Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century

A few months after his 92nd birthday, Elliott Carter invited us into his home to talk about what was already his tenth decade immersed in the new music scene.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter
Photo by Kathy Chapman, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

Frank J. Oteri visits Elliott Carter at his home
February 4, 2000—New York City, NY
Audio/video recordings by Nathan Michel
Video restored in November 2017 by Molly Sheridan
Interview transcribed by Karyn Joaquino

More than 17 years have elapsed since I visited Elliott Carter at his Greenwich Village apartment for the very first time to record a conversation with him for NewMusicBox. But I still remember that day very vividly, as well as many of the things he said.  I also remember several weeks beforehand being extremely terrified at the prospect of having a lengthy discussion with such a formidable figure, feeling inadequate in my understanding of Carter’s music and therefore not up to the task. He had written several compositions I had barely grasped, such as the turbulent Piano Concerto which received its world premiere in Boston half a century ago this year. There were also so many compositions.

Although for decades Carter had a reputation for writing music at a meticulously slow pace, he had begun to be much more prolific after his 80th birthday. He had composed almost as many works between 1990 and when I met with him in February 2000 (37) as he had in the four preceding decades combined (39). (He had turned 91 only a few months before I came to see him and would go on to create another 69 pieces in his remaining 12 years.)

At the time of our talk, Carter was chiefly known and venerated for the extremely complex and erudite works of what is now called his middle period—works such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Second and Third String Quartets; the Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord, and Two Chamber Orchestras which wowed Stravinsky; the overwhelmingly immersive Concerto for Orchestra; and that Piano Concerto I had been afraid of which was something we actually discussed that afternoon. At the time of our talk, I had more of a fondness for what was then Carter’s more recent music—pieces like his dramatic Violin Concerto (which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 1994); the unusual Luimen, scored for what was probably the unprecedented combination of trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, mandolin, guitar, and harp; or his first and only opera, the surreally quirky What Next?, which we did manage to talk about a bit. Carter had also composed a great deal of music before the works for which he became known, and I wanted to learn more about that music, too—works such as the Americana-infused Holiday Overture and the Symphony No. 1, which rivals contemporaneous symphonies by Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, and William Schuman. Carter had also written tons of choral works. Some of those pieces were actually the first music of his I had ever heard, though they were all written in a style that, by the late 1940s, he had completely abandoned.

A personal aside: I actually met Carter for the very first time on April 17, 1979, when the Gregg Smith Singers performed two of his works at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan’s Citicorp complex. My high school music teacher, Lionel Chernoff, suggested that I go to the concert. I actually still remember the 14-year-old me shaking hands with Carter, enthralled by this senior composer who was there as he always was when his music was performed. At the time I never imagined he would live for more than three decades after my initial encounter with him. Nor did I imagine after finally visiting his home for that first time on February 4, 2000, that he would go on to compose what I believe to be even more extraordinary pieces: works such as the mesmerizing solo piano miniature Caténaires; the almost Feldman-esque string orchestra piece Sound Fields; or the extraordinary Cello Concerto which he had just begun contemplating. He mentioned this composition briefly during our talk that day. (Yo-Yo Ma would later have to learn it traveling cross-country on a bus after the nationwide airport shutdown following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.)

When Carter was a teenager, he was already deeply entrenched in the avant-garde milieu of his day. Much has been written elsewhere about his legendary and somewhat problematic relationship with Charles Ives, but Carter also told me about hearing lots of works by Edgard Varèse, as well as sitting next to George Gershwin during the American premiere of Wozzeck. He also talked about how we helped organize the American Composers Alliance when he was in his late 20s. In addition to his deep involvement in music, the young Carter was also an avid fan of literature (he was actually an undergraduate English major at Harvard), and literature remained a passion throughout his life.

After our talk, I was more fascinated with Carter’s music than I had been before and remain so to this day. Hearing him explain his conceptions for some of his more “difficult” pieces, I came to a greater understanding and appreciation for everything he had written and why he chose a singular, uncompromising path as a composer. I now deeply treasure everything he ever wrote, including his most challenging vocal works which the fearless soprano Tony Arnold wrote about for us in NewMusicBox back in 2011. Eight years after my extraordinary initial afternoon at Carter’s home, I had the privilege of returning there to talk with him again shortly before his centenary, by which point he had composed 45 more pieces! While I remain extremely proud of both of these talks, I am even more deeply in awe of a talk that Carter’s one-time student Ellen Taaffe Zwilich did with him when she was composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, as well as the collegial conversation between Carter and one of his biggest super-fans—believe it or not—Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, which we recorded for Counterstream Radio ten years ago.
It is now five years since Carter died, and it has inspired a great deal of reflection about his status today and what his lasting influence might be in our ever more splintered world.  I think that at the end of the day, his music, all of it, is a celebration of life—its marvelous ambiguities as well as its simultaneities, chock full of wit and humor and, ultimately, a reverence for its possibilities. And I do mean all of it—from his earliest unpublished song “My Love is in a Light Attire” (1928) to his withdrawn 1937 String Quartet in C Major written shortly after his studies with Nadia Boulanger (a page of which, from Carter’s original manuscript housed at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, was tantalizingly reproduced in the 2008 book Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents); from his joyous Tarantella for male chorus (1936) to his iconic 1948 Cello Sonata; from his 1955 Variations for Orchestra, which would be his sole exploration of the 12-tone method, to his perplexing Elizabeth Bishop-texted song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975); from his seminal Eight Pieces for solo timpani (1949/1966) to his solo clarinet showstopper Gra (1993); from his whimsical second wind quintet Nine by Five (2009) to his enigmatic final work, the just-recorded piano trio Epigrams (2012). And I’m still just scratching the surface. Hopefully our reflections here will inspire many further musical explorations.

