In the course of a get-together with Elliott Carter for review of the proofs of one of his music manuscripts, I chanced to mention in passing the name of a musician in whose work I did not expect him to take much interest: Sergei Rachmaninoff. His reaction was to rise wordlessly from the sofa, cross into his study, turn around, square his shoulders, set his features in a glowering look of gloom, and stalk Golemlike back into the living room as if approaching a grand piano on a concert stage. The effect – in the light of remembered photographs of Rachmaninoff and old stories heard from my deceased grandfather – was that of a literal reincarnation of the perpetually melancholic Russian. Almost as surprising to me was the fact that, in the thirty-five or so years that I had known Elliott, he had never previously given a hint of such uncanny and hilarious powers of thespian mimicry.
A second, not unrelated experience providing insight into his creative nature was his way of answering a question about articulation, phrasing, and rhythmic notation in a music manuscript of his that I had been asked to check for completeness and clarity. Confronted with an ambiguously notated passage, he did not sit motionless in silent contemplation of the paper – rather his entire body became animated in a kind of physical rendition of the passage as he recalled how he wanted it to go. Only then could he decide what the solution to the notational problem ought to be. It was clear that for Elliott, music was body language.
This would explain his lack of interest in forms of electronic music and systems of rhythmic organization that threatened to remove or paralyze the gesture of the organism from which the music had to originate. Thus even when Elliott had recourse to schematic charts (as he did in much of the middle phase of his mature period), it was always by way of stimulus to organic musical invention – never a substitute for it. (A salient example would be the climactic stroke of his Concerto for Orchestra, at measure 550, which does not correspond to any calibration point of the large scale four-voice polyrhythm that the sketches show to be the scaffolding for the composition as a whole.)
His sense of the nature of music as body language is reflected in his interest in the independent contribution that performers make to the discovery and projection of the potential of the written score. As an example, his description of his scores as “scenarios” implicitly acknowledges the room for maneuver that is automatically left to musical performers as “actors” (as if in a play) by reason of the fact that a written score, based on the world’s first Cartesian coordinate system, is inherently incomplete and rigid – that is, unable to chart the interstices and margins of reality lying between and around the notational symbols, and unable to prescribe with precision the ebb and flow of pace and intensity inherent in body language – such that the composer, upon delivering a written score, finds himself in the position of the parent of a child: the score, like the script of a play, has a life of its own, whose career, for better or for worse, cannot be entirely foreseen nor entirely controlled by its author.
For those who know and love the music of Elliott Carter, the considerable acceleration of his output in later years will be felt to have brought a piñata of new musical gifts to enrich the repertoire of classical music of the post-World War II period. Enabling that acceleration was an ever-increasing facility in the handling of a personal musical language (perfected only in his fifth decade of life) together with a growing preference (in his tenth decade) for delicacy and playfulness over intricacy of argumentation. Also facilitating the flow of new works was Elliott’s practical decision to compose directly in full score, rather than adhere to the timeconsuming two-stage routine (short-score-followed-by-full-score) that had been his throughout his composing career at least up to and including the opera What Next? Although this “direct-to-full-score” approach entailed more intensive follow-up work in the proof stage, there can be no doubt that, on balance, it freed the composer’s imagination to roam onward toward the next project that appealed to him almost from the moment he put down the pen on the draft of his latest.
As has been noticed by many, a key characteristic of Elliott’s music is the consistent ability of each piece to hold the attention of the listener from first note to last. Having given more than a little thought to the nature of this very strong narrative gift, I would like to take the opportunity of this remembrance to propose that its dynamic consists in a suspenseful play of contrast and analogy among a set of distinct musical gestures, usually introduced early in the piece, whose nonidentical recurrences challenge the listener constantly to be on the alert, thinking “Isn’t that a close relative of something I heard earlier?” or “Isn’t that so-and-so, whom I used to know but haven’t seen for a while? My, how he/she has changed. What will become of him/her?”
New York, January 15, 2013