Elliott Carter interviewed by Chris Mullis (December 8, 1998)
This interview with Elliott Carter was conducted at his apartment on West 12th Street in Manhattan by Chris Mullis of WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University. The interview was broadcast on December 11th, 1998, Carter's 90th birthday. The transcription that follows was made from a cassette tape of the original broadcast. (There is a brief gap in the recording when the cassette had to be turned over while the broadcast was in progress.) The editors wish to thank Steve Lampert, who recorded the original broadcast and graciously made the tape available to us, and WKCR for their assistance.
[ 1 ] Chris Mullis: It’s December 8th, 1998. My name is Chris Mullis. I’m in the apartment of composer Elliott Carter, who has generously agreed to spend some of his time with us today. He’ll be celebrating his 90th birthday on December 11th, this coming Friday. Thank you for joining us today Mr. Carter.
[ 2 ] Elliott Carter: Well it’s a long way from the beginning of things – the beginning of my music. I was living, actually, when I first became interested in music on 114th Street and Riverside Drive, right near Columbia University. In fact, I used to – even as a little boy – go by Columbia University to study in what was then an elementary school, Horace Mann School on 120th street. And I’ve made the trip from 114th street, past Columbia University, day after day, for years. So your area is extremely familiar to me.
[ 3 ] But I became interested in music, actually, through a teacher in my school, Horace Mann, which was then up in… the high school was then up in Fieldston – and he was a man that knew Charles Ives and was interested in contemporary music. And at that time…
[ 4 ] If I may, just to give him credit, this was Clifton J. Furness, is that correct?
[ 5 ] Yeah, and, well, also in the school was a group of people, a group of students, who were very interested in this particular field – Eugene O’Neil’s son was a good friend of mine. And there were others. Actually, some of the students were children of members of the Soviet Union embassy that was at that time in New York, so that we saw a great deal of the pre-Stalinist things that went on in the Soviet Union, when many things of this sort were sent over. We were very much involved, a group of us, with the latest developments in the arts, not only in music but in other fields – literature and painting. This started, as far as I can remember, around 1925. I went to many concerts of contemporary music, and got to know Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives, and they were people that I knew from that time on until both of them died. And I was very much interested in new music, and in following it I went to many concerts. And even when I finally went up to Cambridge to study at Harvard, I kept coming back to New York to hear things. And in fact I even went to Harvard because the Boston Symphony at that time was a leader in contemporary music playing. At that time also I didn’t really like older music very much. It seemed to me rather stuffy and conventional and routine. And I still have a certain element of that in my mind, although I’ve come to like, now, a lot of older music. But I really, still, feel that contemporary music is a lot more lively and more interesting in many ways than any of the older composers were.
[ 6 ] I’ve heard that you were unhappy with the composition faculty at Harvard for being very conservative.
[ 7 ] Well, when I studied at Harvard, I started by studying… wanted to study music, but the faculty at Harvard, in [the] music school, was extremely conservative. They disliked very much what the Boston Symphony was doing. The Boston Symphony played every work of Stravinsky as it came out, and especially the French school of composers, and sometimes even Hindemith and some of the German composers. But never the twelve-tone – Schoenberg, Alban Berg school. That was something Koussevitzky didn’t play. But we heard a great deal of other music. I remember hearing Roger Sessions’s First Symphony that Koussevitzky played. And many things. And the Harvard music department was very much against this. They disliked this, especially in my earlier years. And I finally decided not to study music there at all, but studied English literature and even studied languages like Greek and French. And then later on, when I finally decided to go into music – to study there as a graduate student – at that time Walter Piston had come back from studying with Nadia Boulanger.(1)Walter Piston lived in Paris from 1924-26. He began teaching at Harvard in 1926, Carter’s first year as an undergraduate. Carter was a Master’s student at Harvard from 1930-32. And during the time that I was a graduate student, they also had as an exchange professor Gustav Holst, who was somewhat interested in the kind of music I was [interested in], not very much but somewhat. Piston was much more encouraging to me. And he encouraged me, finally, to go and study with Nadia Boulanger, and gave me introductions, and for that reason I went there. Besides that, I had been taught French as a child by my father, who was an importer [of goods] from Europe, and so going to Paris was something that I had already done a number of times, accompanying my father. And so I was quite at home going over and studying for a number of years in Paris. This of course was in ’32-’35, before the war, but during a period which was frightening in Paris because it was the rise of Hitler and Paris was filled with very unfortunate refugees from Germany, many of them having a very hard time of getting along. Some of them I had known from a previous time from Germany – musicians – and I spent a lot of time helping [them] trying to find a way of getting along – a place to live and all the rest of it. It was an unpleasant time to live in Paris, but I did learn a great deal from Nadia Boulanger.
[ 8 ] Now, let me say that this interest in contemporary music persisted all through this time. However, when I was studying with Nadia Boulanger we had already had a kind of revulsion against the earlier type of contemporary music – the earlier works of Stravinsky, and of Bartók and the rest. And the French, including Stravinsky himself, were beginning to be very much more interested in Neoclassic music – composers like Milhaud and Poulenc and Auric, and also Hindemith. I remember taking to class a work of Hindemith, that Nadia Boulanger sight read and knocked us all over, she did it so brilliantly. But she also said “there are a good many wrong notes in it.” [laughs]. And she pointed them out and that made some kind of sense, you know, it was interesting. But in any case, my interest went on and I went through a certain period of writing sort of Neoclassic music because I felt I couldn’t write the kind of music I would like to have written without having gone through this elaborate musical training. Because I tried to write what I thought was modern music, the kind of music that I liked, and it always seemed so silly that I thought that I had to have a really solid education in music in order to be able to write in the advanced styles that I liked, and wanted to write in. And I really didn’t get around to that until after the Second World War, from about 1945 with my Piano Sonata and Cello Sonata, and finally with my First String Quartet, which established the style that I’ve later continued for the rest of my life.