—Frank J. Oteri (November 21, 2017)

Ed. note, as per the way NewMusicBox presented larger format articles back in the year 2000 (both to accommodate much slower bandwidths and to encourage non-linear reading), the talk with Elliott Carter is broken into eight separate pages. Each of these pages also includes audio/video elements so please take time to journey through them in whatever order you prefer, though they are listed below in the order in which the original conversation took place.

  1. 1. New Music Across the Century
  2. 2. Populism vs. Individualism
  3. 3. Connecting Modern Music to Other Art Forms
  4. 4. The Aesthetics of Chamber Music vs. The Orchestra
  5. 5. Being an American
  6. 6. On Difficulty
  7. 7. Vocal Music
  8. 8. Recent Activities

Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

1. New Music Across the Century

FRANK J. OTERI: As a composer who’s been a major force for most of the 20th century, I think you’re in a unique position to talk about our time. And, you know, everybody’s been talking about the millennium and whether or not we’re in a new era. I was just wondering what your thoughts were about it and what you feel are the most significant things that have happened in music in your lifetime?
ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, my original interest in music, after all, goes back to the 1920s. I always lived in New York City, and during the ‘20s when I was a high school student, there was a good deal more contemporary music played than in many periods after that time. At that time, for instance, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra did Wozzeck staged at the Metropolitan Opera. It was not part of the Metropolitan’s series, and the League of Composers organized it and the house was sold out. I sat next to George Gershwin. But I didn’t dare to talk to him at that performance. And I heard other things. Schoenberg was also done on that series, and then down here in Greenwich Village, there was this big department store, Wanamaker’s, that had concerts, and I heard a good deal of Varèse’s music played.
FJO: Wow. In the ‘20s?
EC: Yeah. In the ‘20s. And so I knew Varèse from that time on. And I also heard works of Charles Ives. There was somebody not far from here on 3rd Avenue, a woman named Catherine Ruth Hayman who played Scriabin and Schoenberg and Charles Ives and Ravel and Debussy and I went to all of these things when I was very young. And I had various friends who were involved with this whole field. One of them was Eugene O’Neill’s son, who went to the same school with me and was in my class. The Provincetown Playhouse gave performances of O’Neill’s plays right here down on MacDougal Street. So that this whole field of avant-garde of that period was something that got me very interested in music. Actually, I came to wish to be a composer through hearing that music, and rather disliking the more conservative music like Beethoven and Mozart, and it was only years later that I began to like that kind of music. So there’s always been this background of that early period of modernism that has remained with me all my life.

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: When you were at the production of Wozzeck, it was sold out and you were sitting next to Gershwin… Would you say that there was more of an attitude welcoming new music in the 20’s than there is today, or at other times in your life?
EC: It’s a very different period, you see. There’s been a big history of change that was caused largely by the big Depression during this time. And in the early days, in those early days, there was the recovery from the First World War and a very great effort on the part of many countries, particularly France, to present their culture in this country so that the French government subsidized a good many performances of all kinds of things in this city in order to recover from the awful shock of the war… And, beside that, there was an income tax difference – it was enormous. These wealthy people were willing to put up a lot of money for the performance of Wozzeck, and wealthy people came to these performances. It was all sort of a very wealthy upper class that was interested in modern art. The Museum of Modern Art was started by such people. When the Depression came and the whole tax thing was entirely changed, there was a very different world of people. And the wealthy people were no longer the wealthy people that supported the arts. Support for the arts came from people who were not that wealthy anymore, and so everything diminished a good deal.
FJO: And that’s something that we’re still experiencing to this day.
EC: Oh, yes. Of course. There’s been a big sociological change. There always were people like myself who were just students or didn’t have a great deal of money who went to these concerts. But in the early days, the concerts were also largely supported by older people who had money, who wanted to be “with it,” who were very interested. Modern music at that time was something to be “with,” something to follow: it was a new and exciting thing.
FJO: So do you feel the changes were more due to changes in economy than changes in the music itself?
EC: I think the changes in the economy were certainly one of the effects of all of this, but that wasn’t all. Even in the post-First World War world, people already began to see, particularly in France and Germany, a new change in music. Composers like Poulenc and Milhaud and Honegger, and in Germany, composers like Hindemith and Krenek began to show a whole new point of view about what was called avant-garde music. And there was a return, in the case of a composer like Poulenc, there was a desire not only to suggest Mozart but to suggest that music be very eclectic. There was a whole period of eclecticism that persisted, first in France, and then it came to this country. And that was also connected with the whole notion of populism, the very advanced, dissonant music that had been written before the war and was being written still a little bit afterward, was considered an elitist thing. And then there was a powerful desire to not write elitist music, and to write music that was more popular. And finally, of course, Aaron Copland, who was a great friend of mine during a good part of this period, wrote Billy the Kid. He started with El salón México, and then wrote Billy the Kid which was on the same program with my Pocahontas in 1939. And Aaron was very concerned with writing music that would draw a different kind of public than the older kind of music had been drawing.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Suite from Pocahontas (1939)
American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel
From the CRI CD American Masters – Elliott Carter

2. Populism vs. Individualism

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, initially, the music that you were writing was also very much in the populist vein…
ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, when I got interested in music, as I said, it was in the Varèse-and-so-forth period. But when I went to Paris, the new vogue had affected not only the whole musical life but also my teacher, Nadia Boulanger. When Aaron studied with Nadia Boulanger in the ‘20s, they went over Wozzeck with her. By that time I was there she disliked this kind of music. She was right up to the minute, even when she was dying, she was telling me how wonderful Boulez was. I can’t say that she changed, but she had a desire to follow things. She was always interested in what was new and tried to understand it. I must say she disliked Honegger a great deal but she did like Poulenc a lot.
FJO: Now, one thing that I’m curious about is your earliest, earliest music predating the stuff that predates your mature style, music that you were writing in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s, before you were writing in a populist vein. Were you writing music in the style of Varèse and the experimentalists?

