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Nearly 100 (mph)

Approaching the century mark, experimental composer Elliott Carter keeps up an astonishing pace. Each work, he says, is 'an adventure.'

August 17, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — On THE morning I visited Elliott Carter last month, he was staying in a red cottage in this quaint village in the Berkshires. Five miles up the road is Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, which was in the midst of hosting a 10-concert, 47-work festival of Carter's demanding music. Just down the road from the cottage is the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The weather was miserable. Audiences trudged through downpours to get to Seiji Ozawa Hall. A terrifying lightning storm threatened those trying to reach the restrooms in a neighboring building during one intermission. Still, good-sized audiences turned up, and young fans and musicians swarmed around the composer as if he were a rock star.

Despite the gloom, Carter appeared ever sunny. I told him how I used to be able to follow his career either through live performances or with the help of recordings. But that was when he used to write a major piece on the average of once a year. Now works large and small come in such a torrent I struggle to keep up with him.

"I wish I could write so much more that you couldn't keep up with it at all," Carter replied with a mischievous laugh. This morning he was 99 years, 7 months and 3 weeks old, yet he wasn't exaggerating about his output. He contributed two new pieces for the Tanglewood festival, and the retrospective included more than a dozen works he had written since he turned 95. In September, a flute concerto will have its premiere at the Jerusalem Festival. In December, the Boston Symphony will unveil his third piano concerto, "Interventions," which the orchestra commissioned for its music director, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim as soloist.

A few days later -- on Dec. 11, Carter's 100th birthday -- the Boston Symphony will give the New York premiere of "Interventions" in Carnegie Hall. Also on that program will be Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," in honor of the fact that the seminal score inspired Carter to become a composer when he first heard it as a teenager in Carnegie in the early 1920s.

The constant remark made about Carter during the Tanglewood festival was that he is unique in music history. No major composer has ever been so vital for so long. Verdi was 80 when he wrote his last opera, "Falstaff," which has always been considered a marvel of old age. Richard Strauss was 84 when he ended his career with his autumnal "Four Last Songs." Wearing a red shirt and suspenders in his cottage, Carter looked as though he might have stepped out of a Rockwell painting. But although Rockwell was born only 14 years before Carter, the painter glorified a bygone era. Carter, on the other hand, remains as unapologetic a Modernist as ever, tirelessly composing what many still think of as music of the future.

He has always prided himself on making every piece something new, typically experimenting with new harmonic methods and structural principles for major compositions. In his late late period, Carter has found ways to become, if anything, less predictable.

Neither of the new pieces for "Carter's Century," as the Tanglewood festival was called, sounded remotely like anything he had written before. "Sound Fields," which can be heard on the Boston Symphony's web TV, is remarkably spare from a composer who is known for density. Carter invented that allowed him to let different kinds of musical characters speak at once, all moving at different speeds and in different ways. His music is often urban and can be noisy. In his thor- ny Third String Quartet, from 1971, the four instruments are treated like individuals, each with his or her own voice, own tempo, own everything.

Yet "Sound Fields" is rapturously peaceful, made up of long, long notes and a slowly moving chord or two, reminiscent of Charles Ives' "Unanswered Question." This seven-minute moody tapestry of shifting string colors could lead one to believe that Carter has finally slowed down. Or maybe that he's out to shock by writing the unexpected.

Neither is the case, Carter claims, although he likes to joke that the transparency of his latest music is the result of old-age laziness. "I don't try to surprise," he said. "I just write what I want. I always approach each piece as an adventure of some kind. I'm always afraid that I'll lose interest in it if it isn't adventurous enough and stimulating and exciting and I don't have something to look forward to."

The other new piece, "Mad Regales," was something altogether different. A setting for six a cappella voices of three poems by the American Modernist John Ashbery proved oddly playful. Even the poet, who sat next to Carter at the premiere, was said to have been pleasantly startled. Carter's quirky, humorous settings of his words sounded as though they burst out of nowhere.


To better understand himself

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