Music: Atonal Prism

Composer Elliott Carter, a Burgess Meredith lookalike, also happens to have a strong sense of theater, more so in fact than most nonoperatic composers. Carter, 64, a master American modernist, likes to think of his orchestral and chamber-music scores as auditory scenarios that are designed to give each performer the freedom and individuality of an Olivier or, at the very least, a George C. Scott.

For his String Quartet No. 2, winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize, Carter stationed each musician in a different quarter of the stage. That arrangement produced a musical conversation...

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