Elliott Carter’s Visit to the University of California Santa Barbara, April 16, 1976
In the spring of 1976 the author was a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara, teaching a course he had put together on Elliott Carter’s music. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, it was possible to bring the 67-year-old Carter to the university to give a talk on his music. The following account of this visit was written only a few days afterward, while the details were still fresh. During the two-hour drive from Los Angeles Carter talked freely about some of his own works, his compositional practices and techniques and his assessment of specific performances. He offered opinions about composers and performers, including Webern, Berio, Bernstein, Lutoslawski, Stockhausen, Sessions and Boulez. In particular, he had many personal anecdotes to relate about Stravinsky. In his talk at the university he described how he approached composition as “continuous invention” and gave illustrations of some of his applied techniques. Carter's primarily humorous and pleasant personality was much in evidence as was his curiosity about life and, on rare occasion, a sudden outburst of impatience or even anger.
On April 16, 1976 at 10:00 AM Kevin Raftery and I met Elliott Carter in Saugus, California to drive him to the University of California Santa Barbara, where he was to speak at 2:00 PM. Carter had spent the week at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he had given a series of guest lectures and demonstrations. He wanted to carry his own bags and was concerned that they were receiving the proper treatment as we put them in the trunk. We later learned that he had LP recordings of his music in them. I asked him if he had ever been to Santa Barbara before, and when he said “no,” I assured him that it was a “good drive.” Carter immediately stopped and asked apprehensively whether I meant that it was a “long” drive or a “beautiful” one. Carter asked us to make sure that he checked out of the hotel, saying that he often forgot to do that.
Carter asked us if we were composers. On learning that we were, he seemed more at ease and the ensuing conversations flowed freely and easily. When asked if he was happy with the performance of his Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras at Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles earlier that week (on April 12, 1976), he had many detailed criticisms. He was particularly unhappy with the amplification of the harpsichord. They had tried to use the house amplification system, but the harpsichord was under a mounted speaker and there was feedback. He said that not only was the harpsichord too loud, with the makeshift amplification, but one could hear the sound of the jacks clicking. Carter knew precisely where the pick-up microphone should be placed (under the sounding-board rather than over the strings). He was also unhappy that the percussionists did not follow the very precise indications in the score as to which kind of sticks to use at given moments. He felt the percussionists had not been “warned” to be very accurate with dynamics. The two chamber orchestras were placed too close to each other (out of necessity due to the small size of the stage in the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). He said that there was a group of percussionists in New York who had performed the work frequently and knew precisely what to do. They were in Australia at the time, giving a performance of the Double Concerto, and were unavailable for the Los Angeles concert. He said that he had sat through much worse performances, including the first one in Los Angeles (Monday Evening Concerts, 1962).
Carter asked about the College of Creative Studies, which was sponsoring his presentation at the University of California Santa Barbara. He was surprised to hear that Peter Racine Fricker was the senior composition professor at the University and expressed an interest in seeing him again. Carter was also curious to learn that Richard Rodney Bennett had just been on campus.
Carter said with pride that he felt the Duo for Violin and Piano (1974) was his best piece to date and that he had dedicated it to his wife for that reason. He felt, however, that the Duo would be more difficult for him to explain than his earlier music, including the then recent Third String Quartet. There is a passage in the Duo where artificial harmonics are combined in double-stops with natural harmonics.(1) Between measures 174 and 192. It is very hard for the violinist to play, not because of the double-stop fingering (which Carter had worked out carefully), but because artificial harmonics require different bowing strengths than do natural harmonics. It is extremely difficult to balance them dynamically in double-stops, which Carter had not thought about. Paul Zukofsky used a mute on the recording to facilitate the passage, but in live performance there is no time to put the mute on.(2) The first commercial recording of the Duo, with Paul Zukovsky, violin and Gilbert Kalish, piano, on Nonesuch H-71314, released in 1975.
Carter also said that there is one short passage in his Concerto for Orchestra which had proven very difficult to play, to his surprise, and that he regretted having written it that way. He did not specify which passage he was talking about.
Carter said that the emphasis on percussion in the Double Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra was partially an attempt to use a group of instruments other than the traditional strings as the central “glue” in the sound. He also said that the choice of a perfect fifth as one of the high intervals in the 12-note source chord of the Concerto for Orchestra was primarily due to perverse, humorous reasoning: perfect fifths are usually found in the low range with tonal functions associated with them, so he decided to “mess all that up!” Sevenths and ninths, which are frequently found in the high ranges in traditional, tonal harmonies, are placed in the low range in the concerto’s source chord.
