Elliott Carter: the obituaries

Yesterday, Elliott Carter’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, announced the news that one of America’s greatest composers had passed away at 103. Carter’s centurion career was so enduring, his output so age-defying, that new terms – ‘late maturity’, ‘post-maturity’ – had to be invented to capture the work of his ninth, tenth and eleventh decades. Some of us even began to wonder whether we would ever hear this news, sad though it is. When I received the email from Boosey’s this morning the headline seemed so improbable I passed over it at first.

Here are links to some of the best obituaries that are coming out:

Boosey and Hawkes:

The great range and diversity of his music has, and will continue to have, influence on countless composers and performers worldwide. He will be missed by us all but remembered for his brilliance, his wit and his great canon of work.

Ivan Hewett, Guardian:

Urban and “machine-age” sounds and gestures did not interest him; they were too much of the moment. He wanted a modernism beyond fashion, rooted in a new kind of syntax, and to achieve that some European sophistication would be necessary. All the things he had absorbed would eventually find a place his modernist idiom: the idea of dramatic personages found in Mozart operas, the independent layers of English madrigals, the syntactic rigour of Arnold Schoenberg – and the combination of strict and free rhythm in jazz pianists he admired, such as Art Tatum.

Hewett has also written an appreciation for the Telegraph:

One felt more sure of things in his presence, as if his own amazing single-mindedness created its own aura. He was able to be so genially tolerant of music we all knew he must despise, like minimalism, because he was so sure of his own path.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times:

The third of “the three Cs” of American music, Carter, like his contemporaries Aaron Copland andJohn Cage, did much to define the American sound in the 20th century. Restless, inquiring and perpetually up to date, his music tended to be ever-changeable, and his most important contribution was rhythmic invention. He resisted a constricting regular pulse, seeking instead a more organic way of thinking about time. […]

Carter’s sense of rhythm and meter had its mathematical component as well. He experimented with the effects of playing different melodies at different speeds at the same time. But this technique, rather than making everything sound at cross purposes, rewarded anyone willing to concentrate hard enough with the experience of relativity without the bother of space flight.

Allan Kozinn, New York Times:

“As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public,” he once explained to an interviewer who asked him why he had chosen to write such difficult music. “I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

Anne Midgette, Washington Post:

Mr. Carter’s career was like some of the towering cathedrals of Europe: so long in the making that it reflected the dramatic shifts in artistic style that take place over a century.

Stephen Walsh, The Arts Desk:

It’s hard to imagine that a composer’s death at the age of 103 could be a loss to music, in the sense of possible future work, as well as a personal loss, which of course death will always be. But Elliott Carter was a unique exception. Not only was he still writing music up to a few weeks before his death on the 5th November, but the dozen or so works he had completed since his hundredth birthday showed none of the negative traces of old age one would normally expect to find in the music of somebody even four-fifths his age.

Paul Griffiths has one of the best stories of them all, in the OUP blog:

I must have seen Elliott Carter several times in London from deep back in the seventies; perhaps the earliest of my mental photographs has him standing at the kerbside at Oxford Circus, waiting to cross the road, his head slightly turned and raised to look at his publisher who was with him, Janis Susskind, his face (as it would always be) smiling, his white hair lifted by the wind. But an occasion to meet him properly did not come until June 1995, at the Aldeburgh Festival, when I had to interview him for The (London) Times about the piece he had written for the coming Proms: Adagio tenebroso, the middle movement of hisSymphonia. Already then his continuing productivity was remarkable, and that was certainly on my mind as we sat together in an area of the lounge at the Wentworth Hotel, where we were both staying. Here was Elliott Carter, whose first published works, though by no means youthful, were by now almost six decades old. Here he was: sitting, smiling, waiting for the first question.

“Mr. Carter,” I began, “now that you’re eighty-seven—”

“Eighty-six!” he promptly and cheerfully intervened.