[ 9 ] Is it true in that regard that during your time in Paris you spent some time studying and even performing works of Renaissance polyphony?
[ 10 ] Well let me say that my student period – the latter part of my studies at Harvard, when I was a graduate student – I think that was from ’30-’32 – there was a very rapid rise in interest in earlier music, in Renaissance music, and even Medieval music. And musicologists began to rummage through all of this and began to publish many…. I was very interested even while I was at Harvard in the English madrigal school, and I got lots of scores of that: of Wilby, Weelks, and Byrd, and the rest of them. And then when I went to Paris I continued this interest, and we had many performances of Guillaume de Machaut and Perotin, and other composers of the earlier periods, which was very fascinating. And I did sing in the chorus of Henri Expert, who was a specialist in French madrigal music. And then, also, I started a little madrigal group of my own, [in] which we sang Monteverdi and other composers of the Italian school, and some of the English and French composers.
[ 11 ] Interesting.
[ 12 ] So that there was a whole new world of older music, which began to be developed and presented during my student years, and that had a great influence on me, because of course the earlier music is very much concerned with counterpoint, and this is something my music is consistently concerned with.
[ 13 ] Is this also perhaps related to the fact that many of your earlier compositions are vocal or choral, or is that just an accident of history? Was your increased interest in the works of Guillaume de Machaut and Perotin in any way related to the fact that many of your earlier compositions are also choral or vocal?
[ 14 ] Well of course, let me say that during my whole period at Harvard I sang in the Harvard Glee Club, and at that time the Harvard Glee Club was very active with the Boston Symphony. I sang, under Koussevitzky, the Bach B-minor Mass and Brahms’s Requiem, the Mozart Requiem, many, many choral pieces. I sang The Hymn of Jesus under the direction of Gustav Holst, when he conducted the Boston Symphony, and the Harvard Glee Club itself had commissioned a number of pieces. There was a very beautiful piece by Milhaud that we used to sing – I don’t remember the name of it now – that I liked very much at that time. So that I was very much involved with singing. Finally, the big event of our Harvard Glee Club period was when we sang the Oedipus Rex of Stravinsky, here [in New York] at the Metropolitan Opera under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. And Margaret Matzenauer was Jocasta. And so I was very familiar not only with older music, but with folk song arrangements and also with the serious music and contemporary music that we sang with the Harvard Glee Club. And I went on writing, in fact I wrote quite a number of pieces for the Harvard Glee Club. One of them was an early piece that I wrote – a Tarantella that was the conclusion of a Classical Club play of Plautus. And later I wrote another piece when I was teaching at St. John’s College on a text of Rabelais. And then later I wrote another piece on a text of Allen Tate – Emblems. And then after that my music became much more elaborate and complicated and I stopped writing choral music, because I found that the pieces I had written were very difficult for most choruses to sing – in America. We didn’t have at that time very many professional choruses and the few works that I had written were seldom or never played, practically. It’s only in recent times that these pieces have suddenly been taken up.
[ 15 ] You’ve said that you had to take up the studying of the styles of the past and serious contrapuntal study under Ms. Boulanger, because you didn’t feel you could write the kind of works you wanted to earlier. Did you have a vision of what kind of works you really wanted to write or what style you wanted to write in?
[ 16 ] Well, you see I always had hoped to write music that was, let us say, more or less in the field of the Bartók/Stravinsky/Schoenberg world. And whenever I tried to do it in my earlier stages [of development] I would produce things that I thought were unsatisfactory. I’d only picked out the most trivial aspects of their music, and I realized that these people of that period had had a very typical classical training, and that I felt that in order to write that kind of music I would also have to have a classical training. Things have changed very much since that time, but at that particular period it was important, it seemed to me, to have a… Well, let me say, I studied counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger – we did it up to eight parts, which is a real puzzle. But it became a kind of attitude toward how to write music: just struggling with these peculiar problems of the kind that traditional counterpoint involves. And it was a way of thinking about music, which I think I’ve always retained after that time, which I don’t think I would have had if I hadn’t studied that kind of thing, and also even traditional harmony. Which I’m very aware of how harmony can move, even in my compositions, no matter how dissonant they are.
[ 17 ] Well, we’ve been speaking a little bit about your musical education, and I know you’ve spent much of your time since then as a musical educator. I was wondering if we could speak a little bit about [how] in 1944 you wrote “Music as a Liberal Art” – an article in Modern Music (I think it was in Modern Music), in which you – one might say – lamented the disassociation of music from the liberal arts core of American education, and suggested ways – which were being used in St. John’s in Annapolis – to bring music back into the fold of study for all students.(2)Elliott Carter, “Music as a Liberal Art,” Modern Music 22, no. 1 (November 1944): 12–16. Reprinted in Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937–1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 309–13.