Carter said that he was always getting notices from his publisher that one of his works would be performed somewhere in the world but that the notices usually arrived about two weeks after the concert had already taken place. He said that he only learned about the February 1975 performances of the Concerto for Orchestra with Pierre Boulez and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles about a month afterward. He would have come to Los Angeles to attend the concerts had he known. Carter chuckled and said that the man who engraved his Concerto for Orchestra decided to leave the business after finishing the engraving of that work. Carter showed us his own printed copy of the Concerto for Orchestra. There were many corrections in red pencil in his copy, mostly indicating minor errors or corrections in dynamic markings. He regretted the errors but admitted that he could not catch them all while proofreading. He said that it would take him “all summer” just to proofread one work if he allowed himself that kind of detailed cross-checking. In the back of his personal copy of the Concerto for Orchestra there were pages and pages of source-chord charts, in manuscript.
Carter said that he felt that “Vents” by Saint-John Perse (the poem on which the Concerto for Orchestra is loosely based) is not necessarily a great poem, that it is sometimes “bombastic.” Nevertheless, it gave him something over which to “drape” the music.
Carter said that the reason his activities at Aspen were minimal during the summer of 1974 was that he was composing his Brass Quintet. He had agreed to come if there would be no teaching responsibilities. The American Brass Quintet, for whom the work was being written, was there at the time, and Carter particularly enjoyed being able to try things out with them as he finished sections of the composition. He said that early performances of the quintet had been hampered by the fact that the score and parts were not quite ready for release in published form yet. Part of his understanding with the American Brass Quintet concerning the work was that they would copy their own parts so that he would not have to. The American Brass Quintet sent photocopies of their own parts, heavily overlaid with their own performance markings, for use by other groups in performance.
Carter’s most recently completed composition at the time was the song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell, set to poems by Elizabeth Bishop. It had been almost thirty years since Carter had written for the voice, and we were interested to see what his vocal writing would be like; would he have adapted to the voice the complex instrumental style he had developed in the interim? I asked him if the vocal part in A Mirror on Which to Dwell used extended vocal techniques like those in Luciano Berio’s Circles. Carter said that it did not, thought for a moment, then said that, in one sense, the soprano part in A Mirror on Which to Dwell is more dramatic than the one in Circles in that he (Carter) was always concerned that the words be understood and their meaning communicated. We mentioned Berio’s Sinfonia as a work that has at least superficial similarities with some of Carter’s stylistic technique involving “multiple musics.” Carter disagreed, saying, for one thing, he would not quote other people’s music as did Berio. Carter said that he liked other pieces of Berio’s better than he did Sinfonia.
Carter said that one of the poems (“O Breath”) in A Mirror on Which to Dwell is about a woman awake beside her sleeping lover. She expresses many varied emotions about their relationship, and her turbulent thought is reflected in the animated angularity of the vocal line. The instruments do not participate in her anxiety but instead imitate the sound of her sleeping lover’s snoring. I asked Carter if he would explicitly describe that dramatic illustration in program or recording notes. Carter felt it would be unnecessary; the portrayal of the snoring lover was so obvious that all the critics commented on it at the first performance.
Carter was currently working on an orchestral commission from the New York Philharmonic (which became A Symphony of Three Orchestras.) He said he was anxious to finish it by January, since that would be the last chance Boulez would have to rehearse it with the New York Philharmonic. Carter clearly trusted Boulez to rehearse and perform his new piece. We reminded him of his published remarks that he would never write another orchestral work again. Carter laughed and admitted that, while he frequently said he was done writing for the orchestra, he would eventually wind up writing for orchestra again anyway.
Carter had also accepted a commission from Georg Solti for a different orchestral work. He expressed apprehension about it and doubted that he would get around to it. (In fact, it was apparently never written.) He said he finally accepted the commission because Solti had been good to him and to his music.
Carter said that he seldom revised finished works, sometimes making final changes in dynamic markings to ensure that important things are heard. He usually started with a specific technical idea for a piece and an overall shape which he would begin to fill with actual musical material, trying over and over again to get it right. When Kevin asked him at what point he gives up and tries a different approach, Carter laughed and said it was when he gets tired or exasperated or loses patience: “then I just write something and move on.” When asked if he ever changed things for performers, he said “not often.” He said there was a passage in the Third String Quartet which he cut because of page turn problems. He said that Claus Adam, the Juilliard Quartet’s cellist at the time, had problems with some of the quadruple stops, so Carter arpeggiated some of them for him. When I complained about such compromises with his initial inspiration, Carter said that he thought they sometimes wound up actually improving the music.
