Ask a typical American to nominate this country’s greatest living composer, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Most classical musicians, however, would not hesitate for a moment before choosing Elliott Carter for the honor…big celebrations are being planned around the world, from New York (on his actual birthday, Dec. 11, with James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim as piano soloist at Carnegie Hall) to London, Italy, Spain and Austria. Much of the music will be new. The Carnegie Hall concert will feature “Interventions,” a recent piano concerto. Mr. Carter produced nine new pieces in 2007 alone; indeed, from his entire output of just over 100 works, he wrote 40 as a nonagenarian.

Visiting the composer in his Greenwich Village apartment, one is struck by how little the years have changed him. With his trademark tousled gray hair and bright blue eyes, he remains imp-like, perpetually cheerful, and astoundingly productive. Something else is also unchanged: The odds remain tiny that listeners will leave a concert of his music humming any tunes, and that accounts in part for his relative anonymity. Simply put, his works are steeped in complexity. In some of his most renowned compositions — like the 1961 Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano With Two Chamber Orchestras, which Igor Stravinsky declared the first true American masterpiece — the swirl of sounds is so dense and furious that the music might best be likened to an orchestral traffic jam.

Yet there is a method — rigorous and systematic — behind every written note and a grand aesthetic scheme that governs it all. “I’ve always been very interested in the combination of different characters, either simultaneously or in succession,” he explains. That is, his restless and ever-changing musical textures arise through a kind of emotional counterpoint: Within the whole, each instrument represents a particular character with its own psychological state. These personalities move through a wide range of rhythms and sonorities — sometimes at different speeds and at cross-purposes — as they make their individual cases.

The inconstancies and surprises that result from this approach are a particularly American trait, argues Mr. Carter in the book “Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds” (W.W. Norton & Co., 1972) by Allen Edwards. This country’s national style, he asserts, is one that savors the “adventurous interrelation between the materials used and the unexpectedness of their general development.” Or, as he said more recently to this interviewer, “My music doesn’t beat away on one thing for very long — I don’t like to do that.”

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Stuart Isacoff
Wall Street Journal