[ 18 ] Well, one of the things was that I was invited to teach at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where the idea was the reading of the “Great Books.” And the thought of Scott Buchanon and Stringfellow Barr, who were running the college at that time, was that they wanted to integrate into the curriculum a, so to speak, great work of music, which I chose the Goldberg Variations of [J. S.] Bach. And it was, you know…. It’s very hard for people who don’t read music to read music. I mean, the idea was you just give a copy of the Goldberg Variations to everybody, just as you’d given them a copy of the Illiad of Homer. And it was a little odd, and so I had to invent something that would be useful to them and helpful. And we did a lot of experiments – acoustical experiments – dividing the vibrating string into various parts and showing them how the whole musical sound system was organized. And it also fitted in, of course, to the studies of Greek that went on, with Aristoxenus and Euclid. And it’s something I worked at and thought [about]. I’m not sure that this was a very useful… that it really produced the result we hoped. But I also organized many concerts while I was at St. John’s, and I had the Budapest Quartet play all the Bartók quartets that existed at that time, and many, many other things. So that we hoped the students would have a little immersion into the field of music, and some of them might profit by it.(3)On Carter’s time at St. John’s College, see Hollis Thoms, “Rolling His Jolly Tub: Composer Elliott Carter, St. John’s College Tutor, 1940–1942,” St. John’s Review 53, no. 2 (2012): 96–131.
[ 19 ] And I don’t know if you’re especially aware of it today, but do you have an opinion on the state of musical education in general in the U.S. today?
[ 20 ] Well, of course, the biggest problem that the serious music field is having is the fact that it was predicated, I think – certainly in the nineteenth century – on the fact that many, and comparatively wealthy, and somewhat leisurely people learned how to play the piano. And it was a very large number of people who did that. And not only that. The works of Beethoven – all the symphonies of Beethoven, the symphonies of Brahms, of Bruckner, of Mahler – were all arranged for piano, four hands, which you could buy, and which, I must say, I used to play when I was at college, with friends. This particular field has gradually deteriorated. There are fewer and fewer people who have learned how to deal with the field of serious music through the piano. And also music teaching itself has become much more trivialized, and on the whole tends to be eliminated completely, except in the most superficial way, which means that people have no real contact, as they used to have, with serious concert and vocal music. In the old days they had their hands on it, by playing it, and I think this is a very severe downgrading of the educational aspect of music. I’ve taught courses, actually. At Columbia itself, for a number of years, I taught the history of music – a course you have, I think, at Columbia…
[ 21 ] Music Humanities?
[ 22 ] … for people who don’t know much about music who want to learn something about it. And that helps, but it never gets to the kind of thing that was the background of music as it was in the old days when so many people were really amateur performers of one kind or another – not always so good, but at least they had their hands on a Beethoven symphony. It means a lot more to them for having had that. And the fact that this is disappearing quickly – and you can’t play much of that stuff on the guitar, which is what everybody plays nowadays – so this has made it very difficult. The one thing that maybe has changed the whole field, of course, is the field of recording, which now has become very elaborate. But even so, we see that the recording of serious music is always having a hard time to get along. And it sells much less in this country, for instance, than it does in European countries – half as much. There isn’t that much interest, and it all has to do with, partly, with the field of education. It was assumed that music was part of the background of an educated man, and it would help his imagination and his spirit, and his whole dealing with life. This is something that seems to be a little antiquated now.
[ 23 ] Do you see any solutions to this situation, or remedies?
[ 24 ] I don’t think there’s a solution that can be insisted on. I think that these things go in waves. I think that the particular wave that we’re going through now is sort of a low wave, and it will rise again and there will be more interest in these things than there is now. It just changes. It’s not unlike the way people dress, and in clothes, everything. Sometimes people dress in a very formal way and in another period they dress in a very leisurely way.
[ 25 ] Alright, well if we might get back to the story of your life, briefly, or perhaps somewhat closer to it, I have another quote from one of your writings, from Current Thought in Musicology. You wrote an article called “Music and the Time Screen,” in which you – if I might read just the brief statement of purpose – in which you attempted to explain how, out of a consideration for the special temporality of music, you attempted to devise a way of composing that deals with its very nature.(4)Elliott Carter, “Music and the Time Screen,” in Current Thought in Musicaology, ed. John W. Grubbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), 63–88. Reprinted in Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937–1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 262–80.
[ 26 ] Well certainly, about 1948, when I wrote my Cello Sonata, I began to think about the way music stretches out in time and the way it develops in time. It was certainly, in the time of Brahms for instance – Brahms was very concerned with this matter in a way that in previous years I think… was not consciously thought about so much. I don’t think Bach, for instance, was thinking about the time flow of music. He was thinking about how you could develop an idea and work it all out in a sort of a fugal way. But in Brahms I think that the… ¬– Beethoven certainly began to be concerned with the flow of music – but this became more and more of a consideration, and I think in the case of Brahms, who…. Actually, for instance, in many returns of themes, the theme comes in in a different way, sometimes at a different speed than it was originally stated, and this was already an experiment, so to speak, in developing a new conception of the progress in time of a piece of music.
[ 27 ] And then of course we began to be very concerned in my period with this matter, in particular in literature – a work like James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, which was a very important piece of writing in my early days, and the works of Marcel Proust, which are entirely about the matter of how time flows, and how people change over the years, and how attitudes and meaningful relations with people change, and are thought about, and switch. This was all a very exciting and very interesting new way of thinking about things. And this is what I began to think about, from about 1945 or 1948 on. And I began to think about how one could make the pieces hang together in a new way that would be more reflective of their existence in time. Someone said to me I was using time as a screen just as a painter would use a flat surface, and I was painting on time, just as a painter would paint on a flat surface. And that’s how that title came into existence. So I thought about that. For instance, in my First Quartet, I began to think about how you could have – in the field of counterpoint – you could have one theme being stated and against that another line which would state what the future would be that would then become more important and more highly developed, and another line that would be recalling what you’d heard in the past in a sort of vestigial way. And one could make a whole series of different kinds of inter-relations between the present, the past, and the future within a piece of music. And this is something I’ve thought a great deal about, in many different ways. Actually, my most recent work, my Fifth String Quartet, develops that at quite elaborate lengths. It treats the quartet as if it were having a rehearsal: the performers are rehearsing different parts of the piece before they play a little movement, and then they rehearse other parts of another movement, and some are of the older movements some play, whereas some are of a movement that’s going to be played later. So that the whole piece is constantly looking backwards and looking forwards and then also experiencing the present.
