Nearly 100 (mph)
On THE morning I visited Elliott Carter last month, he was staying in a red cottage in this quaint village in the Berkshires. Five miles up the road is Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, which was in the midst of hosting a 10-concert, 47-work festival of Carter’s demanding music. Just down the road from the cottage is the Norman Rockwell Museum.
The weather was miserable. Audiences trudged through downpours to get to Seiji Ozawa Hall. A terrifying lightning storm threatened those trying to reach the restrooms in a neighboring building during one intermission. Still, good-sized audiences turned up, and young fans and musicians swarmed around the composer as if he were a rock star.
Despite the gloom, Carter appeared ever sunny. I told him how I used to be able to follow his career either through live performances or with the help of recordings. But that was when he used to write a major piece on the average of once a year. Now works large and small come in such a torrent I struggle to keep up with him.
“I wish I could write so much more that you couldn’t keep up with it at all,” Carter replied with a mischievous laugh. This morning he was 99 years, 7 months and 3 weeks old, yet he wasn’t exaggerating about his output. He contributed two new pieces for the Tanglewood festival, and the retrospective included more than a dozen works he had written since he turned 95. In September, a flute concerto will have its premiere at the Jerusalem Festival. In December, the Boston Symphony will unveil his third piano concerto, “Interventions,” which the orchestra commissioned for its music director, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim as soloist.
A few days later -- on Dec. 11, Carter’s 100th birthday -- the Boston Symphony will give the New York premiere of “Interventions” in Carnegie Hall. Also on that program will be Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” in honor of the fact that the seminal score inspired Carter to become a composer when he first heard it as a teenager in Carnegie in the early 1920s.
The constant remark made about Carter during the Tanglewood festival was that he is unique in music history. No major composer has ever been so vital for so long. Verdi was 80 when he wrote his last opera, “Falstaff,” which has always been considered a marvel of old age. Richard Strauss was 84 when he ended his career with his autumnal “Four Last Songs.” Wearing a red shirt and suspenders in his cottage, Carter looked as though he might have stepped out of a Rockwell painting. But although Rockwell was born only 14 years before Carter, the painter glorified a bygone era. Carter, on the other hand, remains as unapologetic a Modernist as ever, tirelessly composing what many still think of as music of the future.
He has always prided himself on making every piece something new, typically experimenting with new harmonic methods and structural principles for major compositions. In his late late period, Carter has found ways to become, if anything, less predictable.
Neither of the new pieces for “Carter’s Century,” as the Tanglewood festival was called, sounded remotely like anything he had written before. “Sound Fields,” which can be heard on the Boston Symphony’s web TV, is remarkably spare from a composer who is known for density. Carter invented that allowed him to let different kinds of musical characters speak at once, all moving at different speeds and in different ways. His music is often urban and can be noisy. In his thor- ny Third String Quartet, from 1971, the four instruments are treated like individuals, each with his or her own voice, own tempo, own everything.
Yet “Sound Fields” is rapturously peaceful, made up of long, long notes and a slowly moving chord or two, reminiscent of Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question.” This seven-minute moody tapestry of shifting string colors could lead one to believe that Carter has finally slowed down. Or maybe that he’s out to shock by writing the unexpected.
Neither is the case, Carter claims, although he likes to joke that the transparency of his latest music is the result of old-age laziness. “I don’t try to surprise,” he said. “I just write what I want. I always approach each piece as an adventure of some kind. I’m always afraid that I’ll lose interest in it if it isn’t adventurous enough and stimulating and exciting and I don’t have something to look forward to.”
The other new piece, “Mad Regales,” was something altogether different. A setting for six a cappella voices of three poems by the American Modernist John Ashbery proved oddly playful. Even the poet, who sat next to Carter at the premiere, was said to have been pleasantly startled. Carter’s quirky, humorous settings of his words sounded as though they burst out of nowhere.
To better understand himself
No ONE, of course, becomes a new person at 99. And Carter can readily explain his current work as new ways of expressing concerns that have been with him for many decades. The Ivesian elements of “Sound Fields” go back to his youth. While in high school, Carter was befriended by the cranky American maverick composer, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Carter’s application to Harvard.
Carter has seen a lot come and go. He vividly recalls the New York of his childhood. He could ride his bike from his apartment uptown to the tip of Manhattan, rarely seeing a motorcar, so new were they. His grandfather fought in the Civil War and then started a lace curtain business.
“His firm was the best in New York,” Carter recalled. But it was also, in the composer’s youth, a dying industry. “Grandfather was a sharp man,” Carter continued. “He sold the business to my father, and Father was in debt for years as a result. Then Grandfather went off and gambled the money in Monte Carlo. There was a good deal of ill feeling about that.”
Neither of Carter’s parents attended college, and he says his enthusiasm about modern music was entirely his own. They opposed his desire to become a composer, and he also found that he got little encouragement from Harvard. “The music department was devoted to the organ, and that seemed to me absurd,” he said. Instead, he got his education in modern music from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then headed by Serge Koussevitzky and the most venturesome orchestra in America.