Carter said that his music was not concerned so much with development in a traditional sense but with a continuous variation or exploring of principles and harmonies. In his lecture at the University, Carter said he would often carefully work out the basic elements and shape of a piece before writing a single note. Then, when he began writing, he would often not know whether the passage being written would fit into the finished piece or where or how it would fit in. He would often sketch the end of a piece soon after drafting the beginning “to see how it will end.” If the following-through of a compositional plan became tedious or frustrating, he would discard the plan entirely.
Carter described the process of composition following preset limitations as “continual invention” and implied that although the actual notes he wrote might make consistent use of very few intervals or rhythmic qualities he was at liberty to invent any musical gesture that could be fit into those guidelines.
Carter began to regret the fact that he was forced to rely on long strings of equal-length notes in order to facilitate metric modulations. After the First Quartet and the Variations for Orchestra he made greater efforts to give rhythmic freedom to each line and said that in his current work it would be hard to find any notable passage that does not somehow resemble an accelerando, ritardando or rubato. He cited the Double Concerto and the Piano Concerto as the only significant instances where he limited his music to a few “speeds” as part of the basic plan of the work. He noted the second violin part of the Second Quartet as another instance of a fixed speed, saying that it had been extremely hard to work with the music that way.
Carter said he had always maintained that in writing tuplet subdivisions of the beat there should be as much variety as possible in the notational distinctions between one kind of grouping and another for easy, immediate visual recognition - hence the groups of “dotted tuplets” in his music. He admitted that his dotted tuplets have consistently confused performers.
Carter said he was not happy with record companies. He felt that Columbia Records never gave him publicity or tried to sell his records. He was unhappy with the Leonard Bernstein recording on Columbia Records of the Concerto for Orchestra.(3)Columbia Masterworks M 30112. He said there were a number of much better tapes with Boulez conducting. He liked Nonesuch Records because, although they operated on a shoestring budget (with performers often working for little or no money), they recorded his works well and tried to sell them.
Carter was impressed with Boulez and his selflessness in rehearsing and promoting other people’s music. Carter said that Boulez’s project to record the complete music of Webern was in production for a long time and was being held up because Boulez had not yet found time to write the program notes. Carter felt that the then newly-discovered early music of Webern is mostly a “waste of time.”
Carter felt that aleatoric (chance) notation does not necessarily represent the most radical or the “newest” aesthetic or the latest artistic advance. He believed that it was simply “in vogue.” He was adamant in his opinions about radical or avant-garde aesthetics, particularly aleatoric notation. He said that while serving on various ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) committees he had blocked the performance of certain works in aleatoric notation, including ones by Stockhausen, pointing out that the committee could not make a judgment on the work from the score because they could not tell what it would sound like. Carter admitted he had incurred the wrath of some composers for this stance. He was bitter about a commission from the New York Philharmonic to Stockhausen at the same time as their commission to him to write his own Concerto for Orchestra. Carter had written a new piece “on which I worked very hard” and Stockhausen was allowed simply to revise one of his existing compositions.
I said that I thought a little bit of free notation was all right if it was meant to clarify or to make easier the initial concept, and I cited Lutoslawski’s music as an example. Carter said that he thought Lutoslawski’s music had suffered from the notational innovations (where players are given fragments to repeat ad libitum until the conductor’s next cue) because they forced Lutoslawski to write static blocks of sound. Carter said that there was a graphic-notation piece by Stockhausen where, when the performers all meditated and then started “rehearsing” (improvising), Stockhausen yelled “no, no!” They meditated again and started again, with the same result. Finally, after much verbal direction from Stockhausen, they came up with what he wanted. Carter's point: why use graphic notation if it does not give you what you want and you wind up telling the performers what to play anyway?
Carter had serious doubts about whether it is possible to really teach composition. He said that each student has his or her own strong ideas on what should be done. Carter was teaching one day a week at the Juilliard School out of a sense of duty—“they want me to.”
Carter liked Stravinsky’s late, serial music, particularly Abraham and Isaac, A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer and the Requiem Canticles. He told a story about how the orchestral accompaniment to Abraham and Isaac was recorded in Los Angeles by Robert Craft and the vocal part was later dubbed in by Richard Frisch. According to Carter, Frisch almost “went crazy” trying to get it right. They had initially used Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau but Stravinsky was dissatisfied with his performance. After trying various other tenors, all concerned agreed that Fischer-Dieskau was the best choice after all. They made the orchestral tape in Hollywood then sent it to Berlin to have Fischer-Dieskau record the tenor part onto it. He refused (“rightly so,” according to Carter), and the second choice was Frisch.
