For Elliott Carter, turning 100 amounts to little more than a distraction from writing music. "The trouble with having a centennial is that you're here," he jokes to a visiting reporter. Over the last year, hundreds of events around the world have anticipated Carter's Dec. 11 birthday, and they've brought tides of visitors—musicians, composers, the dreaded journalists—to his Greenwich Village apartment, where he has lived since 1945. Those interruptions, combined with the more mundane chores of old age (regular hearing-aid checks, daily naps, mandatory strolls), add up to time away from the work he loves.
Carter hasn't let any of that noise slow his progress. In fact, over the last few years, Carter has been composing some of the best music of his career at a pace that would challenge a writer half, or even one-third his age. "There are so many fascinating sounds that he invents, unusual combinations," says pianist Daniel Barenboim, a former director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On Dec. 11, Barenboim will debut one of Carter's newest compositions, "Interventions," at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and led by conductor James Levine. The event will be the first time a major orchestra has premiered a piece written by a composer in honor of his own 100th birthday.
What has allowed Carter to remain prolific for so long? He's one of a growing cohort of aging masters (think Clint Eastwood, 78; composer Milton Babbit, 92; and playwright Horton Foote, 92) who have captured the attention of gerontologists. There's evidence that their professions, more than any particular lifestyle choice, may have contributed to their longevity. "The very act of engaging one's mind in creative ways directly affects health," says Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University. In 2001, Cohen undertook a study of 150 adults ages 65 to 100 to examine the effects of various pursuits on their well-being. The control group was engaged in noncreative community activities and the other group participated in community-based art programs. After one year, Cohen found that the group engaged in creative activities, such as painting or singing in a choir, had started fewer new medications, experienced fewer falls and made fewer doctor's visits than the control group. "Anything that stimulates the brain, reduces stress, and promotes a more balanced emotional response will trigger positive changes in the body," he says.
Composer Carter's work challenges the mind (and the player) in ways that traditional classical music does not. At Harvard in the 1920s, he studied math and philosophy, and much of his music is based on complex rhythmic and harmonic patterns. Orchestra musicians have likened it to solving advanced mathematical equations—different instruments move at different speeds, forcing musicians to count out their parts carefully to avoid getting lost. Carter's more recent pieces, while still rhythmically complex, are less dense and more accessible than what he's written in the past. As a result, his compositions, always popular in Great Britain and many parts of Europe, are winning new recognition in the United States. Levine, who also acts as music director at New York City's Metropolitan Opera, and Barenboim have been Carter's two biggest proponents. Since 2002, Levine has commissioned or co-commissioned nine Carter works and performed his earlier pieces on dozens of occasions. Barenboim has commissioned half a dozen, beginning with Carter's only opera, "What Next?" in 1998.
Carter says his more recent style reflects his age. "As time has gone on, I've become more impatient," he says. He has fears of leaving a work unfinished, so he has turned to writing shorter pieces with fewer instruments. Physically, writing is also more exhausting: "When I write an orchestra piece, there's this huge piece of paper, and in order to write the flute on top, I have stand up; to write the double bass at the bottom I have to sit down." Still another factor is that he simply grew tired of his older style. "Each of my pieces is an adventure," he says. "And I thought, 'Complicated pieces, I've done that; now I'm going to do something else.'" After all, a guy needs something new to challenge him in his second century.