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Elliott Carter: Maybe he wasn’t radical?

Reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer, first published on Nov. 8.

For the time being, Elliott Carter, who died Monday in New York, will be known as the composer who worked the longest. Well into his 104th year, he composed intricately and conscientiously, each piece seeming to be all that it could be, with little decline in inspiration.

Of course he did. He frankly didn’t know what else to do with himself.

“I don’t walk well. My eyesight is peculiar. But I don’t feel as though I’m an old person in the way I think,” the hearty, genial composer said in a 2003 interview with The Inquirer. “I get bored more easily. But I can’t say my process of thinking is any different.”

Or his lack of process – the world’s brainiest composition students struggled endlessly to find a method in Carter’s pieces. And though he had composing techniques, he subscribed to no particular compositional school and, in the end, was just composing.

Though lumped with experimentalists, serialists, and the avant-garde, he really wasn’t one of them. Having worked with Charles Ives as a young man, Carter embraced the idea of many musical events happening at once, as in the natural world. The exterior chaos of the outside world – its interruptions, non sequiturs, and cul de sacs – became the creative generator of his inner world. While composers of generations past wrote pieces about Alpine mountains and the joys of spring, Carter’s concertos, orchestral works, and chamber pieces conveyed the essence of urban traffic jams and arguments, always with a keen sense of dialogue.

His 1997 opera, What Next?, began with a car accident and portrayed the minutes between the expiration of the physical body and arrival in the hereafter. His 1995 String Quartet No. 5 embodied the idea of four rehearsing musicians as much as it did the piece that was being rehearsed.

“I always sense . . . heated debate but never anger,” wrote cellist Alisa Weilerstein in the notes to her newly released recording of Carter’s Cello Concerto. “He’s never austere or relentless.”

While John Cage permissively believed that everything could be music and let sounds be what they were going to be, Carter married that idea with a Germanic sense of minute calculation and American work ethic. His scores could be terrifying in their detail, with numerous performance directions in every bar. At the Marlboro Festival, some of the world’s best young musicians would work for an entire summer on a Carter string quartet. Yet the end result almost sounded as if the music was made up on the spot.

His music was never impersonal: Talking with him was like listening to his music in all its exclamation points and unexpected turns. But the act of composing was a force that worked almost independent of him and the events in his life. He admitted that his wife’s decline and death from cancer in 2003 slowed him down, but he barely lost a day’s work. In his final decade (and amid increasing infirmity), he finished roughly four pieces a year. Even the lighter, shorter works had density unmatched by almost any living composer.

Audiences often rebelled at Carter’s musical collisions; this was exactly what they were trying to avoid in the concert hall. Often, though, the collisions being heard weren’t Carter’s at all, but accidents born of inadequate rehearsal. Though it’s often said that Carter’s later music became more lyrical and accessible, the more likely truth is that musicians caught on to his language and projected it more clearly.

Carter’s 1990 Violin Concerto was considered a failure at its San Francisco Symphony Orchestra premiere. Even the composer admitted that he doubted its value. But he also revealed that then-music director Herbert Blomstedt had given the lion’s share of rehearsal to a standard repertoire symphony that he was recording that week, when Carter’s concerto needed it much more. When taken up by modern-music specialists (the London Sinfonietta under fellow composer Oliver Knussen), the concerto easily emerged as one of Carter’s best. Funny how those things happen – though actually, it’s not funny at all.

My own journey with Carter began in the late 1990s with a recording of his Concerto for Orchestra, often thought to be one of his difficult works. I was prepared to be baffled. Then I realized that all his music required was the kind of keen attention you’d give to driving down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. What’s the problem? The music is, if anything, too rich.

In recent years, Carter resisted offers to write a companion piece to What Next? It would have been a canny move, allowing him to occupy a full evening at the opera house. But, in what may have been one of his few concessions to age, he wanted to write as many pieces as he could rather than having a big one take up his time and possibly be left incomplete.

What he did write, though, had no end-of-life sentimentality. If anything, Two Controversies and a Conversation, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in June, shows him at his wittiest, tossing about unexpected percussion sounds in close succession, thwarting aural expectations, rushing in all directions at one moment, and ending with a single, isolated ping-like bell. Maybe Carter was saying “Bye bye!” That was his kind of swan song.

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