It has been reported by the BBC, among others, that American composer Eliott Carter died today, just a month shy of his 104th birthday. He wrote a huge variety of music, from large orchestral works, to vocal music, to real classics of the modern chamber music repertoire. While in some ways he was a quintessential American modernist, his music had a liveliness that exploded out of its hard edges.
Back in the fall of 2008, I saw a New York Philharmonic concert that was part of a series celebrating composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday, who had died 18 years earlier. The concert not only featured Bernstein’s 1st Symphony, but also works by other American composers including Copland, Christopher Rouse, and Carter. The real kicker was that Carter himself was there and was interviewed beforehand, on the eve of his 100th birthday, still writing music.
For me, Carter was an important gateway drug into a lot of mid-20th century American classical music, mostly because he was the only composer to ever write serious and good solos for timpani. Just about every percussionist will learn Carter’s “March” from that set at some point in their lives. It’s a show-stopper, complete with stick flips, and very clearly demonstrates Carter’s sophisticated use of metric modulation – changing tempos based on different mathematical proportions of the original tempo. I learned the piece for a 20th century chamber music class at Princeton, and now present my own humble recording here. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Carter’s music is all about. Take a look through twitter to see what other favorite pieces people are posting just to get a sense of how prolific he was.