We continue to receive reminiscences marking Elliott Carter’s recent passing at the age of 103. Below, we hear from John Aylward, a composer and Carter scholar. He spent many of his formative years in Arizona. Stories of Elliott’s 1950-’51 sojourn to the area to write the First String Quartet have remained influential on Aylward’s own creative process.
In remembering Carter, I think of how, in 1950, Carter ventured to Tucson, Arizona to compose his 1st String Quartet. Tucson is where I was born, and so I’m familiar with the intense isolation that Carter must have been seeking. In those vast, expansive desert landscapes, a certain kind of depth can be had once one is separated from the noise of our culture. The Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson is a place so completely removed from the concerns of our world. Coming from New York City, Carter was brave to face this isolation. But his exploratory character must have drawn him to it: a silent environment where he could imagine a music all his own.
My own experiences with Carter were transforming. I first met him in New York at a concert celebrating his 95th birthday. A performance of this 5th String Quartet made a great impression on me, and I wanted to know how it was put together. Carter was notoriously shy about discussing the technical aspects of his work and with me he was no different. Soon after, I took the time to study the work’s sketches at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Switzerland. After satisfying my technical curiosities, I realized that Carter was right to not want to ‘talk shop’ too much with me. He was concerned with being understood as an artist and not a technician: that all the rigors of his work were in service of his art.
Like the desert Carter explored while composing one of his most ground-breaking works, contemporary music itself can sometimes feel inaccessible, even to those who care about it so deeply. For those looking in, perhaps they see a window into the alienation artists can feel as they attempt relevant cultural commentary in such an abstract medium. And Carter’s music is no different, having sometimes been characterized as difficult to access. But what Carter gave us, in the example of his life and work ethic, was the opportunity to move beyond that discourse, and into a space where the rigorous pursuit, and the excitement and adventures of creation, are valued most highly. It is certainly through Carter’s persistent search, over a lifetime, that he found an original voice. Such an artistic path might set an example for any young artist worried about staking a claim too soon.