequence of sounds that are grouped together mentally into a whole, a stream, emanating from a single, perceptive source. In his book Auditory Scene Analysis, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), psychologist Albert Bregman details the sonic factors that cause a single sequence of sounds to segregate into two or more perceptual streams, and that cause more than one sequence of sound events to coalesce into a single perceptual stream - for example, frequency, intensity, timbre, and pulse. Other published work about streaming includes early collaborative articles by Bregman, as well as several studies made by the psychoacoustician Richard Parncutt, for example his paper, "The Perception of Pulse in Musical Rhythm" (in Action and Perception in Rhythm and Music: papers given at a symposium in the Third International Conference on Event Perception and Action, ed. Alf Gabrielsson [Stockholm, Sweden: Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 1987], 127-138).

8 The filling of the total registral space within each gesture is often orchestrated in an unconventional way, in that the instrument with the highest range does not necessarily play the highest pitch in a given gesture.

9 As Craig Weston points out in "Inversion, Subversion and Metaphor: Music and Text in Elliott Carter’s A Mirror on Which to Dwell" (D.M.A. diss., University of Washington, 1992), interval repertoire is an important means of differentiating "structural elements" for Carter (197). Not only does he use this method in other songs in the cycle, but it is one of the primary means of differentiation in works like his Third String Quartet.

10 The use of the terms "intensification" and "recession" are consistent with those of Wallace Berry in his book, Structural Functions in Music (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987), where "intensification" signifies a numerical increase or growing intensity in some musical aspect, relative to its previous state, and "recession" refers to decreasing intensity in some aspect. For example, an intensification of registral density occurs when the number of simultaneous events becomes progressively higher; a recession in attack density means that there are fewer notes attacked per selected durational unit than there were previously.

11 Some characteristics of the gestures are necessarily altered, for example as of m. 27 gestures are initiated by events in various streams instead of being consistently initiated by the events in Stream A.

12 One further observation can be made regarding timbre. From the discussion above we can see that Stream B remains relatively stable in timbre, while Streams A and C exchange timbres - initially Stream A comprises wind events and Stream C string events, and in the last third of the song this is reversed. Stream B could represent that which is constant in the relationship - the fact that the relationship seems fated to continue despite the concerns of the speaker. Streams A and C, the two that never meet, are the aspects that change, but are "equivalent" in some way. Or, more simply, Stream B could represent that "something" in common of which Streams A and C are the equivalents.


ex tempore
as published in the Summer 2000 issue
HTML Formatting by: Michelle L. Wieler

created April 2000