[ 28 ] This is perhaps what David Schiff is referring to when he calls your development “epiphanic” – when he likens it to the epiphanies of James Joyce…(5)See David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (London: Eulenburg Books; New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), 37–40.
[ 29 ] Yeah.
[ 30 ] … in that an idea isn’t developed in a straight line….
[ 31 ] Well, of course the epiphanies of James Joyce, like in that story about the dead, in which the man suddenly realizes something that he hadn’t thought of – that things suddenly become crystalized, and he has a kind of vision, or epiphany, so to speak, of a new significance of something he hadn’t thought about before that was suggested by the things around him. I think the epiphany in Joyce was the realization that Ireland was a problem and that he’d better leave and go somewhere else!(6)James Joyce, “The Dead,” in Dubliners (London: Grant Richards, Ltd., 1914).
[ 32 ] All right, well this is one simple question that I’ve been curious about: Many of your works are extremely demanding [of] the performers and require a lot of rehearsal time. I wonder, did you ever wonder, earlier in your life, say when you were composing the First String Quartet, did you ever wonder Will anyone ever actually take the time to really play this well?
[ 33 ] Well, when I wrote my First String Quartet, I wrote it with the thought that I had a great many musical ideas which I had never developed very much, or thought about, that I wanted to put into the piece. Many ways of dealing with… such as the ones I’ve just described. And I realized as I was writing it that it probably never would be played, although I was constantly concerned with writing things that were technically possible on the part of the strings. Still, I also realized that the ensemble would be very difficult and maybe impossible. But I decided I would write it anyway. I had an idea about the whole thing and I decided to go through with it and finish it. And it turned out to be very long as a matter of fact; I think it’s nearly forty or forty-five minutes long, and I also realized it would be very hard on a public: the public would not be able to understand this kind of music that I was writing. In some ways it seemed – to me even – very novel, although it was not intentionally so – I was carrying out certain ideas – but I realized that a public that was unfamiliar with contemporary music, and maybe even one that was interested in contemporary music, would find it difficult to fathom what was going on. This had its peculiar result: that is, I sent the score to a prize contest in Belgium – in Liège – and it stayed there for a year and I didn’t hear anything about it, I just decided I hadn’t won the prize, and meanwhile a quartet in Urbana – the Walden Quartet – saw it and thought it would be a great challenge to them and they learned it. And I don’t wish to be derogatory to your beautiful Columbia University, but they gave the first performance in what is now Miller Theater, and a good many of the professors – elderly professors – got up and walked out, and one of them shouted angrily that it never would have been played if I hadn’t been a member of the faculty.
[ 34 ] They didn’t like The Rite of Spring either at the first performance.
[ 35 ] And I think it was very much disliked on the whole. And then the quartet played it again a couple of times. Meanwhile it received the prize in Belgium, but I couldn’t accept it because I’d had a performance, and part of the agreement was that it shouldn’t be performed until the [prize was announced]. And then, later, it was played in a modern music festival in Rome, and it made a great many friends.(7)The festival "La Musica nel XXº Secolo," organized by Carter's close friend Nicholas Nabokov, took place in Rome in the Spring of 1954. See Daniel Guberman, “Composing Freedom: Elliott Carter’s ‘Self-Reinvention’ and the Early Cold War,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Caorlina at Chapel Hill, 2012, pp. 148-158; and Martin Brody, “Cold War Genius: Music and Cultural Diplomacy at the American Academy in Rome,” in crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000, ed. Felix Meyer, Carol J. Oja, Wolfgang Rathert, and Anne C. Shreffler (The Boydell Press, 2014), 375-387. From that point on the Europeans played my music all the time. And I was immediately made President of the International Society of Contemporary Music and [the quartet] was considered very good. And now people listen to it and it seems very old fashioned by comparison to other things I’ve written!
[ 36 ] I’ve heard it said that your music was accepted and celebrated in Europe but, if not ignored, disliked in many quarters in America. Is that a fair characterization?
[ 37 ] Well, I mean, in Europe I get, I think, about five times as many performances [as] I get in America. And I get about five times as much royalties in Europe as I do in America. And I think that this is very intelligible. Not to be derogatory of our country, but the basic thing is that Europeans have had this state support of music for a long time, certainly very intensively since the Second World War. Now when I was describing what went on in Rome, one of the people who heard my quartet was the man who became Sir William Glock, who was the Controller of the British Broadcasting [Corporation], and he just insisted on playing all my music, whatever I wrote. And they play it over and over again. I talk on the radio. William is now very old and doesn’t participate in it anymore, but the fact that this was done so frequently meant that there was finally an audience for my music built up so that when [there were] the concerts people would want to come and hear it. This kind of thing, because of the lack of state subsidy, could not have happened in this country. As a matter of fact, the kind of music I write is less and less frequently played on the radio or on the television than it was at one time. And the television… [end of side 1][beginning of side 2] …be that our institutions of this sort, even the PBS, need to have consumer support. They can’t have state support and as a result musical works, for instance, are considered as entertainment and not as education, which is what they’re considered in Europe. It makes a difference.
[ 38 ] I’ve also heard it said – and this sort of ties in – that you were the first American composer to really be viewed internationally as (this is funny saying it to you) but as a master of the art. I know that Stravinsky seemed to imply at least that your Piano Concerto and Double Concerto – not to embarrass you – but I wonder, in that regard, and since you’ve had a great deal of success in Europe….
