Elliott Carter at 100
The composer Elliott Carter has enjoyed such a rare bounty of longevity and esteem that he wrote the music for his own centennial celebrations, and has been enjoying their world premieres. He was born a preposterously long time ago, on Dec. 11, 1908. His mentor was Charles Ives. Calvin Coolidge was in the White House when a teenaged Carter settled on a life in music. His first major work, Pocahontas, might almost be based on the composer’s interviews with the subject. Yet age has hardly dimmed his powers. His nineties were among the most productive decades of his life, and no sooner had he weathered all the 99th birthday hoopla than he plunged into a hectic centenary. He even has a job: He currently holds Carnegie Hall’s Composer Chair. (The appointment only lasts a year; the folks at Carnegie are optimistic, but they’re not crazy.)
All this eminence comes with a riddle: What does it mean to be a great composer if nobody wants to hear your music? He has famous admirers, including the conductors Daniel Barenboim, James Levine and David Robertson, but the wider public has remained stubbornly unconvinced. His admirers have doggedly kept programming his music, insisting that the world would catch up with all those bracing modernist complexities. It hasn’t happened yet. The avant-garde he led has become a historical style, but his juddering rhythms and blooms of dissonance still send audiences on a sheepish hunt for the coffee stand.
The adoration and the distaste he engenders are both genuine responses to his creative personality. His gait may have slowed, but his imagination has continued to whirl at a speed that gratifies musicians and baffles listeners. For a composer with a reputation for the cerebral, he expresses himself in fusillades of obscure intensity. I once asked David Robertson to explain the charms of Carter’s music, and he compared the listener’s experience to attending a play in an unknown language: “You don’t understand the literal significance, but you do grasp the emotional experience.” He meant it as a compliment.
His innovations have been profound. Six decades ago, Carter, a New Yorker then on the cusp of middle age, exiled himself to the Arizona desert and emerged a year later with his astonishingly radical, relentlessly urgent First Quartet. In it, he developed a technique for weaving different tempos together so tightly that the seam between them is virtually impossible to detect. The four string instruments play at different speeds, overlapping in concurrent monologues, only fleetingly cohering into conversation. The technique mirrors the way we experience real events: a highway collision, for example, at once hurtling and endless. Or the way time compresses as it slips into the past — all the creeping hours we spend in school later on get packed into a handful of darting memories. In pieces composed a lifetime apart, Carter reassembles time the way Picasso fragmented space, giving us multiple simultaneous perspectives.
He was still at it in 1996, when he wrote his Clarinet Concerto, which has the explosive vigor and intellectual abstruseness of a young man’s work. It opens in a state of emergency — bang! clang! honk! — and the excitable clarinet chatters against firefly flares of orchestration, until the score circles back to a moment of percussive majesty. The percussion suggests first one pulse, then another, then several different ones at a time. A lot happens in those first few of the piece’s nearly 18 minutes — more than the ear can account for. The unrelenting, unpredictable urgency is gripping at first, then irritating, like any mercurial behavior that goes on too long.
It’s often thought that appreciating Carter’s music requires a specialized education. The opposite is true. The ideal listener is not someone who can hold a hailstorm of sounds in the mind until a structure is blindingly revealed, but someone who lives every new moment afresh, without recalling anything at all. Considered in isolation, there is something fantastic about each skittering jag, each breathless sprint and crafted squawk. But heard one after another, the ear attempts to link them up into an argument, a narrative, or even just a continuous experience — and it can’t. We never figure out what to expect, so we accept whatever comes. For half a century and more, Carter has been making offerings to short-term memory loss. His scores have always had the rhythmic energy of the able-bodied, combined with a feeling for the mental disjunctions of extreme age. Maybe the answer to the Carter conundrum is not that he stayed forever young, but that a long, long time ago he grew prematurely old.