The Voice of Elliott Carter

EC: Oh, that’s rather complicated. When I was in college, I did try to write what was sort of dissonant, advanced music, and I always was terribly dissatisfied. And it was partially for a very obvious reason: I didn’t have enough training to understand how to do this in a way that the good composers could do it. So it gradually began to be clear to me that I just simply had to go back and study music, the older music and get a background of the composers that I admired, like Stravinsky, for instance, had, and so I did. I studied with Nadia Boulanger and then I wrote some conservative music. I even wrote populist music during that time I was studying, and it was never very good. I don’t know why. I didn’t really begin to write music that I approved of until fairly recently. There is an old song that I sent to Henry Cowell when he was the editor for New Music that I wrote before I studied, a setting of one of the poems of James Joyce. It’s rather embarrassing, I think.
FJO: I love some of those early pieces. I really do.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s The Defense of Corinth (1941)
John Oliver Chorale
Elliott Carter: Choral Music

EC: Well, I’m talking about very early stuff…
FJO: You’re talking about stuff even earlier than what I’ve heard.
EC: Yeah. When I got going, I began to write these choral pieces. I wrote a lot of choral music. Those are pretty good, I think, for what they are.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Tarantella (1941)
John Oliver Chorale
Elliott Carter: Choral Music

FJO: Then there are your Robert Frost songs…

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Three Poems of Robert Frost (1942, orchestrated 1980)
Patrick Mason, baritone; Speculum Musicae conducted by David Starobin
The Music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 1 – The Vocal Works (1975-1981)

EC: Yeah, those are good, those are fine, for what they are. I mean, I can’t say I dislike them but they’re not the kind of thing I want to do now.
FJO: Well, certainly, if we’re to look at composers and their careers, from the point when you decided to write in what I’ll call your mature style, which is over 50 years ago at this point, I would say there’s been a remarkable consistency and identity to your music that few composers can claim to have been able to sustain over such a long period of time and development.
EC: Well, that’s nice to hear. [laughs] Part of the problem is I don’t think about it that way. I just write the music that has always meant a lot to me. You see, I switched, actually. About the time of the Second World War, I began to feel that the neo-classical or populist music that I was writing wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t express the feelings that I felt. We had all overwhelming feelings about the war and its result, and Hitler and all that, and this made me feel that I had to write something more serious and much more meaningful, to me at least, if not to the audience.
FJO: So what are some of those feelings that you wanted to express?
EC: Well, I can’t say that I can identify them, but they are in the music. [laughs]

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata (1945-46, revised 1982)
Charles Rosen, piano
Elliott Carter: The Complete Music for Piano

FJO: I know that you’ve said frequently that music should speak for itself and that composers aren’t always the best people to articulate what their music means.
EC: Well, yeah, that’s probably true, but the thing is that I’ve reverted, actually, to what originally interested me in music. And it all began to be much more meaningful to me and then also, I began to feel that, with the coming of the people in France after the war and in Germany, and when people like Boulez and the Darmstadt School went back to that earlier period, I felt that I was on the right track. I was on a track, perhaps not the right one, but anyhow, a track that other people felt. I think that this was a genuine feeling after the war. There was a desire to make music much more vivid and much more meaningful. And it’s always condemned nowadays as being academic. There has always been academic music all the time. And I don’t think, a good piece is not any more academic now as they were in the time of Brahms.

3. Connecting Modern Music to Other Art Forms
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in talking about music in relation to other trends in the 20th Century, and to talk about your music, I know that you studied literature as an undergraduate, you’re very interested in poetry, you wrote film and theater reviews years ago, and you collect art. You’re very much connected to other disciplines. How do you see music and the advances that happened in music in this century connected to the other arts?
ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, I feel music has kept pace with the best parts of other arts. I mean, with the development of Picasso and the development, even of Bill de Kooning, for instance, this has been something that I think music itself has done, at least I’ve done, and I don’t know whether this is true of other people but in some sense, I looked into the question, for instance, of how musicians play together. And in the course of this whole period you’re talking about, more mature work, I suppose it’s more mature, the desire to make the people that are contributing, contribute with their own individuality, so that we have, most of my work since 1950 have been concerned, so to speak, with deconstructing the normal situation of music. And this has been true, all painting is like that, too, and also a lot of literature.

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: I think music’s in a very strange position, because a lot of people are aware of de Kooning, and have an appreciation for de Kooning, and a lot of people on college campuses to this day name drop James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and maybe even more contemporary writers like Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis, who are writing really experimental work, or an artist like Frank Stella who is an enormously successful painter doing highly complex work. But in music, we’re still sort of beholden to the standard repertoire and the old works are still sort of the focus of classical music life.
EC: Well, I think there’s a very simple explanation for all that. It’s perhaps mean to say this, but in any case the explanation is, a painting is something you can buy and sell, it’s a physical object that exists. Music isn’t. And furthermore, a good part of my own life was spent in trying to prove that music was worth something… that a composer’s music was something worth paying for. Back in the ‘30s, we—the composers—organized the American Composers Alliance. Up to that time, American composers were not paid for anything. And, I mean, serious music, if you had a piece played by the Philharmonic, you had to find money to pay the Philharmonic to play it, and we organized and did the old union stuff, and finally got orchestras and performers to pay for our performances. It’s still, of course, very primitive. I find in my own case, I was only looking at my quarterly royalties, for the last quarter of 1998, and I have 13 times as much royalties from Europe as I have from America. And this is because we are not as developed in this particular field partly, and partly my music isn’t played as often. But it’s because of this financial situation as much as anything else that these things have persisted this way, in my opinion. Money is right at the basis of all of this, and beside that, the expense of producing these contemporary musical works is great, so it takes lots of rehearsals. So you sink a lot of money in, but you don’t get any of it back. Sotheby’s does mighty well with even minor painters. [laughs]
FJO: Right. Well, we have this whole tradition that we’re working in, a classical music community that plays the old standards and, you know, we’re lucky, in an orchestral program, let’s say, if we get one modern work on a program, and I find it interesting that your music is so very much about now, yet, it has to be tied to the music of Europe’s past, because that’s the music that it gets to be played with. So, you’ll write works that have names such as string quartet or concerto, and these bring up certain associations for listeners, and certain assumptions within the community, although it’s curious to me that you’ve mostly avoided the term symphony. There’s an early Symphony No. 1 that you wrote. You’ve titled your recent three-movement orchestral work “Symphonia,” but you’re not calling it ‘symphony.’