[ 39 ] Let me say – I don’t know much about this but as far as I can see I’m not the only American that’s…. There are many other Americans whose music is – music that is very different from mine – that is appreciated and helped in Europe. It’s part of a different outlook about the field of music rather than about my particular style, I think.
[ 40 ] Certainly. What I was leading up to is Do you consider your music, or you yourself as a composer, uniquely American, or how do you feel your experience….
[ 41 ] Well, I mean, there was a time when I tried to “Americanize” my music. I actually was very interested in the jazz of the ‘20s and ‘30s when there was a lot of music going on here in New York on 52nd Street – Fats Waller and Art Tatum and others – and I was very interested in that, and that I think shows in certain works of mine – certainly my Piano Sonata and the Sonata for Cello and Piano. And in my Woodwind Quintet: there was a whole period when I wrote things that were developments, so to speak, of jazz. In fact, I wrote a first symphony that was played down here at Cooper Union, and Duke Ellington was there and came up and congratulated me about it, which surprised me, I must say. But in any case, I was sort of pleased too because that piece afterwards was never played again till maybe thirty or forty years later.
[ 42 ] You’ve also written – I think this was in Modern Music; I don’t have the quotation in front of me – but an article entitled “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music.”(8)Elliott Carter, “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music,” The Score and I.M.A. Magazine 12 (June 1955): 27–32. Reprinted in Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937–1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 57–62.
[ 43 ] Well, the basic thing was that the rhythmic basis of American music, as far as I was concerned at that time, was the development of jazz – cross accenting of one sort or another – and the people who represented it certainly were Aaron Copland and even Roy Harris did that kind of thing to a certain extent. And there were other composers that did it later on. I myself, of course, had become interested in this through people like Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, and also through my very early interest in Scriabin, who was very interested in polyrhythms and all sorts of rhythmic experiments in many works. And that had a great influence on me. And then later, after I’d begun to do this kind of thing, I used to see Conlon Nancarrow after he came back from the Spanish revolution, and we talked about this matter. And then he later began to write polyrhythmic things that were something like the ones I had been interested in, and later started making piano rolls out of it, because he found that people couldn’t play them accurately. But that didn’t have very much influence on me, and I’m not so sure I didn’t influence him. But I couldn’t say.
[ 44 ] Interesting. So whether or not it derives from jazz or wherever, would you say a distinguishing characteristic of much of contemporary American music is an interest in purely rhythmic aspects of composition?
[ 45 ] I think that this whole rhythmic thing was something that we got into at a certain period. I think the younger people are not very much interested in it any more. That’s not a field of consideration, as it was at one time. You see in my particular case – and I think other people must have felt this…. We felt that, outside of Stravinsky, and to a certain extent Schoenberg – who was concerned actually with producing speech rhythm in his music – and Stravinsky was interested in distorting folk rhythms of one sort or a nother and making them longer or shorter and making them irregular – there had not been very much concern with the matter of rhythm in the larger field. There were just these two people that did this kind of thing and then later Schoenberg abandoned that mostly in later works. And Stravinsky himself, within the neoclassic period still had certain vestiges, but very little. And meanwhile, interest in this with me had become very… I’ve been very concerned with… We got all these recordings, for instance, of Japanese music, of Arabian music, of African music, and there were many interesting things about the way this music was organized rhythmically. And Balinese music – Colin McPhee was a great friend of mine.(9)Colin McPhee (1900–1964) was a Canadian composer and musicologist whose Music in Bali was one of the earliest books on Balinese music published in English. See Carol J. Oja, Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds (University of Illinois Press, 2004). The earliest recording of Carter’s suite from The Minotaur also featured McPhee’s composition Tabuh-Tabuhan (Mercury MG50103, 1956). And as a result I felt that this was a field of contemporary music that hadn’t been developed as much as it could have been. And that was partly what I felt I was doing at a certain period – I was finding out all kinds of ways of making polyrhtyhms, of making irregular rhythms, that had some sort of interior connection with each other and all sorts of things. And so I thought a lot about that at one time. I don’t think about that much now, I do it more or less without thinking about it much.
[ 46 ] Certainly the use of several different rhythms at once, and interaction and change in a rhythmic context, has persisted throughout your work, since at least the late ‘40s. Would you say that’s a fair characterization?
[ 47 ] Well it already started with the late ‘40s and the beginning of the ‘50s. You see I also began to feel that there were a good many people…. The next part of this was that Messiaen in Europe began to develop a whole technique of rhythmic [thinking] – he must have been concerned with this very thought. But I found that the idea of serialization of rhythm was ridiculous, at least it was meaningless to me – the idea that you should have notes of one, two, three, four, five, six, seven lengths, and then put them together in such a way, just as you would put different notes together, makes a very jerky and unstable kind of texture, which can be bothersome. Maybe it should be a good thing to have every once in a while in music, but I’ve never done it. And I find that [is] something foreign to me. The flow of how rhythm goes is what interests me, not the sort of jerky moments…. Sometimes I have that, but it always fits into some sort of a larger pattern.
[ 48 ] Much of your music, especially your works since, say, the 1950s, have been characterized by a texture in which several different voices interact with one another and are characterized by specific rhythms and, if not melodic motives, intervals, which are uniquely their own.
