Tuesday, 6 November 2012


I remember going to the 80th birthday concert for Elliott Carter, at the Albert Hall, and thinking how lucky I was because there might not be another chance to see the man who through much of my lifetime I thought of as the greatest living composer. That was in 1988. Carter has died, at 103, and it's immensely sad because I always think of him as embodying the greatest impulses of the modern era—an artist who managed to express the 20th century in its own musical language, but in a way that would be, ultimately, comprehensible in terms of the previous era. That he continued doing this into the 21st century was almost as remarkable.

Almost twenty years after grabbing that 'last chance', in 2006 I went to one of the Get Carter events at the Barbican, and Carter, now 98, was there again. Some of the music being played was old, but some was new, and just as enthralling, challenging, and satisfying as anything he'd written. I can't think of another artist who continued producing quality work that late into his life; De Kooning's late paintings don't have the same force as the early ones (and there are the inevitable questions about their provenance). Eubie Blake was still playing in his 90s, but not composing. Carter's final composition was finished just two months ago, and now he has died, aged 103, not far shy of another birtnhday.

I'm sure I came to Carter's music through Charles Ives. Just as Carter nearly spanned the Twentieth Century, he was also a living bridge to Ives, whom he discovered as a youngster in New York. Ives wrote a recommendation for Carter's application to Harvard. I once wrote about Ives, in the Spectator, and said he had a 20th century mind trapped in a 19th century soul—and what drew me to Carter, I think, was the sense I had, before I had even tried to think these things out, that Carter's mind and soul were deeply in tune with my times.

At college, I had a couple of Carter records, with lovely simple psuedo-surreal jacket designs on Nonesuch. One of them, the 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (you can link to it here) was one of the two I played most nights when I was going to sleep (the other was Miles Davis' Bitches Brew--and it occurs to me as I write this that I felt much of the same awareness in Miles, Monk, or Coltrane that I did with Carter) which did not necessarily endear me to my roommates, even after I closed the door. I'm listening to it now, and I understand better now what it was then that appealed to me, on a deep and instinctive level. In one sense it's post-modern, about the instruments themselves, and their relations. But underneath the conflicts between the sounds, the timings, the essence of each individual, there is also a coming together, a way of knitting the chaos together, that to me brings all of modern life into focus, into perspective, into a sense of being something we can cope with and celebrate.

That sense becomes more and more profound in Carter's later work—especially as he moved to larger ensembles. I sometimes feel his status worldwide was less than it might have been because he was seen as a 'chamber' composer, as if the absence of a series of symphonies somehow lessened the impact of his music. But his major period is generally thought to have begun with the Concert For Orchestra, in 1969, and among my favourites of his work are the awesome A Symphony Of Three Orchestras and the Double Concerto for Harp and Piano, whose scale of ambition ought to be enough for anyone.

Carter is always the composer I suggest when people say they don't 'get' 'modern' music. There was a fantastic South Bank Show back in the 80s, in the days before contrived talent shows, house-selling, and cooking replaced serious work on commercial TV. It was made by Alan Benson, and linked carefully Carter's music to the tradition, provided signposts for hearing it as such. Seeing it performed often might accomplish the same thing: where the instruments might be arranged across the stage, and even regroup to illustrate what they up to. That he was perhaps better appreciated in this country than in America is interesting; Carter had many champions, but none so effective, or with the status in his own country, as Oliver Knussen here, and Knussen's conducting of Carter's work shows the profundity of his understanding of it.

It's funny. I began writing this feeling sad, wanting to mark the passing of not only a great man, but an amazing creative span, a century of artistic progress in an age not always committed to that. But as I listen to those four instruments engaged in their interactions, I find it impossible to be sad. Just as it did when I was young and looking to clear my addled brain, Carter's music seems to be recognising, and then unravelling mysteries. It is truly a thing of wonder, and though he will be missed, this music will live on, and speak to future generations about our times as profoundly as Mozart or Beethoven do about theirs.

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