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Symphony No. 1 (1942)
American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel
American Composers Orchestra play Thorne, Roussakis and Carter

EC: That brings up lots of different kinds of thoughts. One of them is that I haven’t thought a lot about naming my pieces in different ways, and I realize in hearing many of my colleagues’ works with peculiar names that they were more conventional than mine. So why should I bother? The very fact that the string quartet was called a string quartet and it carries on a newer point of view about a string quartet is, is more important than to call it Ainsi la nuit, for instance, as Mr. Dutilleux did, which is a very beautiful title and, actually, a beautiful quartet too, and his is not so conventional. But I find in general, it’s absurd to bother with that. I mean, I realize, it’s a way to sell your pieces, if you give some kind of funny title to them, but I want mine sold on the basis of what you hear, not what they’re called.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2 (1959)
The Composers Quartet (Matthew Raimondi and Anahid Ajemian, violins; Jean Dupouy, viola; Michael Rudiakov, cello)
Elliott Carter: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

4. The Aesthetics of Chamber Music vs. The Orchestra
FRANK J. OTERI: I was thrilled to be at the awards reception at the Conference of Chamber Music America and to see you being honored with their most important award. It was the first time it was ever given to a composer for the act of writing music. William Schuman got the award years ago, but it was for his work as an administrator. I think your receiving this award is wonderful recognition for having done so much to contribute to the chamber music repertoire, in the writing of string quartets and as well as numerous works for other combinations. Why has chamber music been such an important concern for you throughout your lifetime?
ELLIOTT CARTER: I really can’t answer that in a fundamental way. I can answer it in a superficial way, but I’m not sure that I’m really answering it completely. What I can say is that one of the things that struck me right away as soon as I wrote that first string quartet was that the difference between a group of string quartet players and an orchestra, is that the string quartet will rehearse a piece ‘til they play it well and an orchestra is paid by the hour for a rehearsal. If the number of rehearsals is very limited, it becomes less and less possible, especially in America. That’s one of the reasons why my works are more frequently played in Europe because a lot of those orchestras, like the radio orchestras, are subsidized and have many more rehearsals. And even orchestras that are not as good as our American orchestras, can rehearse so much more than any American orchestra could, so that they give a better performance than we would get here most of the time.
FJO: Last summer, I spoke to Zarin Mehta, who runs the Ravinia Festival, and he gave me a very honest answer about why more new music isn’t being done. Usually people in administration will say, “Well, the audiences don’t like new music.” But he didn’t say that. He said, “We cannot afford the rehearsal time.”
EC: Yes.
FJO: And the standard with orchestra rehearsals is three rehearsals, if you’re lucky, and that doesn’t do justice to most new pieces.
EC: The basic problem turns out that three or four rehearsals, whatever number of rehearsals, is only the beginning. The important thing of a performance is that it has to be played with conviction and with very great musicality, just the way that you would play Mozart or Beethoven. If you get somebody just sort of scraping through, you wouldn’t want to hear it even in a Beethoven symphony.
FJO: And many arguments can be made, like contemporary music is much more difficult… But the older music is not as difficult because people have played it before. How many times has someone in an orchestra played Brahms?
EC: Let me say that just to play a scale beautifully is not so simple. I mean, you can tell that when you hear these people play. Alicia de Larrocha plays a scale and it’s absolutely wonderful. I mean, in a Mozart concerto. This is not something that you do easily. Some things take a lot of practice, and a great deal of taste, intelligence, and sensitivity.

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: Well, what can we do to get around this problem with American orchestras and rehearsals?
EC: I don’t think that there’s any way… I really don’t know. This is, I refuse to think about this. I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t know how to solve it. I have very great lucky in this particular respect. Mr. Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, both of whom conduct the Chicago Symphony, are willing to take the effort to play my pieces very well. This is very unusual. But I think that in the end, they play them, and the audiences, I suppose, like them. They get good reviews, and here’s Mr. Barenboim bringing my opera to New York, and he might even play that Symphonia, I don’t know, but he’s played all different parts of it, let me say, one time or another, which is more than any orchestra in New York or anywhere else has done. And I think it’s just a matter of having the individual conductor with his vision, and a belief in the music and a belief that it should be done. After all, the whole music profession depends on these people playing this music as if it had a point and had meaning, and was meaningful. And just to go through this in some sort of a desultory way, is a waste of time and it’s hard on the composer and even harder on the audience.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo (1983)
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Jean Kopperud, clarinet; Linda Quan, violin; Chris Finckel, cello; James Winn, piano; Daniel Druckman, percussion
Chamber Music of Carter, Davies & Druckman

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (1952)
Rembrandt Chamber Players
20th Century Baroque—Modern Reflections on Old Instruments