[ 49 ] Well let me say that after I wrote my First String Quartet, which was largely an exploration of the notion of polyrhythms, and the way one can lead from one speed to another through the use of polyrhythms, I began to realize that this could be dealt with in another way, and that is as isolating individual instruments from each other and giving each one of them a character and a speed, so that when I wrote my Double Concerto I had two orchestras – [one] with piano and [one with] harpsichord, and they, each one… The piano has one kind of rhythm and one kind of speed and one kind of harmony and the harpsichord has another. And about the same time I wrote my Second Quartet in which I isolated musically the four instruments. And of course what’s very dramatic in a certain sense is that I wanted to give the impression that these were individual people playing, and yet they combined together to make a total piece, although you’re always aware that each one was contributing in his own way to the effect of the totality, as we always are. I mean, when you look at a football game, or anything where any kind of teamwork is involved, there are individuals and yet they somehow get together and play together and do something, but they remain individuals. I felt that a great deal of the older music was not like that. It was music that was dominated by one person – by the conductor or by the first violin in the string quartet in a very strong way, and I was trying to break this all up and make it into something that would conform more to the kind of democratic society we live in, in which people contribute in their own way to various activities.
[ 50 ] So there was a conscious philosophical aspect to all of this while you were creating it?
[ 51 ] Yeah! Well, it was philosophical but I liked it too, just playing it!
[ 52 ] You spoke a little bit, just briefly, about your relationship with Charles Ives. Or your friendship with Charles Ives.
[ 53 ] Well, there were many things about Charles Ives that are hard to express now. I saw Charles Ives when I was in high school. My teacher took me to see him. He lived then on Grammercy Park – near Grammercy Park, I think on 22nd Street – and I got to know him quite well. I loved his music. He gave me copies of his Concord Sonata and his 114 Songs when I was a boy and they were inscribed to me (now I gave them to a library). And he was very helpful. He thought I should become a composer, and he wrote a recommendation for me to get into Harvard, for instance. And we were somewhat good friends. But as time went on I began to find that his music seemed to me to be very, sort of, in the style of old Romantic music, and as I became more involved with the neo-Classic world, which was characteristic of my contemporaries, I began to feel that Ives was a little bit extravagant and very Romantic in a way that we no longer really liked at that time – that I didn’t like, certainly. And it bothered me a good deal, because he was always quite a friend. But I didn’t see him for a long time. Later, before I went to study with Nadia Boulanger, I brought over some, sort of Hindemith-like pieces I’d written and he didn’t like them at all. That was not what he wanted and he was rather unfriendly to me at that time. I remember I visited him up in Reading and he walked around in the woods with me and gave me a long sort of mystical description of the God behind nature. And then later, after I had studied with Nadia and everything, I still had this feeling, but then I began to say This poor old man…. Nobody seemed to bother with him, nobody liked his music and he was, and I felt that…. And he had these scores that were very messy, often, and he was not very well, and I felt that we ought to get together and get them fixed up while he was still alive and find out what he really wanted. And I got a group of people together, and Ives himself paid for having them copied properly. And we got some of them worked out. But I finally found I couldn’t stand it any more because the scores were so messy and so confused that it bothered me, and I didn’t like to make decisions that might run against him and his intentions. But other people, like Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, kept on for quite a while and got quite a number of the pieces in shape.
[ 54 ] I think that at this particular time I’m probably the only person alive who knew Charles Ives when he was still writing music in the ‘20s, and the Charles Ives Society never asks me anything about this. In fact, the Charles Ives Society feels that whatever I’ve written about him is wrong. And maybe they’re right, I don’t know. I only write what I remember; I wasn’t trying to invent anything. But they don’t like what I wrote. You see the basic contention was [that] I claimed that Ives modernized his scores as he went along – that he wrote earlier things and then, later, he made them more dissonant and more extravagent in the later ‘20s. And they…. This is what I saw him doing, actually, in the Three Places in New England, [as he was] preparing it for publication. And they claim that he was just teasing me. And perhaps they’re right, because there are apparently old sketches which show that it was much more dissonant than I had thought. So anyhow, I’m not a very reliable person on Mr. Ives. But I liked him very much. He was a very nice man, a really wonderful man, full of enthusiasm.
[ 55 ] Do you feel that there were any technical aspects or stylistic aspects of his music which particularly inspired you?
[ 56 ] Actually there used to be a festival at Columbia that Jack Beeson ran – I don’t remember exactly when, but I got the first performances of Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question played at the Columbia festival. Ives said they were not the first performances – Mrs. Ives wrote and said that he remembered that there were some people tried it over in the orchestra pit in 1905 or some period and that he wouldn’t allow me to say it was the first performance. But it was the first performance within the memory of anybody that [was] alive, I guess.
[ 57 ] Did you, as a young music student when you first met Ives and had your interactions with him, do you feel you learned something musically from him, or was it just the encouragement of a composer you respected?
[ 58 ] Oh, I certainly did learn something from Ives! I used to play over that Concord Sonata as best I could – it’s very hard to play – when I was very young, many many times and it was always very influential. I loved parts of it very much. That was before I got into the neo-Classic period. And also the whole idea of contrasting rhythms – dealing with the whole rhythmic structure of music was something that he did quite elaborately – and a little bit recklessly in my opinion. But he did it. Recklessly in the sense that he made it very nearly unplayable, if not unplayable. But, in any case, the rhythmic aspect of his music seemed to me very important and very interesting, and maybe influential in my music.
