Okay, he won’t be a hundred until December, but he’s close enough that it counts.
He may be the most revered and reviled composer living now.
I’m certainly a big fan of his music. Just this weekend I heard, for the first time, a live performance of his Holiday Overture, an early work that proved, if anyone cared to know, that Carter could push an audience’s buttons as well as anyone.
So this is a good time for me to tell of my first three encounters with EC when he was but a strapping, young lad in his seventies.
ENCOUNTER ONE: Elliott was a guest composer at the Hartt School of Music, where I was working on being as worthy of the name “sophomore” as possible.
As part of his residency, he had lunch with the composition students in the cafeteria one day. To my surprise, the Great One got his tray of food and sat across from me at a little two-person table.
After an awkward moment of chomping, I cleared my throat, and stabbed at something appropriate to say. “So, Mr. Carter, can you tell me what you are working on these days?”
I waited for an uncomfortable minute, then ventured, “Is that a bad question?”
He stood up, took his tray, and moved to another table.
ENCOUNTER TWO: The next day, Carter was interviewed on the school radio station, and I was chosen, as University Scholar (that’s another story), to pitch him a question.
Eager to show the breadth, or at least the depths, of my erudition, I brought up the pivotal time around 1950, when it seemed he was turning his attention to new ideas. I asked him what prodded him to this change of direction.
He dismissed my question as foolish, saying his music had always been concerned with the same things.
ENCOUNTER THREE: Two years later, when I auditioned for grad school, I had the honor and pleasure of being interviewed by Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti. And that’s also another story.
The music I put before them had much of what one might expect to find from a composition student c. 1981. But there was one piece that was aggressively odd: it harmonized a twelve-tone bass line with a succession of major triads whose roots formed a whole-tone scale, under a melody that included improvisation. As kooky as that may seem, it actually sounded quite lovely.
When they got to that piece, they asked me to explain what was going on. I told them that a friend of mine had killed herself, jumping off a building, and I could only think to respond by trying to make something beautiful out of elements that made no sense together.
Carter said, and I paraphrase (give me a break, it was 27 years ago), “Well, we all have difficult things in our lives, but the music must remain steadfast.”
These three encounters taught me that different people have to write different music. I had thought, up until then, that evolution in music reigned supreme, that it had to gradually develop along a logical path, and each of us was charged with contributing to that development. I studied each new score in earnest detail, noting each innovation and extrapolating where each idea could take me, if I followed its lead.
In my early encounters with Elliott, I learned that there are composers I admire, but whose relationship to the world and to composing is different from mine. No matter how much I may respect their work, it would be wrong for me to emulate their approach. My music has to come from the subjective person I am, not from some objectification of how music history works.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming Elliott for being the way he is (or was thirty years ago) – that would be pointless, like blaming the wind for blowing, or a vacuum for sucking. And I’m sure there are countless individuals out there who can attest to his warmth and nurturing character, as opposed to his penchant for making a certain worshipful young composer feel like a smacked ass.
He was just a very clear demonstration, at a pivotal moment in my life, of a way I didn’t want to be – and a way I could choose not to be. And from that realization came the understanding that I wasn’t going to build my music on anybody else’s shoulders. I was going to have to start by planting my own feet firmly in the ground beneath me.
Thank you, Elliott, and many happy returns.