Elliott Carter, 1908-2012

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Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

THERE REALLY IS only one certainty in life, death (as we’ve seen from the latest campaign season, taxes are optional for the privileged few). Death itself is never a surprise, although the manner and timing in which it comes can be, tragically so. And when you’re 103 years old as Elliott Carter was when he died at the beginning of this week, death may be expected.

But his loss feels acutely painful to me, as it has for a certain few musicians who spoke in individual voices and produced their work in unique ways. I vividly remember seeing the news of the deaths of Don Cherry, and my first composition teacher, Meyer Kupferman, and feeling not just sad but frustrated, because they seemed to be in the midst of constantly doing something new and unexpected, and that process was cut short. That’s the same with Carter. His longevity was remarkable, his music even more so. But what his time and circumstances allowed, along with his profound intelligence, imagination and dedication, was a singular revaluation of what late style means.

The best artists develop their styles as they age, the greatest ones go through large-scale stylistic revolutions — Picasso and Stravinsky are the most salient in recent history, but as I’ve been hearing so often in this John Cage centennial year, even the most experimental thinkers can collect their experiences and find new ideas in old successes. Carter was like that, first self-consciously and then organically. He was part of the deliberately populist style pioneered by Roy Harris in America between the world wars, but then rejected it to follow the path he most wanted, which was to maintain the intellectual and social values of the populists with the complexity of style and form he heard in his head. Breakthrough works like the String Quartet No. 1 reflect the sound of a man who wants to hear many voices speaking equally, even willfully, yet who also hears an underlying commonality of values. There are composers who have followed the superficial aspects of Charles Ives’ proto-American sound, but Carter is the only who expressed Ives’ values.

His work was always challenging and never fashionable either with general or academic audiences, too difficult for the former, lacking any organized ideology for the latter. His audience came around, a combination of musicians and listeners who weren’t expecting either Brahms or Schoenberg, and what they heard was his honesty and sincerity. He meant every moment and even if you couldn’t understand his ideas you could sense their presence. His complexity was certainly dense but never heavy.

And then he made his way to a late style, one that lasted almost thirty years. If you read about him these next few weeks, you’ll read a lot about his opera, What Next? It stands out as a novelty, but I don’t think it’s a good work, it’s crippled by a bad libretto, nor is it representative of his late style, which is fleet, aphoristic, light-hearted and absolutely charming. Carter left tonal and atonal structure long behind, and ended up working with intuitive forms, things that succeeded because they said what he had to say. His late style matches up with Beethoven’s in this regard, both composers displaying hints of identifiable features, but making music that feels stream-of-consciousness and spontaneous. Both composers focussed on single, simple intellectual and emotional ideas and found universes in them, guaranteeing that even brief works would have an expansive effect.

The last work of his I heard, Two Controversies and a Conversation, was, incredibly, a move into an entirely new stylistic realm. It seemed comparatively like pop music, with dance rhythms, counterpoint, tonality. It also seemed sketchy, again unexpected for a composer who famously wrote and rewrote and rewrote, like a simple freehand drawing, tossed off complete by a Renaissance master. It was this memory that especially has lingered with me this week. Because after eighty or so years of writing music, the bulk of it an essential part of the Western Classical tradition, Elliott Carter had found there where new things for him to do.

George Grella's column The Drift appears on Classical TV.