Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Relativity of Ageing

The American composer, Elliott Carter will be a hundred years old next December and his 2006 short work for piano was performed by its dedicatee Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the opening night of the Promenade season in London’s Albert Hall last Friday. ‘When Pierre-Laurent Aimard who performs so eloquently, asked me to write a piece for him’, writes Carter, ‘I became obsessed with the idea of a fast one line piece with no chords. It became a continuous chain using different spacings, accents, and colorings, to produce a wide variety of expression.’

It’s an astonishing work. A tour de force. Watching the performance on TV it demanded the technical and physical ability of a pianist as distinguished as Aimard, who performs it again in New York in November and later in Chicago. Only a few minutes long, it employs just about all the notes on the keyboard, sometimes it felt as if all of them at once. The audience applauded wildly, as much as for the athletic skill of the pianist as for the quality of the music, although both were impressive.

Any further reflection on the composer belongs to our music blogs rather than here, but it is the continuing achievement of someone who is so old that I find amazing. What is it about the relativity of ageing? Some people are old at 60 and then others like Carter just go on – physically more frail of course – but mentally and in this case creatively, as vibrant as ever.

On this same weekend I visited one of the local Homes for the Elderly in Bath. None of the residents were as old as Carter, and all of them were women, and finding it difficult to relate to a visitor and to each other. One reason for the sense of inertia in such places may be how they are looked after. No longer managing to look after themselves, those who care for them – not an easy task - may too easily have too low an expectation of their ability.

The next day I travelled to the Midlands to visit an old college friend who has an incurable illness and can’t move around much. But unlike me, he has an astonishing memory. He was always good at anecdotes and it’s as if his brain has stored them all and without any difficulty he can say ‘oh yes, that reminds me…’ and begin another fascinating story from his eventful life.

Ageing can be monitored, but it can’t be reduced to fixed categories. We are all different.



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