In the late 1920s when composer Elliott Carter was a student at Harvard, he attended a class led by British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. At the time, Whitehead was completing Process and Reality, a compilation of lectures in which he proposed that reality is not made up of static bits of matter, but rather by bits of experience that form a "complex and interdependent" picture of existence. These experiential units, according to his theory, are constantly flowing, coalescing, and separating in an inescapable state of perpetual change.
Whitehead's ideas found a receptive audience in Carter, the 2008 _2009 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall who celebrates his 100th birthday this month. "The idea of static immobility," Carter has said, "seems to me to be an evasion of our human experience of time." What Carter's music demands is no more or less than what life demands: that we pay attention, acknowledge the immediate moment, and be alive to the flow of moments through time.
Interviewed by former Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer at Tanglewood last summer, Carter made it sound natural. "Composing is a process not unlike what each of us does every day," he said. "It's like what we are living all the time."
Where much of the classical repertoire conjures discrete emotional states, Carter creates complex interaction between them. In solo repertoire such as Gra for clarinet (part of an all-Carter concert on December 12 in Zankel Hall), Carter engages the player in a self-interrogation, a dialogue between different registers and techniques: or what he calls the "built-in- 'character-structures'" unique to each instrument. Carter's works of the past 20 years (or what scholars are tentatively calling his "late period") delineate these two voices in the musical conversation with extreme clarity.
Even Carter's early music: its vocabulary still one of neoclassical Americana: plays with time and our experience of it. His Symphony No. 1, completed in 1942, sounds like a cousin to Aaron Copland's near-contemporaneous Third Symphony. Even at this stage in his career, Carter's lyrical, bouncy themes were already more in dialogue with the rhythmic pulse instead of being attached to it. With that relativistic conception of musical time combined with expansive, non-traditional harmonies, Carter revolutionized music after World War II.
Since the 1950s, Carter's output has slowly but steadily accelerated to the point that the bulk of his catalog: and the majority of his works being performed at Carnegie Hall this season: dates from the last 25 years. Approaching the century mark, Carter seems determined to fill his allotted span to the fullest.
Among the celebrations for Carter's 100th birthday, Carnegie Hall presented a concert on December 11: the actual date of his centennial: with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim joined Levine and the BSO for the New York premiere of Carter's new piano concerto Interventions, a week after its world premiere in Boston. Carnegie Hall hosts its own world premiere on December 12 with Duettino for Violin and Cello. If all this emphasis on the milestone is a bit ironic for a composer whose music has been more concerned with time's flow than its demarcation, the flurry of activity surrounding Carter's centenary is a welcome opportunity: not to look back, but to catch up.