Once, the Carters insisted on taking Stravinsky to dinner at a fancy restaurant in New York. After having been told who was with them and having been asked for a good table, the maître d' put them at a table in the center of the restaurant, in full view of everybody. During the dinner, none other than Frank Sinatra walked by. He recognized Stravinsky and asked, in French (the Stravinskys and the Carters were speaking French), if he could have an autograph from the “maestro.” Stravinsky said “no!” firmly and angrily. A volley of Russian ensued between Stravinsky and his wife Vera. Sinatra pulled out one of his business cards and asked again for an autograph. Stravinsky took the card and proceeded deliberately and laboriously to draw lines, stars and circles on it. When he was finished with the front side of the card, he turned it over and began to doodle on the back side. The whole process took several minutes, while Sinatra uncomfortably moved from one foot to another as people began to recognize Sinatra himself. When it was all over, the Carters asked Stravinsky if he knew who it was he had just publicly embarrassed. Stravinsky had known precisely who it was – he said he knew a television celebrity when he saw one!
One time Stravinsky was talking in Venice with the Carters and Robert Craft. They fell to talking about Alban Berg’s music, particularly about his opera Lulu. A cold wind came up and Carter began to worry about the frail Stravinsky, who was not dressed warmly. Vera pulled Igor inside, leaving Craft and Carter to continue the conversation heatedly outside. The explanation later was “well, that’s to be expected when they start to talk about Berg!” Later that night, Stravinsky insisted on going out into the cold and crossing a bridge to point out to the Carters where their hotel was, fearful lest they become lost. Carter still remembered that moment as a touching example of Stravinsky’s kindness and concern.
Carter said that he was once watching, with Stravinsky and Robert Craft, an advance showing of a new documentary on Stravinsky. At one point, Boulez was rehearsing Les Noces in Stravinsky's presence. Craft leaned over, nudged Carter, and said “watch this.” Boulez was complaining to Stravinsky that the one spot at the end of the work where the bell stroke comes after two more measures of silence than it does everywhere else must be a mistake. Stravinsky deliberated, slowly and solemnly called for a pen, and carefully crossed out the offending measures in the score. Carter was astonished at seeing this on the film, and said so to Craft. Craft chuckled and said, “Oh, we put them right back in as soon as Boulez left.” Carter said he was still shocked that Stravinsky would have publicly corrected one of his scores in front of a prominent, younger conductor-composer when he actually did not intend the correction at all.
One of Carter's main regrets was that the dedication of Carter’s Piano Concerto (1965) to Stravinsky on his 85th birthday was delayed because the score was all ready to go into print before it was decided that the dedication should be added. Carter sent the two-piano reduction to Stravinsky and, later, a tape recording of the performance. He got a letter back from Stravinsky, thanking him and stating, in a humorous way, that he (Stravinsky) could not hear everything that was going on in a particularly huge page of the score (referred to as page 54 in the letter).(4)[A photo of Carter standing in front of "page 54" of his Piano Concerto is reproduced in Schiff 1983, plate I. Stravinsky's letter is reproduced in Schiff 1983, p. 239 and Schiff 1998, p. 263. -Eds.] Carter said the reason that he dedicated the Piano Concerto to Stravinsky was that Stravinsky was getting old and his health was deteriorating without much public recognition of his passing birthday.
Very late in Stravinsky’s life, when he was weak, there was a performance where he had hobbled out on stage. Afterward, he was tired, sweaty, and needed to have his clothes changed and put to bed or otherwise cared for. Carter said that Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft were too concerned over their dinner plans to attend to Igor, and Carter was ready to change Igor’s clothes for him when Lillian Libman, Stravinsky's representative and assistant, insisted that no one else but she would undress Stravinsky and put him to bed. She closed the door and took care of him. Carter remembered that as a touching act of devotion.
Carter would visit Stravinsky in the days just before the latter’s death. Although Stravinsky had limited ability to focus mentally, Craft would arrange programs of recorded music for him in the evenings. Once they were listening to Mozart, and Stravinsky was happy with it, nodding and smiling and pointing to spots in the score that he liked. Then Craft asked if he wanted to hear Craft’s new recording of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). Stravinsky frowned and emphatically indicated ‘No!’ He knew he did not want to hear his own music.
