News of Elliott Carter's death yesterday is on the front page of today's New York Times. But three years ago, Elliott Carter had been all over the TV news. This was not because of a great new piece he'd written, or to celebrate his Pulitzer Prizes in Music (yes, that's right, prizes -- plural).
No, Elliott Carter's great, newsworthy achievement was living to be 100 years old. To be present at your own centennial concert at Carnegie Hall was a story too good to pass up.
A year later, speaking to Carter at the annual League Of Composers concert at Miller Theater, I found him to be somewhat bemused by the whole thing. But he laughed when I introduced the event as the start of "Elliott Carter, the next hundred years." A year after that, he regaled us with tales of the founding of the League: Aaron Copland and he had competing composers organizations, an idea the young Carter found "silly." Last year, in 2011, Carter's hearing was dramatically worse, so he came prepared with something he wanted to say about the particular piece being performed that night. "After that," he told me, "you can ask me your crazy questions." I always thought this was just an expression, but I swear, there was an actual twinkle in his eyes when he said this.
Elliott Carter wrote music that for most listeners is impenetrable. I don't mean this either as a putdown or as some kind of sniffy "Oh you wouldn't understand" defense of his work. It's a simple fact, one that Carter was fine with. His music was challenging, intellectual, and uncompromising. Yet he was a very funny guy.
Carter wasn't at this year's League Of Composers concert, but he was at the NY Philharmonic's Contact series, conductor Alan Gilbert's new music events, so I got to talk to him then. By this point he was wheelchair bound, but still sharp as a tack. So there, in the august Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by the distinguished musicians of the New York Philharmonic, I decided it was time for one of my crazy questions.
"I am not the only person who thinks that your works since you turned 90 are the best works of your career," I said. This, by the way, was true; I'd said it backstage to clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, Carter's assistant and the dedicatee of a recent Carter piece, and Blackwell had immediately agreed. "What have you been doing different since then?" Without missing a beat, he answered, "Well, I spent 90 years learning how to be Elliott Carter. I guess I've just gotten good at it."
Not bad for a 103-year-old.
Carter's recent music is so finely distilled, without a single extraneous note, that it becomes somewhat easier to hear the lyricism that has been lurking under the thorny exterior of his music. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the works of his youth, which in Carter's case means his mid 70s. The work that converted me was the piano piece "Night Fantasies," from the early 1980s.
I was not supposed to like Elliott Carter. He represented the old school, the dissonant, academic style that my heroes, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, were fighting against. But "Night Fantasies" is a brilliant depiction of an unsettled night, full of fleeting dreamlike images, spiky but atmospheric.
Tonight, I will be glued to the television, watching the election returns roll in. But I will make some time late this afternoon, maybe after the sun goes down, to listen to "Night Fantasies" again. If you're curious about this major figure in American music, maybe you should too.