The Guardian has produced a really excellent collection of reminiscences and tributes.

ulyssestone has compiled a reverse chronology of Carter’s music on Spotify:


ELISION at King’s Place, reviewed

Sum Over Histories

Elliott Carter: Hiyoku
Chris Dench: sum over histories
Richard Barrett: Hypnerotomachia (wp)
Aaron Cassidy: I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips
Michael Finnissy: Marrngu
Evan Johnson
: Apostrophe 1 (all communicate is a form of complaint) (ukp)

Members of ELISION:
Richard Haynes, clarinets
Carl Rosman, voice, clarinets

King’s Place, 2 November 2009

As it turned out, Carter’s Hiyoku wasn’t an entirely representative prologue to this concert. True, there isn’t much contemporary repertoire for two clarinets, and suitable preludes must be even harder to find. Although it was beautifully played, with the rolling suspensions in the second half of the piece flowing seamlessly out of one another, it was a deceptively soft-edged way to begin an ELISION recital. Chris Dench’s sum over histories, for bass and contrabass clarinet, set a more familiar tone. I’ve said before that I don’t really get on with Dench’s music, and still don’t get on with the first half of this piece. As its gestural language gradually thins out over the course of the piece I find it easier to get into, but that only leaves me more puzzled about the earlier bits. It’s not clear at what level I should be listening: to microscopic detail, or macro-level form. The work’s intricacy at its opening strongly suggests the former, but this never really hooks me, and I find myself drifting around the piece not sure of what it wants from me.

Richard Barrett’s Hypnerotomachia, for two clarinets in A, was brand new and quite a surprise. I’ve never heard Barrett’s music sound with such a slow harmonic rhythm, or sound in such smoothly curved phrases. I don’t want to give the impression that any of the edge of his explorations of instrumental technique has been softened: instead of the jagged forms of another clarinet piece like knospend-gespaltener, for example, I heard the activity and effort compressed through tiny nuances of glissandi, microtones, tremolandi and multiphonic chords. The work is conceived in broadly heterophonic terms – the two clarinets are thoroughly intertwined, exploring similar paths through the material. Amplification further blends them into one instrument, as the two sound sources on stage are combined in the mixing desk and retransmitted through the speakers. Sitting to one side of the stage it was often impossible to separate the two instrumentalists.

Every moment of the 16 minutes of Evan Johnson’s Apostrophe 1, for two bass clarinets, sounds impossible: there shouldn’t be room for such detail in such a narrow margin at the edge of the audible. The material that might be found in such seams shouldn’t be capable of sustaining a large-scale symphonic argument. Johnson creates genuine magic in his music, and this is a beautiful piece. The performers sit with their backs to us, an instruction that is emphatically made on acoustic not theatrical grounds, but the combination of visual and acoustic impressions produces interesting interference patterns in one’s reception of the piece. The sound is inevitably muffled, but so are any visual cues as to who might be playing what. The sense of screening off, on several levels at once, was powerful, and added a whole new dimension of mystery to the piece. I’m not sticking my neck out when I say that if he keeps up this standard, Johnson’s music will be with us for a very long time.

Haynes and Rosman took one solo piece each: Haynes’s rendition of Finnissy’s Marrngu for E-flat clarinet was as physically committed as you would expect: the concluding ascent into the fortissimo stratosphere of the instrument was almost too piercing. Rosman set aside his clarinet for Cassidy’s I, purples, for voice and computer. The score indicates (in Cassidy’s typically hyper-complex manner) everything but pitch: this is determined live by the computer, which plays a continually changing glissando audible only to the performer, from which the pitch to be sung at any moment is selected. I realise I’m going to sound like those critics who carped at Boulez and Stockhausen in the 1950s when I say this, but I wonder how many of Cassidy’s original intentions actually survive the processes of notation, performance and reception. Not, I stress, in terms of whether the piece is strictly playable – Rosman demonstrates emphatically that it is – but whether the succeeding concretisations of the idea at each stage don’t blunt the transmission of detail and nuance to the next stage. Barrett and Finnissy, for example, keep in sight certain solidities – such as an easily graspable structural framework, a sonic directness, a particularly clear gestural vocabulary (the deafening conclusion to Marrngu, for example) – that I don’t find so easily in Cassidy’s music. I worry that it is all weight and cladding without the necessary steel skeleton. That in itself is not an unattractive idea, though, now that I write it down. It’s the sort of conceit that is better explored in music than architecture, certainly. Jury’s still out here, but you can form your own impressions thanks to YouTube: this video was recorded during rehearsals at King’s Place.

An alternative review of this concert, by Stephen Graham, may be read at Musical Criticism.

ELISION at King’s Place

ELISION’s next visit to King’s Place is drawing closer: Sum Over Histories features music for two clarinets by the British composers Richard Barrett (a new piece), Chris Dench and Michael Finnissy, the young Americans Aaron Cassidy and Evan Johnson, and the old American Elliott Carter, all performed by Richard Haynes and Carl Rosman.

