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A Composer for the Century

Elliott Carter's groundbreaking musical journey has mirrored the times he's lived in. Through it all, he's remained a rebel.

November 15, 1998|KEN SMITH | Ken Smith writes about music for Time Out New York and other publications

"I am a radical," composer Elliott Carter once said, "having a nature that leads me to perpetual revolt."

And for most of his nearly 90 years, Carter has stuck to his guns. As a high school student in the '20s, he discovered the wild rhythms and extended harmony of cutting-edge Stravinsky and Varese, attending concerts with another American musical radical, Charles Ives. At Harvard, he grappled unhappily with a curriculum that "didn't contain contemporary music." "I tried to write modern music," he remembers, "but I ended up sounding like Mendelssohn."

For a while he embraced the more accessible neoclassicism, with its fashionable updating of 18th century music, but in the late '40s he found the radical voice that would lead him to two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1960 and 1973. As he approaches his 90th birthday in December, Carter remains the uncompromising dean of American music.

Carter's First String Quartet (1951), which critic-composer Virgil Thomson likened to "four intrinsically integrated solos, all going on at the same time," embodies his style--a complex swirl of musical confrontations and collisions that to his champions expresses the chaos and disunity of our time, and to his detractors displays merely the thorny incomprehensibility of modern music.

This year, those detractors have been mostly in retreat, particularly in his hometown of New York City. His birthday tribute at Columbia University's Miller Theatre was packed with appreciative ears, and the applause at the New York premiere of his 1996 Clarinet Concerto by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 31 seemed to last nearly as long as the piece itself.

Next month, Carter plans to celebrate his milestone birthday--appropriately--at a concert where Oliver Knussen will conduct his 45-minute "Symphonia" with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Carter tributes are scheduled in London, Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt. In Los Angeles, the celebration has already begun: Today the Los Angeles Philharmonic performs "Allegro Scorrevole" (one-third of the "Symphonia"), and Southwest Chamber Music plays his Sonata for Cello and Piano. Next Sunday, the Arditti Quartet will be joined by pianist Ursula Oppens in the West Coast premiere of a new Carter quintet at Caltech, just five days after the same forces give it its world premiere in Washington.

Carter spoke to The Times at the Greenwich Village apartment where he lives with his wife of 60 years, Helen. Like his music, his home is free of clutter, with a fine attention to detail.

Question: As someone who embodies most of the 20th century, what does it mean to be a 20th century composer?

Answer: In my particular instance, it means to reflect the time we live in, which has changed enormously in every aspect. When I was a little boy, we lived up on Riverside Drive and 114th Street. I'd walk to school on 120th Street, hitchhiking on the back of a horse-drawn ice truck, which I still remember vividly. We've lived through two horrible wars, which is one reason I went back to writing the kind of music I had been writing at first. By the time of the Second World War, neoclassicism didn't express to me the tension and worry and stress of the time; I wanted something more adult and significant. In my [early] music, I like to think you can hear the horses trotting; in my later music, you can hear marching. Now war is fought in tanks and airplanes, and I feel my music today reflects all of this.

Q: Something particularly endemic to our time is that although modern music reflects the 20th century, the audience remains stuck in the 19th. Why do they resist the new?

A: It's hard for me to understand why audiences don't like modern music, because I feel it's so interesting, so lively, with so much more to think about. Sure, Beethoven and Brahms are beautiful in a way, but they don't have that freshness that contemporary music always does. I think people today go to concerts because it reminds them of that grand, great period in the 19th century, when people were wealthy and had great chandeliers. They enjoy being bathed in the sumptuous world of the past. It's all very beautiful, but it just ain't there anymore.

Two factors are at work. One, particularly in this country, is that what we call serious music has been treated as an entertainment, where in Europe it has maintained [its intellectual] prestige. The BBC, for example, plays large amounts of contemporary music--including my own pieces. I don't know whether audiences like it or not, but my concerts in London are always packed, partly because of familiarity with the music.

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