The American giant of contemporary music, Elliott Carter, has died, a few weeks short of his 104th birthday. He was born 12 hours after that other hugely significant 20th-century figure Olivier Messiaen, who himself died in his old age at the age of 83. As it turned out, Carter was to outlive Messiaen by all of 20 years.
He was already an old man when I met him, in the late 1980s, about 25 years ago now. He had been invited to come and talk to the student composers at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. At this stage, he was still writing fantastically difficult, multi-layered music that taxed the ear and the brain. His more transparent phase, which allowed him to write much more prolifically than he ever had before, was still in the future.
Like the good students we were, we had been studying his music, and in particular one of us (not me) had been concentrating on his String Quartet of 1951. It’s a dense piece, hard on the eye as well as our brains. He was a cheery old chap, and we listened gratefully and affectionately to what he had to tell us about polymetric grids and metric modulations. Then it was time for questions from the floor, and a question was asked about the rhythmic layering in a particular passage in his String Quartet. I don’t remember the question itself, but I do remember his jovial reply, and it was this: ‘Gee, I don’t remember that stuff. Maybe if you show me the score I can work it out for you…‘.
Maybe, he said. Just maybe, this masterful intellect & the creator of hugely demanding, complex, academic music could retrace his own steps to a student’s satisfaction. Maybe. The piece was over 30 years old by then, to be fair, and I don’t recall if he was then shown the score, or if he was able to work it out. But those words, which I remember clearly and which I’ve probably been able to quote here pretty much verbatim, are what I took out of that room with me, and are still with me 25 years later.
Anyone else think there’s a lesson in them still?