In the face of three immense personalities departing from the world over the last month, all one can do is reflect on their contributions so that their impact is always felt.
Alex Ross writes in the preface to Listen to This, "The difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe a sound but to describe a human being. It's tricky work, presumptuous in the case of the living and speculative in the case of the dead." In the case of Dave Brubeck, Elliott Carter, and Jonathan Harvey, it is too soon to be speculative, but too fresh to allow for presumptuousness. They are no longer with us, but they do not yet belong to our memories. Many of us have had too many personal experiences with these three people to distance them from our present life and relegate them to the past.
Dave Brubeck's music was unique in the world of jazz, inviting yet exacting, nonchalant yet refined and deliberate. With sensibilities that veered toward a "classical" conception of musical construction, Brubeck straddled a line between music of entertainment and music of art. At his best, we couldn't tell the difference.
Elliott Carter terrified me when I was younger, back when the first work of his I heard with the 3rd String Quartet. The music, which churns forward relentlessly like a machine, could only have been designed by a mind that grasped expressive motive on a level far beyond the interpretive bounds of the audience. It wasn't the sound so much as it was the determination with which Carter confronted his audience with something so unapproachable. Now his music has become familiar to many of us, and while the shock may have faded, our awe at the conviction with which it was produced should never diminish.
We tend to view music as a reflection of the composer's personality—Mozart's subtle introspection and humor, Brahms' reservedness revealed despite his reliance on form, Stravinsky's cleverness and chameleonic adaptability. We observe the person through the technique, because the music is so often a clue to understanding the person. For Jonathan Harvey, however, the person is the clue to understanding the music. Deeply spiritual and fiercely original, Harvey's techniques tell us next to nothing. In the end, his music is not about music, it is about him. What greater achievement could an artist aspire to?