My grandmother, Agnes Matthews, was born on January 29, 1900, and lived a remarkably active and independent life well into her 90's, when she accidentally fell and broke her hip. After that, she went into a nursing home, where she spent her remaining years in peaceful, gradual decline, confined to a wheelchair and losing all connection with reality. She finally passed away in August 2000, aged 100.
The point of me telling you about my grandmother is that I've seen what 100 years old looks like, up close and personal. It is not an age when much is expected of you. You certainly don't see many centenarians out and about, attending films or concerts. Or sitting on panels talking about their work, in which they are still actively engaged.
But composer Elliott Carter, who turns 100 later this year, does all those things, and more. He uses a cane and wears a hearing aid, and moves a bit slowly. But, as I've written previously, he is still very much active, with six works set to be premiered this year, and several more (including a Flute Concerto) in development. He is also a familiar face on the local new music scene: I've personally seen him out at least a dozen times over the past five years, to the point where I now take it for granted that he'll be in the audience wherever his music's being played. That includes Tanglewood, where he'll be this summer when the Festival of Contemporary Music performs no less than 49 of his works over five days.
But, Elliott - which is what everyone calls him - is no doddering old fool that gets trotted out for sympathetic applause. Sit him down at a table, put a microphone in front of him, and you will soon forget that he is anything other than an incredibly intelligent artist with many pointed opinions about music and its place in society. Not only is he in full possession of his mental faculties, he has a razor-sharp memory that often puts younger colleagues to shame. On Thursday night, Elliott spoke at Juilliard on a panel with conductor Joel Sachs and pianist Ursula Oppens, as part of the "All About Elliott" festival, which concludes tonight. At one point, Elliott referred to a scene in Frank Scheffer's 2004 documentary A Labyrinth of Time, in which he advised Oppens on how to play a certain passage of his Piano Concerto. She admitted she couldn't remember the scene. Later, when Sachs tried to make the point that Charles Ives heard almost none of his music performed during his lifetime, Elliott corrected him, saying he remembered frequent performances of Ives' Violin Sonatas in the 1920s and 30s.
Elliott can also be very funny. When asked whether or not he takes the performers into consideration when he writes, he said he tries not to write things that are unplayable.
"I like to write things that are at the very edge of being playable."
You might expect that the music of someone who started composing in the 1930's might sound a bit dated in these early years of the 21st Century. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elliott writes in an atonal, highly organized idiom that is spiky, complex, and absolutely fresh-sounding. It is also incredibly challenging for the first-time listener, flying in the face of current compositional trends, which lean towards tonal simplicity and rhythmic constancy. When asked about these trends, Elliott was defiant:
"I quit teaching at Juilliard because I thought the students' composition was getting too conservative. They were writing like Schumann and Brahms, and that made me mad."
There has been no shortage of opportunities to hear Elliott's music this week, mostly courtesy of the six free concerts organized by Sachs at Juilliard's Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Elliott has been at most of them, including Tuesday night's concert of works for various chamber ensembles, featuring the incredibly talented students of the New Juilliard Ensemble. The early Poems of Robert Frost (1942), were tonal and warm, with occasional dissonances that recalled the many songs of Charles Ives. The Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991) was much harsher, full of unsettling blasts of sound. Tempo e Tempi ("Time and Times") was written in 1999, setting Italian poems concerning the passage of time: surely a haunting subject for Elliott. The exciting young soprano Jennifer Zetlan delivered the texts with dramatic verve, backed by an ensemble of violin, cello, clarinet and oboe.
Asko Concerto (2000), for a chamber orchestra of 16, was the centerpiece of the program, performed on each of the concert's two halves. Elliott breaks up the ensemble into various duos, trios and quintets, playing them off each other. He also throws in some tricky solos, including an incredibly dicey one for clarinet. The first time around, Asko Concerto sounded chaotic and wild, full of disparate elements. But, in the second hearing, the underlying structure emerged, sounding far more cohesive. I could see myself getting used to this stuff.
The signal event of the week - and one of the highlights of my concertgoing life - was Wednesday's marathon concert at the Society for Ethical Culture, where the Pacifica Quartet performed all five of Elliott's string quartets, repeating the feat they first accomplished in 2002. While that would have been memorable in itself, what made the evening extraordinary was that, thanks to a kind staffer in the Chamber Music Society ticket office, I ended up sitting next to Elliott and his assistant, Virgil Blackwell, for the entire three hour concert. We chatted off and on throughout, and I listened in on numerous conversations with friends and admirers, including the playwright Edward Albee, who offered warm congratulations. "Here come your groupies, Elliott," Virgil would say to him at the start of each of the two intermissions.
But once the music started, Elliott became deadly serious. Each time I looked over at him, he was listening with his eyes closed, chin resting on his cane, looking like a 21st Century Yoda. It was as if he didn't want anything breaking his intense concentration, up to and including the gesticulations of the young Pacifica players.
Elliott's quartets are generally regarded as masterpieces of the 20th century, comparable in scale and scope to those of Bartok and Shostakovich, and are the most clearly refined expression of his compositional ideas. Unfortunately, they are rarely performed, mostly because they are notoriously difficult to play: the Juilliard Quartet, who premiered the Pulitzer-prize winning 2nd and 3rd quartets, needed two full rehearsals to master the first two bars of the 3rd quartet, which comes across in performance like a primal scream.
Taken as a whole, the quartets' defining characteristic is the interplay between each of the four instruments, with often surprising results. The first quartet (1951) is the longest and most lyrical, bringing to mind the the quartets of Schoenberg and Bartok. (I overheard Elliott say to someone that he knew Bartok and occasionally visited him when he lived in New York.) In the second quartet (1959), a sense of alienation takes over: Elliott indicates in the score that the players should be seated apart, "like characters in a Beckett play."
The third quartet (1971) is radical and experimental: Elliott wrote two duos - one for violin and cello, the other for violin and viola - that have little connection with each other, often resulting in long silences for one or the other pair of musicians. Only at the end does Elliott bring all four strings back together. The fourth quartet (1986) goes one step further, drawing separate lines for each of the four players, as if they were distinct characters in a drama. It starts out lyrically, and gradually moves towards harsh noise, with occasional consonances thrown in.
After two-and-a-half hours, the fifth quartet (1995) came as something of a relief, resembling the soft, slow dynamics of Morton Feldman's music. Inspired by a rehearsal, it's full of fits and starts, with a deliberate lack of continuity.
As Elliott took his walk up to the stage to acknowledge yet another standing ovation, I began to wonder how his music will stand up over time against the far more accessible music of the subsequent generation of American composers, namely: Adams, Glass, and Reich. Compared to those guys, Elliott doesn't make it easy for us to love him: his music is dense, difficult, even exhausting. But, we do anyway.