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Symphonia (1993-96)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen
Elliott Carter: Symphonia; Clarinet Concerto

FJO: With chamber music, there can be better performances because there’s more rehearsal time and more dedication to detail. Chamber music has allowed you to really explore a unique musical syntax which is actually a chamber music-informed vocabulary in that it allows all the musicians to have their own personalities and to celebrate in the differences between players. Whereas when we think of an orchestra, we usually think of a nameless, faceless group of people. Even when you’ve written for orchestra, you treat the orchestra like a gigantic chamber ensemble.
EC: I’ve tried to do that, yes. It takes an awful lot of work, so many notes. [laughs] But, I mean, I’ve tried to do it in my Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. It’s a bad habit, I just write these pieces that have all these peculiar things happening in them, and, but it seems to me this is very important. I mean, I know how to write entirely different kinds of music. But I don’t want to. I think it’s a waste of my time.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra (1969)
Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen
Elliott Carter: Piano Concerto; Concerto for Orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra; Three Occasions

5. Being an American
FRANK J. OTERI: I think that with all of this chamber-oriented work you’ve created something that is very uniquely American. I know you once described the Fourth String Quartet as mirroring the democratic ideal of each member in a society maintaining an identity while cooperating on a common goal.
ELLIOTT CARTER: I don’t think about it; I think that being American is being yourself. I think that it’s ridiculous to be American by putting some folk songs in a piece the way Dvořák did…

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: I actually think there’s something very European about that type of approach. It reflects a kind of respect for traditions that I think Americans don’t really understand. Europe is completely surrounded by tradition, it’s saturated by tradition, whereas in America, we’re constantly destroying our older buildings, putting up new ones. There’s always this pioneer spirit, this sense of constant change, and it sort of has resulted in a very different aesthetic that we have as Americans. And I think that your music speaks to that, that individualism, each voice in a string quartet acting independently.
EC: The notion of tradition in Europe is also the notion of a kind of progressiveness we don’t really have as much. I mean, who could build a Pompidou Center here or the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Even though Frank Gehry, an American, was the architect that did it. There’s not going to be any building of that sort in this country as far as I know. Los Angeles has been wanting to put up a concert hall built by Gehry that perhaps will turn up, but the Europeans have spent large amounts of money building new buildings that are very advanced. France is very determined to try to be the most advanced country. I don’t know whether they’ll succeed. But this is partly true in other countries. Americans aren’t thinking about that because we have no unified culture from which we can break away. There are isolated and very remarkable things in this country that have been done, but as you say, they sometimes suffer from not being recognized very much and sometimes just being overwhelmed with other things. I mean, we have a building by Louis Sullivan downtown…
FJO: On Bleecker Street.
EC: Yeah. You can hardly see it anymore. And the Jefferson Market building, that old tower… This building itself is a historic monument, but this is not very meaningful to most people. There’s a little group of people who try to preserve these things, but I’m not sure it’s very meaningful. I have not thought about this as an act in itself in my own life, and so it’s something I’m trying to talk about without being very articulate. I can’t imagine being European, in the sense that I’m not aware of tradition in the way that somebody like Boulez is, for instance.
FJO: So you would consider yourself an American composer?
EC: Oh, of course. We’re a little bit like English composers but not so much. No, no, no, even the English have Holst and Vaughan Williams and Elgar to get rid of.
FJO: Right. Well, I mean, do we have figures that we need to get rid of? People like Ives and Cowell and Gershwin or even Copland at this point?
EC: Well, they never have sunk in that much. We’ve been making great effort to celebrate Copland this year because of his 100th birthday. But I wonder what repercussions that will have when it’s 2001. After we forget very easily our past in this country. MacDowell wasn’t such a bad composer, but he’s particularly unknown.
FJO: And John Knowles Paine…
EC: Oh, yeah, a whole bunch of them. Even Charles Griffes… When I was young, the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall used to play his White Peacock all the time, and now it’s gone.
FJO: He was a very unique composer who had a different approach to Impressionism that’s very original.
EC: Yeah, yeah, very original in his own way. But it’s not anything that hangs on. You know, America’s a peculiar place because it’s so different from what you expect. I wanted to give a friend of mine this book, Tristram Shandy, and I went to the bookstore and I said, “Have you got a nice bound copy?” “Oh, no, we only have paperback because people only read it when they’re in college.” That’s the story.
FJO: And it really puts a damper on creativity and on the arts.
EC: Well, we’re all sort of subversive in a certain sense. We’re doing something that is a little out of step with our society. But on the other hand, the society somehow, this can mean something to lots of people in any case, I think. It’s not something that is found in the spotlight of publicity. In fact, it’s very possible that publicity is the one thing that’s bad about all of this. The world of publicity is so intense now. And it’s what is unfortunately happening, even now, to a certain extent in music. Younger composers follow the trendy thing a good deal, and two years later, it ain’t trendy anymore.
FJO: What would you give as advice to younger composers?
EC: Better do what they like. What they like most.
FJO: You pretty much have managed to stand apart from all of the stylistic camps that we’ve found ourselves in over the past 50 years. You’ve distanced yourself from serialism and you’ve been openly critical of indeterminate music. You’ve spoken out against complex systems that are impossible for listeners to hear. But people who are not familiar with your music might say it’s very complex and difficult to comprehend. What would be your response to that? How should listeners approach your music?
EC: Let me say, you’re asking questions that would have been a very different one, if we had been in a situation like England, where British Broadcasting has played every work of mine over many years from 1950 on. Maybe some people don’t like it, but there are a large number of people who think they ought to like it, and they make an effort to like it, and that’s it. In America I can’t say, “I’m very good. You better listen and learn how to hear it.” You can’t say that. It doesn’t make any sense. So there’s nothing you can do. You just wait. But we know waiting in this country means disappearing, because this has happened. But it happened even with Mark Twain, practically, except for Huckleberry Finn. And it certainly happened with Herman Melville except for Moby Dick. I have a complete set of Hawthorne; I wonder if anybody reads any of it anymore.
FJO: I just got finished reading the complete works of Herman Melville…
EC: Oh, my God! Mardi
FJO: It was very intense.
EC: And then Clarel, that big poem.
FJO: The one that I’m really amazed by is Pierre; or The Ambiguities.
EC: Oh, yes, well, that’s all about incest.
FJO: It’s such a remarkably constructed and conceived parody of 19th century morals.
EC: Well, you know, the most interesting book about Melville is written by a Frenchman. And it’s the same with Poe. Except for Ph.D. dissertations, which don’t get printed in general, except privately or small copies, the general public in America is too busy with whatever it is, and not any of that old stuff.
FJO: Well certainly the American classical music community is still dwelling on music of the past, Europe’s past. Music that’s from another time and another continent, rather than paying attention to what’s happening here now.
EC: This is a very complicated subject. For instance, not so long ago, within the last three or four weeks, Anne Sophie Mutter played a whole series of contemporary music concerts. They all sold out because she’s a famous player. Half the audience goes to see a player; it doesn’t matter what they play.
FJO: It helps that she’s very attractive, too…
EC: Very pretty, yeah. I think that we’re very concerned with performers, and performance, and we don’t really care too much about the music. And there have been very good and very famous performers like Pollini, who plays the Boulez Second Sonata…
FJO: …And music by Luigi Nono…
EC: We’re very performer-oriented, and performers all learn all those famous Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart pieces, and they all play them well. Mr. Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma played my cello sonata in Chicago a couple of weeks ago and it was very successful.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 4 (1986)
The Composers Quartet (Matthew Raimondi and Anahid Ajemian, violins; Maureen Gallagher, viola; Karl Bargen, cello)
Three American String Quartets

