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. (“You better get me one hell of a cake,” Carter told the hall’s administrators.) Fortunately, Carter still has the vigor to enjoy all the attention. He attends concerts regularly, walks unaided, and continues to write music at a gallop. His nineties have been perhaps the most productive decade of his life.
The conundrum of Carter’s career is that while he may be, as the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen recently called him in the Times, “the most respected and admired of American composers,” that glow of approval is limited to a small, gold-plated coterie of musicians, critics, students, and pedagogues. He has composed enough works to fill innumerable college syllabi—works that the wider public has enthusiastically abhorred. For a long time, modernist apologists insisted that audiences would eventually absorb his innovations, but the man has been writing music since Hoover was in the White House, and it hasn’t happened yet. Or rather, it happens in unpredictable spasms. A few dozen avid Carterites lined up for last-minute tickets to the Juilliard festival’s finale, which included his Cello Concerto and the Symphonia, conducted by Levine. And some years ago, when Yo-Yo Ma performed the same concerto at Carnegie, the capacity crowd greeted Carter as if he were Oprah Winfrey doling out cars. But the norm, when Carter is on the program, is silence and a sheepish scurry for the coffee bar.
He earned these various responses the same way he attracted a circle of adoring musicians: with an imagination that revolves at phenomenal speed and expresses itself in bursts of recondite intensity. When I asked the conductor David Robertson, one of his loyal paladins, to explain the charms of Carter’s music, he compared the listener’s experience to attending a play in an unknown language: “You don’t understand the literal significance, but you do grasp the emotional experience.” He meant it as a compliment. I have less and less patience for such cabalistic complexities, but I appreciate that they provide performers with a deeply satisfying payoff for their labors. At Juilliard, the young cellist Dane Johansen played the Cello Concerto with staggering aplomb, digging into its grand declamatory line before breaking off in hurried sprints all over the fingerboard. That the orchestra, spitting and muttering like a psychotic Greek chorus, was made up of dauntless students testifies to the extent to which Carter now permeates the conservatory curriculum.
And with good reason; his innovations have been profound. Nearly six decades ago, Carter, a New Yorker then on the cusp of middle age, exiled himself to the Arizona desert and emerged a year later with his astonishingly radical, urgent First Quartet. In it, he developed a technique for weaving different tempos together so tightly that the seam between them is virtually impossible to detect. The four string instruments play at different speeds, overlapping in concurrent monologues like people at a cocktail party, their utterances floating in and out of comprehensibility, only fleetingly cohering into conversation. The potency of this technique is that it mirrors the way we experience real time: a night in the emergency room, for example, at once endless and frantic; or the way the long adagio of childhood feels in retrospect as if it flitted by like lampposts seen from a moving car. Carter reassembles time the way Picasso fragmented space, giving us multiple simultaneous perspectives.
In his late late period, he has focused on effects so relentlessly dramatic as to constitute a numbing assault. Levine closed the Juilliard festivities with the 45-minute Symphonia from 1997 (which, with characteristic hauteur, Carter subtitled using a Latin line from the seventeenth-century English poet Richard Crashaw). It opens with a tectonic tremor, a big bang followed by skittering aftershocks that ricochet among strings, winds, and percussion. Within seconds, the orchestra hurtles towards apocalypse en masse, as if the piece’s beginning were also its final apotheosis. But then it takes a breath, and a wistful legato in the winds tries to ignore the percussive bursts all around it, like someone reciting a John Donne sonnet in the middle of an air raid. I found these extremes gripping at first, then merely curious, and the intensity of my reactions tapered off until fatigue set in.
It’s often suggested that appreciating Carter requires a special kind of training—that some secret knowledge would make all those vinegary chords and dribbling rhythms suddenly make sense. Actually, the ideal listener would be one who had experienced total short-term memory loss. I could love all those little auroras, those dazzling bursts of iridescence, so much more if only I were relieved of the need to relate them to what came before or to wonder—the title of Carter’s only opera—“What next?” After the first minute or so of his mazelike music, I lose all sense of how deeply I have wandered in. Each passage blots out its own past, and at any given moment the possibilities for what the ensuing few bars might hold are virtually infinite. Carter creates no expectations, and so he cannot defy expectations, either. I will accept any dénouement, but I do so without investment in the outcome. A single blinding moment might be worth a standing ovation; a long chain of them gets only an irritated shrug.