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November 7 , 2012

Elliott Carter 1908-2012

The great American composer Elliott Carter, who has died at the age of 103, was one of the most influential figures of musical modernism, and the range of his work was vast. As the Guardian has written, Carter sought “a modernism beyond fashion, rooted in a new kind of syntax, and to achieve that some European sophistication would be necessary. All the things he had absorbed would eventually find a place in his modernist idiom: the idea of dramatic personages found in Mozart operas, the independent layers of English madrigals, the syntactic rigour of Arnold Schoenberg – and the combination of strict and free rhythm in jazz pianists he admired.”

It was the composer’s enthusiasm for Thomas Demenga’s disc combining Bach’s 3rd cello suite with Carter pieces including Esprit Rude, Esprit Deux, Enchanted Preludes, Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassa and Triple Duo, which opened the door for new recordings of his music on ECM. “I have never heard the Bach C Major suite played so understandingly and so convincingly,” wrote Carter in a letter to Demenga. A dedication to the cellist, the solo piece Figment, appeared on Lauds and Lamentations, alongside pieces for old friend Heinz Holliger. As a former oboist himself, Carter particularly enjoyed writing pieces to display Holliger’s mastery of dynamics and colour. Much of Carter’s late music had a celebratory flavour. “When you get to my age you just want to have fun”, he explained to one reporter.

Ever the experimentalist, Elliott Carter composed his first opera when nearly 90, inviting British music critic and novelist Paul Griffiths to write the libretto. The world premiere recording of What Next?, was issued by ECM New Series in 2003, complete with a ‘What Next Diary’ by Griffiths, documenting the collaborative process.

Other ECM albums incorporating pieces by Elliott Carter include Michelle Makarski’s Elogio per un'ombra, Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin’s Elegies, and Reto Bieri’s Contrechant.