This past Thursday Elliot Carter, possibly America's greatest living composer, celebrated his 100th birthday with a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Usually in such situations, the composer is honored by attending a performance of their most seminal works, typically coming from the peak of their careers. For most, this peak was a long, long time ago. For Carter, it's quite possible that that peak has yet to come.
The performance at Carnegie Hall was of a piece Carter wrote for piano and orchestra just last year at the age of 98. Since he hit 90, Carter has published more than 40 works, premiering his first opera in 1999, and producing 16 new works in just the past two years.
“He’s still writing at the top of his form”, conductor James Levine was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article.
Born in 1908, Carter was encouraged to pursue music by the composer Charles Ives. While Carter is considered by many in the classical music world to be one of America's greatest living composers, his work may on first blush sound chaotic and unstructured. However, this only contributes to his creativity, being hailed by composer Aaron Copland as "One of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field." I believe Carter's uniquely complex art form and willingness to experiment with new styles has fundamentally changed the game, challenging our conceptions of how classical music could and should sound.
Some even believe history will regard Carter as one of the greatest composers that ever lived. Carter offers insight into how this may happen in the 2004 documentary A Labyrinth of Time when he says that once society becomes more complicated, "people will have to become much cleverer and much sharper. Then, they will like my music."
The most fascinating thing is that despite his age, Elliot Carter is not done yet. According to contemporary composer John Link, he is currently working on a song cycle on Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos, and as Carter was quoted as saying in an article in the Boston Globe, "I have a lot of pieces in the back of my head, so I'm very preoccupied with composing in my last year of my life."
Carter's current works have a different style than his earlier repertoire. "I finally have done all my adventures and great big noisy pieces. Now I write simple ones. That's a new adventure," says Carter in the New York Times.
Indeed, Carter's greatest work may be still a work in progress.
© 2008 by Scott Barry Kaufman
For more stories of remarkable bloomers, read Better Late than Never.