[ 59 ] But I think there’s one thing that a composer should say, and that is People are always asking me two different things: One of them is “Does the music sound, when it’s played, the way you expected it to?” And the answer is No, it very seldom does. Because it very often has taken, in my case sometimes two or three years before performers understand what the music’s all about. The first time they sort of scratch through it and try very had to play the right notes, rather nervously, and it doesn’t sound like anything. Sometimes it upset me so that I’ve even changed it, and then later I changed it back again to the way it originally was, when the people learned how to do it a little bit better. But even very good performers, in the first performance, have a hard time making anything out of a piece that’s at all elaborate and unusual, and they play it in a way that we wouldn’t tolerate if they were playing Beethoven or Brahms. You can’t blame them; they’re having a hard time getting through the piece. And after they’ve gotten over that, they begin to understand what it’s about. And so it takes quite a while, often, to hear the music as I intended. That has an effect on one’s future... what one hopes to write later. Long ago I was very worried…. For instance, the vocal pieces that I wrote were often so hard to play, and sung so poorly, that one of the reasons I finally gave up writing choral music [was] because everybody sang it out of tune. And the other thing is “What about that audience?” And of course, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t write for the audience at all. I write for performers and it’s their business to think about the audience.
[ 60 ] I’ve heard it said on a few occasions that the two major stylistic influences [on] your early works and the people who, to some degree, influenced the composer you became were Charles Ives and the avant-garde American (or American and French) composers of the ‘20s, and Nadia Boulanger and the world she represented with Stravinsky and neo-Classicism. Do you think that’s a fair description?
[ 61 ] Well I think the composer who’s been most influential and most stimulating is Stravinsky. I think I’ve always loved his music since The Firebird up to Requiem Canticles. I like practically everything he wrote and I’ve always known [his works] and loved them very much. I came later to know him personally in his later years. But he has been the most influential of all contemporary composers. Certainly the other one besides Ives, to a lesser extent than Stravinsky and even – for many years Bartók was very influential in my thinking. I find I’m not so interested [now], I don’t really know why. And then certainly Alban Berg was very influential in my thought. I knew Wozzeck when it was first given here at the Metropolitan Opera house by Stokowsky in, I think it was in the ‘20s or early ‘30s, when I was still a student.(10)Carter is most likely remembering the U.S. premiere by the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting. It took place in Philadelphia on March 19, 1931. (https://www.nytimes.com/1931/03/20/archives/american-premiere-of-bergs-wozzeck-grim-horrarhaunted-music-drama.html). The New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was not until March 5, 1959. (http://www.metorchestramusicians.org/blog/2014/5/20/wozzeck-at-the-met-a-history). And that impressed me a great deal. I sat next to George Gershwin at that performance and that impressed me very much. I was knocked out by that! So, Alban Berg, and some works of Schoenberg. I’m not a great fan of all his works, but the great works – like Moses and Aaron, and Pierrot Lunaire, and the [String] Trio, and [Die] glückliche Hand, and Erwartung – I think are really great works. They’re very remarkable works. And I must say that when I went with my father, I think in 1925, to Vienna, at that time the Austrian shilling was absolutely worthless, and I bought all the Schoenberg scores that were printed at that time, and all the Alban Berg and [Anton] Webern scores. I like Webern too very much – not the late works so much, but the middle and early period.
[ 62 ] Is it true that in your younger days Scriabin was also an influence?
[ 63 ] Oh, yeah, I used to love the Scriabin works, particularly the Poem of Ecstacy and a lot of the very late piano works, which always encompass some kind of interesting polyrhythms – only momentarily. And then there’s a whole group of etudes in which there’s a series of interesting rhythmic methods. And then one of the interesting rhythmic experiments are the Brahms piano etudes, which influenced a great deal of my…. I remember when I wrote Night Fantasies I practiced the Brahms Etudes all the time because they interested me rhythmically so much.
[ 64 ] You’ve hinted at one of my two last questions already. I understand you came to know Stravinsky to some degree, and I believe the Double Concerto was dedicated to him?
[ 65 ] No, the Piano Concerto was dedicated to him. The Double Concerto he said was an American masterpiece. You know what composers are, they don’t know what they’re talking about!
[ 66 ] In any case, I was curious to ask what your relationship was with him, the times you saw him, or your memories of [him].
[ 67 ] I’ve been wondering about that for many years. I don’t remember when I first came to know him personally. Because, after all, when I was a student in Paris, he came to play over Perséphone at Nadia Boulanger’s house, and the students sang in the chorus. And we had sort of a little business, and I shook his hand and all that. But later on I came to know him. Yes, I do know when that was! It was when Robert Craft played my Double Concerto in Los Angeles, and Stravinsky gave a party for me after the concert. And Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and I don’t remember who…. There were a lot of people there, none of whom I’d met, but who I was very impressed to see! And so that was a period when Stravinsky and I stood aside and I asked Stravinsky how he composed. I got up my nerve and asked him that. And so he took me and showed me how he composed, which was the oddest thing you can believe! He showed me a scrap book, and in it he had pasted little pieces, little fragments of music – maybe two measures – that were all connected with some…. I think it was about the time of The Flood that I’m talking about. And he had these tiny little pieces of music – two measures here and a chord there, and all written on paper that he’d drawn the staves themselves, and many of them different colored pieces of paper – it was very odd! I tell you what I said, I said “Well how do you put that together?” “Oh,” he said, “I shuffle it around and put it together.” And I must say that that part is why his music is interesting. Because, while it’s logical, it doesn’t hang together in the way you expect it to, often. And that’s fascinating!
[ 68 ] You’ve been very kind with your time; we’ve been speaking for about an hour. If I may ask one more question?
[ 69 ] Sure.
[ 70 ] I’m just curious to know what you’re working on now, or what you have planned for the future. I understand you’ve written an opera.