Haynes and Rosman are two of the best new music clarinettists on the planet, and you can bet that the pieces in this concert will push their skills to the limit. A couple of the pieces were broadcast by ABC in Australia last year and you’re in for a treat: I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Johnson’s Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint) – a fragile, fluttering thing – in the flesh. Don’t be dissuaded by this being almost entirely a clarinet duo recital – the range of sounds and colours will be huge.

Here’s a full programme (not currently available at the King’s Place site):

Elliott Carter – Hiyoku (1984) for two clarinets
Chris Dench – sum over histories (2006) for bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet
Richard Barrett – Hypnerotomachia (2009) for two clarinets
Aaron Cassidy – ‘I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips’ (2003 – 2006) for voice with live computer-generated pitch material
Michael Finnissy – ‘Marrngu’ (1982) for solo E-flat clarinet
Evan Johnson – Apostrophe 1 (all communication is a form of complaint) (2008) for two bass clarinets

Date: Monday 2 November
Time: 20:00
Venue: Hall Two
Price: From £9.50 (the earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket)
Online booking here.

Elliott Carter sketches at the Library of Congress

The following email, just received, might be of interest:

The Library of Congress has completed digitization of another batch of
the compositional sketches of Elliott Carter. These are now available
on our web site. This current release consists of the following

Pocahontas (18*)
Symphony No.1 (224)
Piano Sonata (20*)
Minotaur (108)
Emblems (192)
Woodwind Quintet (141)
Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (140)
Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello & Harpsichord (51)
Variations for Orchestra (771)
Double Concerto (161*)

For technical reasons, these are not all complete yet. Numbers in
parens indicate page (image) counts; an asterisk indicates digitization
is incomplete (more to come in future releases).

Along with the previously released sketches for the Cello Sonata (338
images) and the First String Quartet (538 images), these sketches are
now available at:


There will be either one or two more releases in the near future to
complete this project.

Carter and Woolrich reviewed

My review of Elliott Carter and John Woolrich, played by the London Sinfonietta, is up at Musical Pointers.

I wonder if I’m too cynical to get the most out of Carter? I appreciate his tremendous craft, but there’s a slightly synthetic nostalgia about his music that reminds me of fake Parisian cafés in New York. I’m always a little bit disappointed at how willingly he subscribes to the conventions of a past Europe.

Read on.

Double dutch

Just a little follow-up to my Bernard Holland post below. I appreciated reading Kyle’s nuanced response to the Holland review. But he himself links to this Justin Davidson piece on Carter from earlier in the year, which again raises some of the same issues. Kyle talks about the problem with Holland’s review as being a question of terminology: “Our critics need to find a rhetoric in which to discuss the issue that does not make atonality the fall guy”. Absolutely: but I think the problems go further than just terminology to more fundamental rhetorical tropes about what new music is, what it does, and what should be its relationship to its audience. The frankly careless way in which such tropes (dating back at least 60 years) are applied leaps out, I’m afraid, from Davidson’s opening paragraph:

What does it mean to be a great composer if nobody wants to hear your music? That question, which might have been asked of many avant-garde luminaries of the twentieth century, applies with particular force to Elliott Carter, who turned 99 in December and immediately plunged into a hectic centennial year. Juilliard has just wrapped up a weeklong festival of his music, and the Pacifica Quartet undertook the grueling musical pentathlon of performing all five of his string quartets at a single sitting. Carnegie Hall has appointed him to its Composer’s Chair and plans an assortment of tributes, culminating in a 100th-birthday concert featuring a new piano concerto played by Daniel Barenboim and conducted by James Levine.

If all these concerts are being put on by all these ensembles, can it really be true to say that nobody wants to hear Carter’s music? Yet the cliché of modernist music reception is that nobody wants to hear it, so you’ve still got to say it even when the explosion of listening and performance activity you’re writing about flies in the face of that cliché. It’s not so much the terms that Holland etc. use that bother me so much (even if they are in some cases extraordinarily misused), its the casual acquiescence to a single musico-historical narrative without any consideration of an alternative universe of values. And what is modern music doing if not trying to open our imaginations to the possibilities of such alternatives?

Some links

Marc Geelhoed’s all-new Deceptively Simple speaks out.

Ben Harper on Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate.

An interview with Boulez.

Feast of Music on Elliott Carter.

Congrats to eighth blackbird for rising above the dull and dreary in this year’s otherwise uninspiring Grammys.

From the horse’s mouth – the RIAA on their desire for applying spyware and content filtering to your music use.

Funding for the arts is the subject of the hour, and NMBx gets in on the action – with some excellent stuff in the comments.