Tom Service has explored the myths surrounding contemporary music – and now, in part one of a new series, he takes a close listen to the amazing work of the 103-year old Elliott Carter
If there are any composers writing more profoundly joyful, or youthful, music than the American Elliott Carter, I've yet to discover them. He's the closest any of us will probably ever experience to new music's Haydn. He's also, incidentally, 103: old enough to have become his own style, his own musical world. Carter's recent music – and there's a truly astonishing amount that he's written since his 80th, and even his 90th, birthdays – is witty and acerbic, energising and lyrical, but he owes this explosion of creativity to hard decades of compositional labour in the 1950s and 60s, when he refined a language of teeming, vitalising, mind-bending complexity.
Carter still lives in the downtown New York apartment where he has watched the city where he was born grow, develop, and teem beneath him since the second world war. But New York is not the place where he discovered the musical language that would fuel more than 60 years of phenomenal creativity that continues even now, in his 104th year.
It was in the desert of Arizona in 1950-51 that Carter made his breakthrough discoveries in musical time and space. After a year of compositional soul-searching, Carter finished his First String Quartet, a 45-minute musical dreamscape, whose structure was suggested, Carter says, by a Jean Cocteau film, Le sang d'un poète. In the quartet, you can hear the key to Carter's later music, from the way the piece melts four main movements into one gigantic superstructure, to how the music moves from one speed to another so seamlessly that you don't notice it happening until you realise you're in a new musical dimension (listen to the opening minutes of the quartet's fourth movement to hear his mastery of the technique known as "metric modulation". The sounds this quartet makes are thrillingly varied, from torrentially fast music to lyrical intensity, and yet the whole thing is made coherent by the use of a new harmonic device that Carter had found (a chord dauntingly called the "all-interval tetrachord"; basically, a collection of four notes – say, C, D flat, E flat and G – that contains the potential to generate every musical interval you can think of, the ultimate composer's toolkit).
Before the Quartet, Carter's music was a brilliant, ambitious vision of New Deal neo-classicism, music that was influenced by his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. But Carter's early life in New York (in the 1920s and 30s) had also introduced him to the music of Charles Ives – who championed the younger composer, Alban Berg, George Gershwin and, his biggest single musical influence, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which, in the 20s, was still sending shock waves.
But nothing any of these composers had written prepared the musical world for Carter's music of the later 50s, 60s, and 70s. He composed in those days painstakingly slowly, and he had to, because in pieces such as the Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano ("a masterpiece, and by an American composer", Stravinsky somewhat patronisingly said), or the Concerto for Orchestra, the Second and Third String Quartets or the Symphony of Three Orchestras, he explodes the ideas he discovered in his First Quartet into mind-bending musical regions. Instead of one stream of musical time and texture, Carter puts several on top of each other. In his Third Quartet, the four players are split into two duos who play different music at different speeds simultaneously – which the players, have somehow to co-ordinate (listen to how the heroic Arditti Quartet do it), and in the Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1969, Carter splits the ensemble into four, each associated with a different harmony and a different kind of motion. It took Oliver Knussen's brilliant recording of the piece with the London Sinfonietta in 1992 to fully realise the Concerto's enormous poetic power. Carter was inspired by the imagery of Saint-John Perse's 1946 poem, Vents; to listen to the Concerto for Orchestra is to experience all of the drama of a seasonal year, a whole cycle of birth, death, and renewal, in a mere 20 minutes.
Carter told me not far off a decade ago, when he was a mere slip of a lad approaching his 95th birthday, that he didn't know how he had the patience to write down this teemingly, ferociously compositionally demanding music. But thank goodness he did: it's music whose secrets only get richer the more you listen. My favourite of the pieces from Carter's heroic period is the 1964-5 Piano Concerto, partly because it makes an extraordinarily energetic and sometimes terrifying noise – such as the moment when the orchestra attempts to suffocate the pianist with a vapour-like veil of sound, but also because it's a piece whose labyrinthine depths of meaning and motion could sustain a lifetime of listening – and are quite possibly unplumbable.
Since the 1980s, something has happened to Carter's productivity. He has got faster and more productive – rather like what we now know is happening to the universe, as the stars and galaxies spin faster and faster away from each other the older they get. He has been able to harness the discoveries of his earlier music so that he doesn't have to start from scratch every time he puts pen to paper, and he now inhabits his own musical world so completely that he knows every blade of grass, every boulder, and every life-form on planet Carter, and he can call on all of them to do his bidding. As Daniel Barenboim commented, "Carter's music is always in good humour, you feel its high spirits, the tongue-in-cheek, the recklessness". Each of the pieces he has written in the last 20 years is an explosive highlight, from the miniatures he has composed for his friends, to the concertos he composed for the Boston Symphony and the Asko Ensemble, the works for voice he has increasingly written, or another personal favourite, a piano concerto in miniature called Dialogues, written for Nicolas Hodges. Whether you start with the Quartets or with Dialogues, with the Concerto for Orchestra or his opera, What Next?, enjoy getting Carter. (Had to get that in somewhere…)
* A Celebration of Some 100x150 NotesCarter virgins start here – this distils all the authentic Carterian life-enhancing energy and richness into three jam-packed, irresistible minutes.
* First String QuartetThe work that opened the door to Carter's musical universe
* Concerto for OrchestraComplex, yes, but an incandescent blaze of musical poetry.
* Carter in interviewThe composer talks about his early years
* Oboe ConcertoA fantastic performance from Nicholas Daniel and the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Carter's most lyrical concerto.
Next week: Pauline Oliveros
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