Richard Termine/The NY Times
Carter's early works were in a neoclassical mode, but after the mid-century, as he was approaching the age of 50, he began writing work that sounded like serialism but which did not use serial techniques. A good example of this work is the breathtaking the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras of 1959-61, in which the harpischord, with its chamber orchestra, and the piano with its own basically produce simultaneous concerti. It has to be listened to be believed (that harpsichord!). The first time I heard it, on a CD--because I have rarely been able to hear Carter's music live--I was spellbound by what sounded like incommensurable soundworlds being fused. Think of a somewhat inebriated Haydn playing his music alongside a contemporary orchestra, on a busy city street. Among his other notable works from this period are the Variations for Orchestra (1954-5), the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), based on a poem by the French Nobel laureate poet Saint-John Perse; the Piano Concerto (1964-65), written to honor the 85th birthday of Igor Stravinsky, whose influence on Carter's earliest music was significant; and the almost unbelievably immense Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-1996), written, as is evident from the dates, when he was in his 80s. Carter has set the music of a number of American poets, including William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and John Ashbery to music, especially over the last three-and-a-half decades.
On the New York Review of Books blog, the critic and pianist Charles Rosen offers a fine reading of Carter's music in relation to its exploration of temporality (all music, of course, represents sounds articulated within a temporal framework), "Elliot Carter's Music of Time," and discusses the December 8, 2011 concert, as well as one that ensued a few days later at the Juillard School's Alice Tully Hall. There the new music ensemble Axiom (who on their Myspace page feature a free recording of one of my favorite classical pieces, Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) performed Carter's Three Explorations, which, according to Rosen, is a song cycle to lines from Eliot's Four Quartets. Rosen highlights what he feels were the more successful pieces and performances, the overall appraisal a positive one; the New York Times's Anthony Tommasini gave the concert a positive review as well. The 92nd St. Y's site posted videos of Carter talking about his life and work. The NYRB site features a link to a snippets of the pieces performed at the Y as well as of Three Explorations; all are worth listening to. I am including a few Elliott Carter videos below for any who are curious. I personally hope to hear Carter's music live before he departs this earthly plane, but let me say in any case, Belated Happy 103rd Birthday, Eliott Carter.
Elliott Carter, Luimen, at Tanglewood (Joseph Brent, mandolin; Oren Fader, guitar; Megan Levin, harp; Steven Merrill, vibes; Patrick Pfister, trombone; Chris Coletti, trumpet; Christoph Altstaedt, conducting. Watch through the end for an appearance by Mr. Carter himself.)
Elliott Carter's Mosaic, Part 1, performed by Ann Hobson Carter, Boston Symphony Orchestra
Elliot Carter's Double Concerto, Part 1 (a very good version)
Elliott Carter's Double Concerto, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Jacobs (harpsichord) and Charles Rosen (piano), under the direction of Frederik Prausnitz (one of the earliest recordings of this work)