Sunday, November 18, 2012

Elliott Carter: A Rich Life Beyond 100

Earlier this month contemporary composer Elliott Carter died at the ripe old age of 103.  He was one of America's greatest classical music creators and was globally admired for his avant-garde and atonal musical stylings.  I personally found his music difficult and often inaccessible.  I think you have to be trained in music to really appreciate his genius.

Carter is definitely an acquired taste and not an easy one to settle with.  Many respected classical artists, such as the great conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, did not care for Carter's compositions and did not perform them. That Carter emphasized technique and complexity over spirit and emotion is a common criticism.

Carter was heavily influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Charles Ives, among others.  But he was highly individualistic and ultimately struck out in his own direction that even Copland, while remaining close friends with Carter, found it difficult to support.

I own six CDs of Carter's music in my classical collection.  The compositions range from his Variations for Orchestra composed in 1954-55 all the way to shorter yet wonderful ensemble pieces written in 2004 and 2005.  He continued to compose music almost until his death, completing his last work in August of this year; a variation and companion, as it turns out, of the 2004 piece, Dialogues.

Two of my CDs consist of Carter's renowned five string quartets.  His No. 2 (1959) and No. 3 (1971) both won Pulitzer prizes.  No. 3 is fascinating to me, though a challenge for my untrained ear to appreciate.  The quartet is sharply divided into two Duos.  Each Duo plays differently, one harmonically the other in opposition to each other.  It is a sophisticated collection of sound and a great example of the possibilities of atonal composition.

Carter's string quartets are only matched by those of Bela Bartok as the greatest string quartet sets of the 20th Century.

Both Mosaic (2005) and Dialogues are enjoyable to me.  Carter became a bit more lyrical as he approached the century mark of his life.  Carter's most massive orchestral work was his Symphonia composed between 1993 and 1996.  This presents a spiky orchestra with a lot of complexity and energy.  Not much of it makes sense to me and it is often strange.  Still, it is a piece I enjoy and listen to probably more often than anything else in my modest Carter collection.  The Adagio movement is particularly noteworthy.  Symphonia is also his longest composition at a bit over 45 minutes.  Carter was 83 when he began to compose this music.

The two ensemble pieces are featured on a Naxos CD I own which comes with a bonus DVD.  The visual and audio quality of the DVD is disappointing but it was recorded at the world premiere of these works at the celebration of Carter's 100th birthday.  A bit like Bilbo Baggins to me.  At any rate, there is an accompanying documentary featuring a long public interview Carter gave prior to the performance of his works to this select audience of a couple of hundred no doubt well-connected people.

At 100, Carter was lucid, articulate, energetic, feisty, and detailed. Here's a quote to share: "I think the actual composition is not unlike a play.  Let's say a performance of Hamlet.  The character of Hamlet is acted in maybe 20 different ways and yet it's always Hamlet.  It seems to me the score is a kind of message to the performer about certain aspects of the intention of the composer and the imagination of the composer but in the end the performer himself has to add his imagination to it.  Now, you asked me about freedom.  By God I like them to play my piece pretty clearly, pretty much as they're written, but I do think that even so it's possible to have it interpreted many different ways."


For me, the amazing and truly inspiring aspect of Elliott Carter's life is that his creation of new music accelerated the older he got.  Fully half of his compositions came after he reached the age of 70.  He completed his first and only opera in 1997 at age 87.  His mind remained vibrant and his creativity prolific literally to the end of his long life.  That is a model for all of us.

As I reviewed his obituaries online one thing that struck me is that almost every photograph of him features a big, confident smile.  Carter was a happy, fulfilled individual right to the end.  This is how I want to be after age 75 - still productive, mind still creatively engaged, inspired about the possibilities of the day and, perhaps, expanding upon original ideas and motivations.

Elliott Carter enjoyed a long and satisfying life.  Whether or not you can relate to his complex music, whether you feel his works are devoid of emotion and completely consumed with technique, or whether you find him to be a unique genius of powerful creative output and style, all of us can agree that he lived a life after 70 that was fully productive and aware, distinctive and opinionated, sophisticated and rich.

There is no better goal for any of us in our lives, each in our own way, than finding and living the satisfaction that lies within us for as long as possible.  Joseph Campbell termed this "follow your bliss".  Campbell's own life was a shining example of this, as was Carter's.  Bliss beyond 100 is an admirable goal for any of us and you can find no better guru for that sort of thing than Elliott Carter.

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