A Francophile, he followed in the footsteps of Aaron Copland (eight years his senior) and went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. “She had gone over [Alban Berg’s opera] ‘Wozzeck’ with Aaron when it was new,” Carter explained. “But by the time I arrived, she was against all that. She was more interested in Poulenc and particularly Stravinsky in his neoclassic period. So we were all doused in the ‘Symphony of Psalms’ and all those things. Every Wednesday we sang a Bach cantata.”
Carter was a relatively late bloomer. His earliest pieces in the late 1930s were in an Americana style, reminiscent to some degree of Copland, although full of curiously complex counterpoint. Once he finally had technique, however, Carter had the urge to try his hand at the modern music that had interested him the most all along. “I realized that I’d like to go back. . . . So that’s how I got started in all this crazy stuff I had tried at the beginning but not been able to do,” he said.
After the war, Carter wrote sonatas for piano and cello in which he began to experiment with musical time in Einstein’s relativistic sense, as something two observers don’t necessarily experience identically. He also began to organize chords so as to create disorder from order. He wanted music to mimic modern life and society.
The breakthrough was the massive First String Quartet in 1951. Carter has written that the quartet was an effort to understand himself. He spent a year in the Sonora Desert near Tucson and it became his expression of nature and man, as experienced through the vagaries of time. Carter describes it as “a large experiment in polyrhythms of all kinds. It really is the most extreme realization. I don’t know how I did it, but I did.
“But the problem with that kind of music is that to establish two or three rhythms going at different speeds, they would have to be regular. So I decided I had to think of the whole thing from a different point of view, which was the Second String Quartet. Each instrument has a repertory of different kinds of playing except the second violin, which always sticks to the same thing. It’s the idea then that these people became individuals.”
Works like the Second Quartet, premiered by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1959 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize, helped solidify Carter’s reputation for being a formidable composer, above the head of the average musician and general listener. Performers struggled with his rhythms. When Leonard Bernstein premiered the Concerto for Orchestra in 1971, the audience was bewildered and angry. On first hearing, the loud, boisterous piece sounded anarchic, as though every musician went his own way. In that Third Quartet, which followed on the heels of the Concerto, each instrument does go its own way, and the ensemble that premiered the score wore headphones and listened to a click track of a recorded beat -- much to the composer’s dismay.
Usually, though, Carter could count on a few devoted musicians, such as the Juilliard Quartet and the pianist Charles Rosen, to give him exactly what he wanted, and over the years the numbers grew. And often, what Carter wanted was for poetic expression to come through despite all the technical obstacles. He took inspiration from the high-Modernist literature he grew up with (he bought and read Proust’s novels as they were published) and utopian social thought. For him, music needed to relate to society and the modern age. He believed in the rights of the individual. Instruments were, in his music, characters that must be allowed their uniqueness yet somehow fit into a whole.
Over time, the composer began to be understood as something more than a musical egghead. David Schiff’s “The Music of Elliott Carter” in 1983 helped by illuminating the work in ways meaningful to both musicians and the general listener.
Carter’s music is mathematically impressive. He works with massive numbers of sketches and charts and graphs. But as Schiff was the first to systematically point out, the core of the music is dramatic. Each piece has a poetic soul and is full of action.
Championed by top conductors
What also changed was the quality of performance. Major conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim became powerfully convincing champions. And Carter’s sound got in the ear of young players. Tanglewood is a mecca for the brightest students, who come to work with the Boston Symphony and a top-tier invited faculty. Pieces that even the finest professional performers struggle with seemed to come naturally to these young players. A performance of the Concerto for Orchestra by a student Tanglewood orchestra led by Knussen revealed the score to be everything “Hair” claims to be but isn’t: a true picture of the ‘60s in all their magnificent tumult.
Finally, what helped win Carter a wider audience has been a succession of small pieces -- some only a few minutes long and many for solo instruments -- that delight the ear. In recent years, he seems to have lost some interest in harmonic invention and turned increasingly to color. But nothing can be generalized. In 1996, Carter completed what is arguably the Great American Symphony, his 50-minute “Sinfonia.” After the “Sinfonia” came his first opera, “What Next?,” with a libretto by Paul Griffiths that takes its inspiration from the Jacques Tati film “Traffic.” An automobile accident takes place and time slows down.
Carter is not superhuman, and time has, in fact, slowed him down. He needs a cane and help walking. While working on the opera, he almost died from pneumonia. His wife, Helen, a sculptor who had closely looked after him, died five years ago. And Carter says big orchestral pieces are now physically beyond him.
“The problem with my particular age,” he said, “is that if you write an orchestra piece you have a page that is 2 or 3 feet high, so that you have to sit to write the double bass part and stand up to write the flute part. And I will not do that anymore.”
But old age has also increased his fear of boredom and allowed him to keep finding new ways to express his long-time concerns. The new a cappella Ashbery songs were a good example. “They all say different things,” he said of the six singers. “That is what I have tried to do all along since my first quartet in 1950.” What he doesn’t need to add is that no one has ever said so many different things in so many different ways.
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