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Elliot Carter won just about every award a composer could win - two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Medal of the Arts, just to name a few. His music challenged audiences. It was often called difficult, but it was performed to full concert halls around the world. Yesterday, in New York City, Elliott Carter died at the age of 103. NPR's Tom Cole met him a few years ago and has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Musicians seemed to love playing Elliott Carter's music. Pianist Charles Rosen had this to say on the advent of the composer's centennial almost four years ago.

CHARLES ROSEN: He's the greatest composer of the last half of the 20th century.

URSULA OPPENS: The piano concerto is a piece which, at least as a performer, I get to do everything I possibly could want to do.

COLE: Pianist Ursula Oppens.

OPPENS: It's like climbing a mountain and it has the great satisfaction when you get to the peak and you just feel so excited and so basically high.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: The composer himself recalls the response to his music wasn't always so favorable.

ELLIOTT CARTER: The piano was, you know, it was a scandal. In fact, everything I've written, nobody could play it. It was written for John Kirkpatrick, who refused to play it, backed out.

COLE: Didn't matter. Others took it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Elliott Carter did write what might be called more conventional works in the years preceding the second World War, but here's the interesting thing. He started out as a modernist. As a kid, he enjoyed hearing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and after the war, Carter returned to his early instincts. He had a breakthrough in the Arizona desert while on a fellowship. He composed his first string quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Carter developed an approach that characterized much of his later work, a way of writing for each instrumentalist or each section of the ensemble that highlighted their individuality, their own timbres and tempos, all played simultaneously. Ursula Oppens puts it this way.

OPPENS: A piece for me, like triple duo is very much like going to a dinner party. The different instruments are different characters. Sometimes one hears a conversation clearly. Sometimes there are two or three conversations going on and you realize that you wanted to listen to that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Elliott Carter composed more than 150 works. He finished his last just three months ago. His career breached two centuries. He lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, saw automobiles replace horses and saw his music go from derision to international acclaim. Through it all, Elliott Carter always seemed to look ahead.

CARTER: I've thought of all of my pieces as being an adventure and that each piece is an adventure in a new sky.

COLE: A sky as free of boundaries as his music. Tom Cole, NPR News.

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