Once in the days after Arnold Schoenberg's death, but while Darius Milhaud was still at Mills College (in Oakland, California), Carter was having dinner with the Milhauds and Schoenberg's widow Gertrud. Carter offered to do the dishes and the inevitable protestations ensued. Mrs. Schoenberg insisted on doing them with Carter. On subsequent occasions when he met her, Carter would greet her with “Oh, there’s the woman who did dishes with me at the Milhaud’s.” This joke would make her genuinely furious and uncomfortable. Carter, chuckling, was apparently unrepentant about teasing her in this manner.
Carter said that one of the women who sponsored the Monday Evening Concerts new music series in Los Angeles was seriously ill in the hospital. Carter was asked, along with other composers, to sign a large card for her. To cheer her up, they were asked to sign the names of famous composers of past generations rather than their own names. Carter was given a choice between Franz Liszt, Claudio Monteverdi, and Jacobo da Bologna. He chose Franz Liszt. When I said that I did not know what Liszt’s signature looked like, Carter said that he did not know either, that he just faked something. When it came time to sign his autograph for us, Carter assured us that he would write his own name and not Liszt’s. Typically, my pen ran out of ink in the middle of his autograph. Carter assured me that he had a pen and then proceeded laboriously to hunt for it, taking his wallet, glasses and other assorted flotsam and jetsam out of his coat pocket in the search. Suddenly the normally mild-mannered and polite Carter exploded with a furious “hell!” just before finding the pen.
Carter implied that New York can be a frightening and ugly place but said there are things that he needed there. He liked his apartment building, which was built in the 1800's. He said that when he and his wife first moved there (right next to Greenwich Village, just off of Washington Square), there were all manner of interesting people living nearby. Two names that he mentioned were Edgar Varèse and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
When our conversation swung to the topic of why artists take time off from their valuable creative work to travel and make speeches, Carter simply said that sometimes one gets tired of work and needs a break. “You can’t work all the time.”
As we drove onto the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara, I mentioned the burning of the Bank of America in 1970 in the adjoining student community of Isla Vista during anti-Viet Nam war demonstrations. Carter remembered the event. When I said that political activity was much less now in our area, he said strongly that the activities of the late 1960s were bad but that their rapid disappearance from the scene was worse - that meant that the protests were more from a sense of what was in fashion than from genuine conviction. He was curious when we saw the profile of Santa Rosa Island and did not know the Channel Islands existed off the coast of Southern California. He wanted to know about a bottle-brush (Callistemon) tree and was interested to learn that they originated in Australia.
At lunch with Thea Musgrave at the university faculty club, Carter launched into an impassioned, even angry, defense of Roger Sessions, expressing outrage at the neglect of his “fine music.” Carter’s demeanor was usually quite pleasant, friendly and easy-going, but he had a streak of fury – perhaps audible in some passages of his music – that would occasionally erupt.
There were roughly 200 people in attendance for Carter’s presentation, overloading the room’s capacity. During the lecture someone asked Carter to explain “metric modulation.” He sighed and explained it as a change in tempo according to a strict ratio between note values [my paraphrase]. He then illustrated it by playing his LP record of the Juilliard Quartet's recording of the Third String Quartet (in the Scorrevole movement around measures 110 through 136), listening without a score and beating the pulses for us as they changed.
I commented during his talk that the Furioso section in the Third String Quartet is marked “rubato.” I objected that the rhythmic notation is so precise and the beats so carefully sub-divided that I didn't see how the performers could stay together if they were playing rubato. Carter quietly corrected me: “no, quasi rubato – ‘as if’ rubato.” He explained that the notated rhythms of the duo that plays the “Furioso” movement are less symmetrical in nature – it is part of their musical character, in contrast with the other duo's rhythmic symmetry.
One of the students asked Carter why he had never worked with electronic music. Carter said that he was not particularly opposed to electronic music but that he just had not had the time or the opportunity to learn how to do it.
In the evening, Carter had dinner with Thea Musgrave and her husband Peter Mark. Carter flew back to New York the next morning.
4. [A photo of Carter standing in front of "page 54" of his Piano Concerto is reproduced in Schiff 1983, plate I. Stravinsky's letter is reproduced in Schiff 1983, p. 239 and Schiff 1998, p. 263. -Eds.]
Schiff, David. 1983. The Music of Elliott Carter. First edn. London: Eulenberg; New York: Da Capo.
_________ 1998. The Music of Elliott Carter. Revised second edn. London: Faber; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.