TERRY GROSS, host:
American composer Elliott Carter celebrated his 100th birthday this month. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has been following Carter's music for many years and says that his productivity is even more amazing than his longevity. Lloyd has a review of three new recordings released in honor of Carter's birthday.
(Soundbite of music)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: In the upstairs bar at Boston's Symphony Hall, there's a photo exhibit honoring Elliott Carter. In one picture taken in 1939, he's a grinning 30-year old but he looks 18. If I were making a movie called the Elliott Carter Story, I'd cast Matt Damon. Now at 100, Carter still looks younger than his years, and he's composing some of his most vital and youthful work.
This Carter landmark has been a source of worldwide celebrations, the most extensive of which was at Tanglewood last summer, where the annual festival of contemporary music was devoted entirely to him. And there he was, obviously enjoying the nearly 50 performances of his music, including two world premiers.
Carter celebrated his actual birthday at Carnegie Hall, where James Levine led pianist Daniel Barrenboim and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his dazzling, ambitious and emotionally complex new piece, "Interventions." And all year long, exciting new Carter recordings have been appearing.
Pianist Ursula Oppens, Carter's long-time champion and friend, has a new CD called "Elliott Carter at 100: The Complete Piano Music," a title which will probably soon become obsolete. On it is the very first recording of the two-minute gem that Carter wrote for the 90-second birthday of Maestro Levine's mother. It's called "Matribute." Carter was an English major at Harvard and loves to play with words.
The right and left hand are like two characters having a conversation. It's a typical Carter stratagem, which is nothing less than a view of the world where musical lines, like individual lives, intersect at changing speeds in endlessly changing contexts and sometimes, maybe only for a moment, come together. His pieces usually end not with a grand, heroic climax but a whisper or a shrug. In "Matribute," it's a single note, a quiet little C.
(Soundbite of music, "Matribute")
SCHWARTZ: Another new CD gathers 10 Carter pieces that each focus on a different instrument. Here's the beginning of the most recent one, "Mosaic," with the dextrous Canadian harpist, Erica Goodman, joining the group New Music Concerts.
(Soundbite of music, "Mosaic")
SCHWARTZ: And here is Carter's reply to a question about composing "Mosaic." It's on the DVD that comes with the CD.
(Soundbite of DVD)
Mr. ELLIOTT CARTER (Composer): There was obviously, as you listen and you - now that you make me think about it, it was obviously I was thinking that there would be sections in which the harp would play alone, play rather elaborately and alone. And I thought, well, maybe those poor other people are going to do something too.
SCHWARTZ: That's it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARTER: That's part of the way I think.
SCHWARTZ: You know too many people.
Mr. CARTER: I hate to have these musicians sitting around not doing anything. And I like to give something that will amuse them or interest them to play.
Mr. CARTER: I have lots in my head, too, you know, like many other naughty things.
SCHWARTZ: The admirable Pacifica String Quartet is currently embarked on recording all five of Carter's string quartets. The second volume is due in February. The first quartet, completed in 1951, is nearly 40 minutes long and one of the great pieces of 20th-century music in any form. Carter was living in Arizona in 1950 and was inspired by the sounds of the nearby dessert, the worrying, scurrying creatures and the mysterious night silences where time itself seems to have stopped, music that seems to ask the deepest questions about existence and perception and self-perception.
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SCHWARTZ: Some people find Carter's music hard to follow, impenetrable, with few humable tunes. But I find it very moving, exhilarating, sometimes funny, sometimes scary, often profoundly spiritual and unlike anyone else's.
It's a miracle and a blessing that he's still turning out wonderful new work, pieces that more and more younger listeners seem to connect with and that a remarkable younger generation of musicians increasingly loves to play.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teachers English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.