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)
Fred Sherry, cello; Charles Wuorinen, piano
Elliott Carter: Eight Compositions


6. On Difficulty
FRANK J. OTERI: But you must admit that some of your music is very difficult for listeners.
FJO: [laughs] As a composer, and somebody who’s lived with music my whole life, speaking for myself, with some of the pieces, I’m still quite perplexed. And I find that following with the score, I get so much more out of this music, but then there are certain pieces that I tried following with the score and I was completely overwhelmed. I’m thinking of Penthode, or the Piano Concerto, and…
EC: Oh, that Piano Concerto. That’s a wonderful piece.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto (1965)
Ursula Oppens, piano; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen
Elliott Carter: Piano Concerto; Concerto for Orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra; Three Occasions

FJO: It’s very, very difficult to understand, though, I think.
EC: Really?
FJO: For me.
EC: Oh my!
FJO: [laughs]
EC: I never thought, well, I don’t know that. I mean, Ursula [Oppens] played it with Michael Gielen in Chicago not so long ago, the audience seemed to think it was fine. I mean, I don’t know what the audience felt, but they applauded a lot and they didn’t boo.
FJO: Well, what do you think is the best approach that somebody should come to your music with? Should they prepare by reading about it, studying a score, or should they just listen to it with completely fresh ears?
EC: I think they should just listen to it. Of course, well, let me put it this way. I think that the whole understanding of music has a background of literary description. I think that the public now wouldn’t like Beethoven symphonies if they hadn’t been told something about them. I wonder whether they would be able to take in all the things that happen, and what the music is and what the character of it is, if they hadn’t been told, or if it hadn’t been pumped into them a little bit. I mean, it gets passed on finally, but it’s familiar… I think the history of music has always had a certain amount of literary explanation that’s gone with it all along. The question, for instance, of counterpoint is a very interesting one. I mean, it’s obvious that most people who are not familiar with music can’t hear counterpoint very well. It’s just confusing to them. Now Bach wrote these pieces of staggeringly complicated counterpoint. The opening of the B minor Mass is one great big thing that, who knows what goes on, as a matter of fact, it’s much, it’s so dense and there are so many things happening. He has a big harmony, and it changes from one thing to another, and that makes an effect. But I don’t think that people would grasp that piece if they were not aware that this is the Kyrie Eleison and knowing what the text was.
FJO: Well, you have to admit, though, with music of the past and with other music of our time, that there are certain things that people can latch on to. Melodies that people walk away humming, things that linger in the mind.
EC: There’re not many, there are lots of sections in Chopin where there’s no melody at all. Some of the Preludes and some of the Etudes don’t have any melody, they just go up and down little tiny scales.
FJO: Those are probably not the more popular pieces, though.
EC: I wonder. Well, no, of course, but they’re the pieces that people play all the time. I feel my pieces are very melodic. People say that. They said my opera was very melodic.
FJO: It is. It really is.
EC: It doesn’t have a melody you can sing because it never repeats. There’s no melodic line that is repeated, so it doesn’t sink in. It’s just a type of melody which goes on and on.
FJO: So, since we’re living in an era where people are maybe going to get exposed to something once, how can they grasp something where there isn’t a single repetition? What can we do to make people understand this better?
EC: Just repeat it over and over again like Philip Glass.
FJO: What is your thought about minimalist music?
EC: I have a feeling about it that is very strong and it’s probably not correct. And that is that we are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement. I try to follow the movie that’s being shown, but I’m being told about cat food every 5 minutes. That is minimalism. I don’t want it and I don’t like it. And it’s a way of making an impression that doesn’t impress me. In fact, I do everything to avoid it. I turn off the television until it’s over. I refuse to be advertised to.
FJO: Could you appreciate music using repetition to attentuate a structure in a piece?
EC: Well, my music repeats in a certain sense all the time. I mean, it uses the same material but it carries on a development that is constantly drawing new ideas out of a basic chordal, whatever it is—I’ve done different things in different pieces, but it’s always one limited thing that it sticks to, that any part sticks to, or any one sound in an orchestra piece that persists throughout the piece. This gives it a structure. I mean, this is not anything really new. For instance, a lot of the Mahler symphonies are like that. There’s not really a repetitive thing in a lot of the Mahler symphonies; it just goes on and on more or less alike all the time.
FJO: But there are themes that always return.
EC: Sometimes, yes.
FJO: There have been a lot of comments, in recent reviews and in the press about music from your Violin Concerto onward claiming that your music has grown more emotional and more expressive, that it has become leaner, that there are sparer textures. It isn’t quite as busy, and it is easier to understand for people. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Violin Concerto (1990)
Ole Böhn, violin; London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen
Carter: Three Occasions, Violin Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra

