Making Music (Almost) Forever:
Composer Elliott Carter, who died on November 5th, barely a month short of what would’ve been his 104th birthday, continued to write and even to get out until recently. He attended a New York Philharmonic premiere of one of his pieces in June and completed his most recent work in August of this year.
Little more than a year ago, I saw Carter in public at one of the Works & Process events in the fall 2011 Guggenheim Museum schedule [guggenheim program]. The program gave five of Carter’s pieces, written between 1990 and 2008, to each of two young choreographers, Emery LeCrone and Avichai Scher. I had heard some of the music at one of LeCrone’s rehearsals and was nearly lost in its rhythmic and metrical complexities, but LeCrone and Scher, mastering that challenge, created dances that illuminated the music from two disparate angles, LeCrone dramatizing a kind of searching quality in the scores and Scher picking up on a lively, spritely spirit in the music. While their choreography was enjoyable as well as admirable, Carter himself was probably the real star of the evening, and at the evening’s end, he stood (with some difficulty) to acknowledge the applause of everyone present.
Though I’m not musically trained and know almost none of Carter’s other work, I gleaned a few impressions from that occasion. His longevity surpassed even that of those nearly eternal conductors of which the music world has seen many. And his compositional inventiveness was hard to compare to anything. Carter seemed to have an evergreen spirit: there was no sign (to me at least) of “late style” in any of the pieces performed that night, though he had been writing for 50 years or more when he produced them. What I heard, in short, was five examples of the “uniquely fresh … solutions for each musical situation” that composer Tod Machover spoke of in a reminiscence remembering carter of studying under Carter in the 70s.
Carter’s long run can be attributed to the Fates, those goddesses imagined by the Greeks to spin as well as finally to cut the threads of an individual life. But the use that Carter made of his allotted time–apparently never tiring in his work, much less stopping–was an accomplishment the rest of us can admire and hope to emulate.
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