October 21, 2013
Unfortunately, artists who create great music do not always enjoy the same longevity as their work. And no, I'm not just talking about today's musicians. Composers such as Mozart, Schubert and Chopin, whose pieces we've all heard time and time again (whether we know it or not), made early curtain calls fashionable long before the dawn of the 20th century. But then there's Elliott Carter, a composer who lived to the age of 103. So, in a universe where someone seems to have it out for musical genius, where there seems to be a cap to the vitality of musical creation, is Carter just an outlier? Can we really attribute his long life to random chance? Dumb luck? Can't be. While it's true that there are certain things we simply don't plan for, Carter's music provides us with advice that, I think, couldn't be clearer -- that, when remaining healthy is paramount, mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise.
Admittedly, Carter's music is not for everyone (catchy, sure, but not for everyone). I expect most, after hearing this, to develop a Pavlovian aversion to his name, desperately fleeing upon its mere utterance. (Hey, if I'm wrong, hit me up and we can discuss free atonality and metric modulation over coffee sometime!) Not only that, but I would find it strange if his audience grew much wider than it is right now -- comprised mainly of other composers and a very select group of urban art patrons. Ultimately, Carter was kind of a weirdo making music for other kind-of weirdos, and spent a great deal of mental energy day in and day out doing it. It always made me think of him as something of a hero, investing untold time and effort to creating music whose total listenership -- over the course of his century-long life -- amounted to a fraction of a percent of the number of people who likely bought (or pirated) the much anticipated Pearl Jam record released earlier this month (believe me, I was one of them!).
For more than half a century, Carter devoted his life to writing this type of ultra-complex, intellectually stimulating, but still cacophonous, inaccessible material for a highly select audience while contemporaries such as Leonard Bernstein, Phillip Glass and Aaron Copland were widely championed for their more jazzy or "Americana" approaches to new music. My reaction, at first, was some mixture of reverence and pity. Like a saint, I thought, Carter must have chosen his lifestyle for the greater good, tortuously slaving away at his esoteric art to appease some fleeting god of music and a fandom that would never fully comprehend the work he did.
This was before I started seeing and reading interviews with the guy. Far from the nervous, eccentric recluse I expected, Carter was a warm, calm and -- actually -- often hilarious older man. (He'd been a senior citizen since 1973.) He always managed to keep the conversation lively, sometimes veering off into topics like politics and science, other times taking lighthearted jabs at other composers. And of course, longevity always found its way into the conversation. "I have no idea," said Carter in a recent interview when asked about how he kept it up, "I do a little bit of exercise every morning, and now I read in the paper that exercise for older people is bad for the harp -- for the heart, not the harp, I mean. The harp is bad enough."
But that's only half the picture, I think. It was really Carter's daily pursuit of intellectual stimulation, along with physical exercise, that kept him with us for so long. The endless, dizzying string of notes that makes up his musical output, what I thought was his burden, was actually the boon of his old age. And while his capacity for physical exertion likely lessened over the years, it was his mind that began to do the heavy lifting -- he's produced at least one work per year for five decades, which is unheard of for modern composers. He'll admit as readily as anyone that composing with such intricacy to such a niche audience can be a stressful job, but I think he sees it another way, too. In an interview just before his 103rd birthday, he had this response to the longevity question, "What keeps me going is all those damn notes in my head."
And Carter's not the only one in his field who's benefitted from keeping the cogs greased. Prominent modern composers Milton Babbit, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux and George Crumb all lived (or are living) well into their 90s!
Again, I don't expect many to care much about Carter as a composer after reading this, but as an artist who never gained any real traction until well into his 40s, Carter, I think, teaches us another lesson -- that you can never spend too long trying to make something work. Carter's musical style shifted year after year to become what it was, the product of a tireless search for originality and, frankly, enjoyment. Only after the acclaim of his first string quartet, finished in 1952, did he hit his stride and run with his new style, never to look back, until he just recently passed away in late 2012.
In the field of HIV news and research, longevity will always be a chief concern, and, as others have said before me, there are some things you just don't plan for. But now I've learned how easy it is to take for granted what we can control. At a stage in life when top activities might include playing Bingo and watching Maury, Carter wrote tough music that kicked ass and took no prisoners, every day. To me, that's inspirational.
No, I'm not saying we should all go out and become avant-garde composers and that it's the key to happiness and good health. What I am saying is that we all have something we can feel passionate about that's worth exploring, even if we haven't found it yet. And, as I've gleaned from Carter's remarkable life, once you discover that "food for thought," keep on feeding, because your mind will thank you down the line.
Chris Lavery is the web producer for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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