“Oh Dark, Dark, Dark
They all go into the Dark”
so wrote T. S. Eliot, but it was hard to believe this of Elliott Carter who was still composing at 104, and whose mind and memory was still as sharp as yesterday, that darkness would ever settle over him.
Elliott and I (and Helen when alive, of course) were close neighbors for over 45 years. The Carters lived one floor below us (two apartments to a floor) in the same building and so we saw each other quite often.
I shall miss him smiling on his daily walk along 12th street, near the house on the arms of his health aide, stopping to share the day’s thoughts with me, but most of all I shall miss his creative presence. Elliott was a close neighbor (an elevator acquaintance, then a friend, and finally through our daily elevator chatter a close sharer of creative thoughts). Frighteningly close, we slid though each other’s lives as acquaintances, as friends, and then as shared intellects, one elevator above the other, “till elevators dropped us from our day”, to use one of his favorite lines from Hart Crane.
The pattern of our lives and thinking was uncannily close –
Even though we were twenty years apart, gradually (at least for me) there came the music – little by little we came to realize that we had trodden the same creative road, starting with The Rite of Spring as inspiration for our interest in music, and then avant-garde poetry, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and the radicalization through events at Harvard. He became like a father figure to me and penned himself up not only on music but on his personal development. As I became acquainted with the power of his music, I gradually developed a film production centered around our talks and how he was indeed a resume of the century as Pierre Boulez characterized him. By doing interviews on video over three years, I came to appreciate how we had trodden the same road of being mesmerized by the excitement of avant-garde literature, and art. I too went to Harvard and majored in English. I too spent my college career living with avant-garde literature and painting, wrote my thesis on T. S. Eliot.
We were both very conscious of the passage of time, as I was in my eighties and he in his hundreds, so we became like father and son to one another. At the age of about 90 he wrote an opera entitled What Next?. For him this expressed the essence of his personal and artistic life – looking forward and dealing with the force of time as it presents demands and opportunities.
What Next? seems like a simplistic cliché, yet for an artist to constantly be asking himself this question and living it in his work is an arduous struggle, not only with his conscious but also with the subliminal unstated paradigms of his life.
It was only naturally that I thought of him as the embodiment of the avant-garde of the twentieth century, just as I felt about my life – whether it was T. S. Eliot, Joyce, Stravinsky, Yeats, Pound et al.
I came to know Elliott as an intellectual and artist; whole life patterns eerily reflected mine twenty years later.
Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot, a poem whose beauty he and I shared near the end of his life, a meditation on time an age seems to me very relevant to the description of Carter’s life:
“… a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
In my end is my beginning.”
For Eliott Carter all things pointed to the present, a constant reaffirmation of all that is alive. He provided that inspiration for me throughout the vicissitudes of my life personal and creative, both in words, but even more strongly in the unspoken power of his music. I still find myself taking to his ghost in our elevator about whatever is NEW that day.
“Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird:
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
His presence will always be with me, always pointing to the end, which is present.