Remembering Elliott Carter

From Tod Machover – 

Just read the news that Elliott Carter passed away today, a month short of his 104th birthday. What a big loss, what an inspiring life. I was lucky enough to study with Elliott at Juilliard and have always considered him my mentor. He remained imaginative, brilliant, searching and expanding to the very end, something to always aspire to. Beautiful obituary by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post.

Tod Machover with Elliott Carter at his home in Waccabuc, NY

I wrote this text about Elliott Carter for a Nonesuch Records retrospective CD box set a few years ago: “White-hot imagination – profound yet playful, free-flowing yet disciplined – is perhaps what I admire most about Elliott Carter. In fact, when I was studying with Elliott at Juilliard in the mid-70s, contact with his unbounded creativity was initially disorienting but ultimately the most inspiring and lasting mentorship that I received. I had been used to more traditional composition teachers who established clear stylistic and theoretical boundaries, and who carefully monitored my compositional progress from week to week and work to work. Not so with Elliott. During each lesson he’d look at whatever growing piece I brought in as if it were a sketch of his own, never passing judgment, but rather inventing on the spot multiple ways of approaching each musical moment, measure, or movement. The ideas would come fast and furious, a color here, a harmony there, a more effective transition, a more convincing conclusion. For several months, I was bewildered about what to do with this information. Which ideas, if any, to retain? What continuity held these comments together? But gradually I started quizzing Elliott about underlying principles in his music, especially concerning direction in non-traditional harmony and the careful balance of complex textures. In doing so, I came to appreciate Elliott’s way of thinking, grounded in deep instincts rather than easily described systems. To me, it is the courage to follow such unspoken principles that has allowed Carter to invent uniquely fresh – never prepackaged – solutions for each musical situation, and that makes his musical mind the most brilliant of our time.”

2 Replies to “Remembering Elliott Carter”

  1. I saw Elliott Carter in public, accompanied by his wife, little more than a year ago, at one of the Works & Process events in the fall 2011 Guggenheim Museum schedule. The program gave five of Carter’s pieces, written between 1990 and 2008, to each of two young choreographers. While their works were enjoyable as well as admirable, Carter himself was probably the real star of the evening, and at the program’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 output, 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 at least a few. 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, though he had completed the earliest at around age 82 and the latest at perhaps 100. What I heard, in other words, was five examples of the “uniquely fresh…solutions” that Tod Machover spoke of above.

    Presumably Carter’s lifespan was not entirely his doing. But the use he 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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