With the sad loss of Elliott Carter last week, I keep reflecting on my favorite aspect of his career: that he kept producing new music throughout his life. Instead of retiring and resting, Carter became ever more prolific throughout his 90s and 100s. When I attended the American premiere of his opera What Next? in 2000, I thought that this would be my last opportunity to witness the unveiling of a major new work by this iconic composer. Rarely have I been so overjoyed at having an assumption of mine proven so utterly incorrect.
Composers rarely retire. When we are fortunate enough to live into a ripe dotage, we generally continue to write for as long as our strength allows. Although there have been exceptions like Rossini and Sibelius*, most composers continue to create new works for as long as they are capable. To us, the act of producing music isn’t a job, it’s life itself.
Recently, a doctor was discussing methods for reducing occupational stress with an artist friend of mine. The physician asked what the artist would do if she no longer needed to work. “Produce more art” was her response. The doctor suggested that perhaps she hadn’t understood the question, and that this was in a world where she didn’t have to work and could pursue any of the various activities in which people often engage post retirement: travel, sports, gardening, hobbies. Now my friend was confused. Why would she want to do any of these other things if she had more time to create?
Artists do not recognize a distinction between our vocation and avocation. We organize our lives in order to have more time to pursue our creative objectives, and consider every aspect of our existence as feeding into our artistic output. When we travel or engage in a hobby, it’s in order to learn more about the world, knowledge that we utilize in order to bolster our expressive output. In a sense, we can never truly relax because some part of our mind is constantly thinking about current or upcoming projects.
Since I learned of my friend’s visit to the doctor, I’ve been pondering both the question and her answer. I would like to see more of the world and also would like to have the time to return to long distance running or even to go see more movies. And yet all of these other activities would obviously be secondary to creating music, the central activity that I intend to pursue for as long as I am able. For me, every other venture appears trifling when compared to music. At this point I can’t even imagine any other life. What else would I do?
*Philip Roth’s recent announcement notwithstanding, it’s also a relatively rare phenomenon among writers.