Elliot Carter was well known for composing music which has been described as difficult to listen to, yet he was also famous for an ear that picked out masterpieces as well as it did disconcerting melodies. After over eighty years playing music, his death at the age of 103–of undisclosed causes–reminds his critics and fans alike that he was a force to be reckoned with, even later in life.
Carter began his musical career somewhat late in life compared to others; though he showed an interest in music as a child and studied in Paris as a young man, it wasn’t until he hit the age of 40 that he finally found what would be his “voice”: finding odd patterns and instrument combinations which were, at the time, unheard of.
“A piano accelerates to a flickering tremolo as a harpsichord slows to silence,” wrote composer and musicologist David Schiff of Carter’s music. “Second violin and viola, half of a quartet, sound cold, mechanical pulses, while first violin and cello, the remaining duo, play with intense expressive passion. Two, three or four orchestras superimpose clashing, unrelated sounds. A bass lyrically declaims classical Greek against a mezzo-soprano’s American patter.”
Carter was able to discern rhythms and beats that went well together which no one else would dare try, earning him a reputation for placing the listener at the forefront of the music, rather than the other way around.
“It’s not music that makes an overt theatrical effect,” he said, “but it assumes the listener is listening to sounds and making some sense out of them.”