EC: Well, I wouldn’t know that. I mean, I just do what I like. I never thought about it that way. It’s very possible, as far as I’m concerned, I just write one piece after another as it comes into my head. I do not think that I’ve tried to be simpler, or have tried to reach an audience more easily. No, I do not think that at all. Every composer must have this experience: You write a piece and you hear it, and then you think about it and you write some more, and the second piece is affected by what you heard the last time, by what you heard in the other piece. And in my life, there’s an accumulation of having heard, of having heard many, many of these different pieces, many times, sometimes badly played, sometimes, part of all of what goes on in my head, if I do certain things, it won’t come out very well, you know, or they won’t play it very well if you do this. I mean, there are whole thousands of little thoughts that are all part of the sort of subconscious business. It’s very hard to articulate.
FJO: Have you at all been influenced by other composers’ music that you’ve heard?
EC: I’m not aware of it. I probably have been but I don’t think about it. The only composer that’s influenced me more than others is Mozart. Because the thing that interests me in Mozart is the extraordinary change that we were talking about. The extraordinary ability to get through many things rather rapidly, many different things, like the opening of Don Giovanni, for instance, which is one of the remarkable things in music.


7. Vocal Music
FRANK J. OTERI: Literature has always been so important to you, and you wrote a lot of vocal music and choral music in your early career. But when you embarked on the style that was to occupy you for the rest of your life, you turned away from vocal music until the mid-‘70s when you composed an Elizabeth Bishop song cycle, A Mirror On Which To Dwell, which is quite wonderful. I think having a vocal line on top of the music that you were writing made it very different. You can’t write for the voice the way that you write for other instruments.
FJO: It’s fascinating how much the music articulates the rhythms of the words of the poetry and how much the music is about the poetry. And with your opera What Next?, I was even more thrilled at how dramatic this music can be, and how the music propels the action, and I would dare say, and I know that you say that you don’t notice this, but perhaps my ear perceives it, and I’m looking at the score and perceiving it as another listener, as being simpler and more concise, and maybe with the voice and a dramatic context, you can’t be as complex if you want to get the message across. Am I feeling anything that’s at all logical?
EC: It’s very hard for me to say I’m getting the message across. I mean, I get the person getting the music the message gets across is me. It’s rather hard for me to think about it any other way. I just feel that this is the way it should be. Obviously, in opera there are many kinds of things that go on in one’s head. The problem in the opera, for instance, is the idea that a woman, who is the main character, should be a singer so she would sing almost from beginning to end, with pauses, but she carries on enormous arias. So the opera involved all sorts of different things about how to subordinate, how to have her come in while somebody else is singing, when would she come in, and oh, God, thousands of interesting problems which were fascinating to deal with. I thought about Wagner operas and Strauss operas and I decided that I really wanted to write an opera in which the singing was more important than the orchestra by far. And this is what I did. Now Oliver Knussen said to me that I shouldn’t. Die schweigsame Frau by Strauss is a comedy but there’s an enormous orchestra doing everything all the time, and I said to myself, that’s just what I don’t want! I want to have something in which the people on the stage sing, and they’re the ones that are living characters. And it’s really carrying on the same ideas I had in the string quartets.

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: What was it like working with Paul Griffiths?
EC: Well, I told him what I wanted. And I told him that I wanted an automobile accident, and people recovering from it, and getting sort of disjointed in their lives, and he just wrote the libretto, and there were very few things that had to be changed. It was a very good libretto from the point of view of what I wanted. Some people think it’s an awful libretto, but I think it’s a very good one.
FJO: Oh, I think it’s fantastic. Yeah, I really enjoyed it.
EC: Now, I also chose Paul Griffiths because I decided that he had heard many contemporary operas and he was more familiar with the operatic problem than most writers would be. There are many writers that I know. John Guare lives around the corner. I realized that if I chose a writer who might have had a little bit more publicity connected with him, I would have had to explain to him how to write an opera. Now, this man knew how to write an opera right away.
FJO: And he’s also a very big fan of your music.
EC: He knew my music, and right now, he wrote a libretto that he thought would provoke my music, you see, which is not something I would find in any other writer, except John Ashbery perhaps, but his poetry would have been too disjointed for me to deal with.
FJO: It’s interesting to me that there was such a long period where you did not write any vocal music.
EC: Well, that’s very simple. When I first heard those Robert Frost songs and my Hart Crane setting and the rest of it, they were badly sung. I had never heard a very good performance of them at the time when they were written. And I was rather discouraged. I thought, well, evidently I don’t know how to write in such a way that people will sing these pieces well. That was one thing. And then when I began to decide to write the kind of music that you heard in the First String Quartet, I realized that, if they couldn’t sing those earlier songs, then nobody could sing what I might have written later. And so, granted, this was just in the back of my mind, and finally I just got very interested in writing chamber music. And it was only because Fred Sherry and Speculum Musicae asked me to write a vocal piece and so I did. And then I talked to a friend of mine, and said that I wanted a text that was written by a woman since it was going to be a woman singing the songs, and so he said Elizabeth Bishop.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)
Christine Schadeberg, soprano; Speculum Musicae, conducted by Donald Palma
Elliott Carter: The Vocal Works