[ 71 ] Yes, I’ve written a short, one-act opera that Daniel Barenboim has commissioned for the Berlin Opera, which will be played, we hope, in September of ’99.(11)Carter’s one-act comic opera What Next?, with a libretto by Paul Griffiths, was premiered in Berlin on September 16, 1999 by the Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/what-next/) And it has a libretto by Paul Griffiths. I don’t know whether it’s comic or whether it isn’t but it’s a kind of surrealist fantasy that starts with an automobile accident and then after that you don’t know whether the survivors are surviving or not, but they certainly act very strangely!
[ 72 ] And is there anything else in your future, or any ideas you have in the works?
[ 73 ] Well I have a great many requests for pieces. Carnegie Hall wants me to write a series of comparatively easy pieces for piano. And I’ve talked to various friends about easy pieces, and the result is Bach thought he was writing easy pieces, which are his inventions, and they’re almost the hardest pieces he wrote, and so forth. So I’m not quite sure what an easy piece is. And when I say that to the people who commissioned [the project], they say Well, you can write anything you want. So I don’t know what I’m doing. But that’s what I hope to do.(12)Carter’s Two Diversions were completed in 1999 and included in the Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book (Boosey & Hawkes, 2000). They were premiered by Kirill Gerstein, piano, at Carnegie Hall on March 2, 2000. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/two-diversions/) Then I have a commission, or somebody wants to commission me for a Flute Concerto,(13)Carter’s Flute Concerto was premiered by Emmanuel Pahud, flute, and the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, in Jerusalem on September 9, 2008. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/flute-concerto/) and then the ASKO Ensemble in Holland wants me to write a chamber orchestra piece for them, and so forth.(14)Carter’s Asko Concerto was premiered by the Asko Ensemble, conducted by Oliver Knussen, at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on April 26, 2000. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/asko-concerto/) But almost always my commissions in these years are European ones. In America… Well, the two parts of my symphony were commissioned – one by Chicago and the other by Cleveland, and the middle movement by the BBC. Incidentally that symphony, which is about 48 minutes, was played about two weeks ago in London when I was there. And to my surprise it got very good reviews. Very odd piece, too, it is. Not at all like a usual symphony. And then somebody wants me to write a solo violin sonata. Ole Bøhn, my violinist who got money from the Norwegian government to pay for that.(15)Carter dedicated his 1999 composition Statement—Remembering Aaron for solo violin to Bøhn. It was premiered by him on on May 22, 1999, and became the first part of the suite 4 Lauds (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/4-lauds/) I don’t know what I’m going to do. Right at the moment I’m too busy with my 90th birthday to think about it.
[ 74 ] I suppose that’s a good point on which to end. Thank you so much for your time, Sir, in speaking with us today, and Happy Birthday!
[ 75 ] Thank you very much. I hope it will be happy. I’m counting on my friends to make it happy anyhow!
2. Elliott Carter, “Music as a Liberal Art,” Modern Music 22, no. 1 (November 1944): 12–16. Reprinted in Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937–1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 309–13. On Carter’s time at St. John’s College, see Hollis Thoms, “Rolling His Jolly Tub: Composer Elliott Carter, St. John’s College Tutor, 1940–1942,” St. John’s Review 53, no. 2 (2012): 96–131.
4. Elliott Carter, “Music and the Time Screen,” in Current Thought in Musicaology, ed. John W. Grubbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), 63–88. Reprinted in Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937–1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 262–80.
7. The festival “La Musica nel XXº Secolo,” organized by Carter’s close friend Nicholas Nabokov, took place in Rome in the Spring of 1954. See Daniel Guberman, “Composing Freedom: Elliott Carter’s ‘Self-Reinvention’ and the Early Cold War,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Caorlina at Chapel Hill, 2012, pp. 148-158; and Martin Brody, “Cold War Genius: Music and Cultural Diplomacy at the American Academy in Rome,” in crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000, ed. Felix Meyer, Carol J. Oja, Wolfgang Rathert, and Anne C. Shreffler (The Boydell Press, 2014), 375-387.
8. Elliott Carter, “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music,” The Score and I.M.A. Magazine 12 (June 1955): 27–32. Reprinted in Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937–1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press, 1997), 57–62.
9. Colin McPhee (1900–1964) was a Canadian composer and musicologist whose Music in Bali was one of the earliest books on Balinese music published in English. See Carol J. Oja, Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds (University of Illinois Press, 2004). The earliest recording (1956) of Carter’s suite from The Minotaur also featured McPhee’s composition Tabuh-Tabuhan (Mercury MG50103, 1956).
10. Carter is most likely remembering the U.S. premiere by the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting. It took place in Philadelphia on March 19, 1931. The New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was not until March 5, 1959. (https://www.nytimes.com/1931/03/20/archives/american-premiere-of-bergs-wozzeck-grim-horrarhaunted-music-drama.html. http://www.metorchestramusicians.org/blog/2014/5/20/wozzeck-at-the-met-a-history.)
11. Carter’s one-act comic opera What Next?, with a libretto by Paul Griffiths, was premiered in Berlin on September 16, 1999 by the Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/what-next/)
12. Carter’s Two Diversions were completed in 1999 and included in the Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book (Boosey & Hawkes, 2000). They were premiered by Kirill Gerstein, piano, at Carnegie Hall on March 2, 2000. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/two-diversions/)
13. Carter’s Flute Concerto was premiered by Emmanuel Pahud, flute, and the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, in Jerusalem on September 9, 2008.(https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/flute-concerto/)
14. Carter’s Asko Concerto was premiered by the Asko Ensemble, conducted by Oliver Knussen, at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on April 26, 2000. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/asko-concerto/)
15. Carter dedicated his 1999 composition Statement—Remembering Aaron for solo violin to Bøhn. It was premiered by him on on May 22, 1999, and became the first part of the suite 4 Lauds. (https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/4-lauds/)