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Voyage (1945)
Gregg Smith Singers
Elliott Carter: Orchestral Songs, Complete Choral Music

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1 (1950-51)
The Composers Quartet (Matthew Raimondi, Anahid Ajemian, violins; Jean Dupouy, viola; Michael Rudiakov, cello)
Elliott Carter: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2


8. Recent Activities
FRANK J. OTERI: So what are you working on now?
ELLIOTT CARTER: I’m working on a cello concerto for Chicago Symphony and, I think, Yo-Yo Ma—I’m not sure.
FJO: When is that scheduled for?
EC: It isn’t scheduled. I refuse now to accept a schedule.
FJO: And I hear there’s a second opera awaiting?
EC: Well, they’re hoping that. Since the opera, I’ve written a chamber orchestra piece for the Asko Ensemble in Holland, in Amsterdam, and eight Italian songs, and a number of piano pieces, and some solo violin pieces.
FJO: With all this composing activity, do you actively listen to other music at this point, besides the music that you’re writing? Do you listen to records? Do you go to concerts?
EC: I don’t, as a rule. No, I try not to listen. I must say, the other night my wife and I played over a videocassette of Rosenkavalier and I’ve had an awful lot of trouble getting it out of my head and I’m sorry I heard it. [laughs]
FJO: [laughs] Do you listen to any music outside of the classical music tradition at all? Do you listen to jazz?
EC: If I listen to anything, it’s something like east Indian music.
FJO: In an interview you did with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, you were talking about the Dagar Brothers
EC: Yes, they’re wonderful.
FJO: I love them also. You said that the Dagar Brothers influenced your composition of Penthode, and I was struggling to hear that influence, and maybe that’s one of the reasons that I didn’t fully understand that piece.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Penthode (1985)
Ensemble InterContemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez
Boulez conducts Schoenberg, Berio, Carter, Kurtag, Xenakis

EC: Well, I thought of it as one big long line. Maybe that doesn’t come across.
FJO: I want to go back and hear it again… So you don’t really listen to any popular music at all, at this point.
EC: Well, I don’t like it; I don’t like popular music at the present time. I mean, as sound. The words are very entertaining, but the music itself seems to me rather simple and not very interesting to hear. I like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans and Gershwin, but I don’t really like popular music since that time. It bothers me. It seems too childish and simple. I don’t listen to music very much. I go to concerts of music that I think might interest me. I don’t go very much anymore because it’s hard for me to get around easily. But I will go to hear a new piece of Boulez. And I go to hear concerts of George Perle’s music. I go to hear occasionally the new pieces, and I have been just listening off and on to different records of cello concerti, since I’m writing one. I got somebody to get me a lot of them, but I haven’t played many of them. I don’t feel as though I really want to.
FJO: You’ve told me that you don’t really deal with computers and the internet at all. I read a remark that you made a number of years ago where you said that you aren’t interested in writing electronic music because you felt it hadn’t been developed enough yet, and I know that your music is very performer-oriented, so to write music for machines would be antithetical to your whole conception of music, I think. But would you write for electric instruments? Are you at all interested in synthesizers?
EC: No. This is very old-fashioned, but I like to feel that I’m hearing the touch of the musician, and the voice of the musician directly. It’s part of human life. To have it filtered through a machine, or through an amplifier in a concert, is to me rather disturbing. It seems to me it’s falsifying the person. That’s what I feel. Now I listen to records, and I don’t mind it so much, but I don’t like it in a concert. I don’t like it amplified. Now, it’s true that in my Double Concerto it’s often hard to hear the harpsichord, and we sometimes amplify it a little bit. But if it’s amplified too much, then it spoils the piece, because it immediately destroys the sense. You’re not hearing the harpsichord; you’re hearing the amplification.
FJO: So you do listen to recordings from time to time?
EC: Oh, yes.
FJO: Do you listen to recordings of your own music?
EC: I listen to old music. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, things like that. And I listen also occasionally to composers whom I would like to know more about. I don’t know as much as I would like to know about Milton Babbitt’s music. I’ve heard some of it, and I wanted to hear more, so I’ll get records of his and play it. Or go to a concert when it’s played. There are other people. Mario Davidovsky interests me a great deal and I like to hear his music. But I don’t listen very much; I listen to or play it once or twice and I don’t want to hear it again.

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: Thank you for taking this time with us. It’s been an immense delight. And I’m very much looking forward to hearing What Next? live next month. It’s going to be very exciting.
EC: Yeah, I’m going to go Chicago for it first. They’re bringing over the cast, you know, from Germany.
FJO: They’re terrific.
EC: I don’t know how they can do things like that.
FJO: They’re amazing.
EC: Mr. Barenboim is a very devoted man. I mean, he’s very devoted to doing my stuff. I don’t get that in other people. There’s no other conductor except for Pierre Boulez that would do that much.
FJO: …Oliver Knussen….
EC: Oh yes, Olli Knussen made that extraordinary new recording
FJO: of the Symphonia…
EC: It’s an amazing performance, and the Clarinet Concerto’s amazing, too.
FJO: Oh, yeah. That was a real delight, hearing that.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto (1961)
Gilbert Kalish, piano; Paul Jacobs, harpsichord; Contemporary Chamber Players, conducted by Arthur Weisburg

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Concerto (1996)
Michael Collins, clarinet; London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen
Elliott Carter: Symphonia; Clarinet Concerto