Elliott Carter interviewed by Glenn Glasow (September 2, 1960)*Courtesy of Other Minds (www.otherminds.org)
Glenn Glasow (1924-2002) was a composer, Professor of Music and Asian Studies at California State University at Hayward and, from 1959 to 1961, the Music Director at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, where he frequently broadcast interviews with contemporary composers.(1)See “Glenn Glasow -- composer, performer” (https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Glenn-Glasow-composer-professor-2816189.php) Glasow studied with Ernst Krenek at Hamline University, and he received a DMA (1967) from the University of Illinois with a dissertation on 12-tone variation technique in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3.(2)Michael Meckna, “Glasow, Glenn,” Grove Music Online 22 (Oxford University Press).
[ 1 ] Glenn Glasow: Mr. Carter, you’re one of the most respected of the American composers today. And I notice a very interesting thing, that a lot of young composers are very concerned about what you’re doing. It’s your scores that they buy. And I also notice that you have been quite an articulate spokesman for new music, and the American composer specifically, and are really concerned about the profession of composing, if I can use this term. But sometimes I think you may be a little pessimistic. I’ve had the feeling that you speak of the “good old days.” Do you feel that modern music in America today is not quite as lively as it was, say, thirty years ago?
[ 2 ] Elliott Carter: Well, Mr. Glasow, certainly we know that thirty years ago a great deal more rather advanced and striking contemporary music was played in the United States by such conductors as Stokowski and Koussevitzky and Monteux. And that these performances of rather remarkable works such as The Rite of Spring and other works that are now accepted as the important works of contemporary music provoked a great deal of interest, a great deal of anger, and a lot of excitement in general. As time has gone on, these works have not been made part of the repertory, and it seems now that less contemporary music is being played, partly because the shock of novelty has worn off and the succeeding interest in the depth and quality of this music has not taken place, and as a result there’s a little bit of a kind of distress, that the music is not as interesting as it was, and yet somehow it doesn’t attract the attention that it used to.
[ 3 ] Well, I think I may basically agree with you, but I’ll play the devil’s advocate for a few minutes. You know, really, there are more recordings available now of contemporary music than ever before, and I don’t know how many different recordings there are of The Rite of Spring, for instance. And there is a complete Webern album,(3)Anton Webern, The Complete Music Recorded under the Direction of Robert Craft, Columbia Masterworks KL 5019, 1957. and nearly everything that Berg wrote is recorded and is available, and is being played on a so-called “good music” station. You go to a college, and the students are playing Schoenberg, and Berg, Op. 1, and so on. So in one way I would say everything is looking up. We have much more new music than ever before.
[ 4 ] Oh, I agree with you that in the field of actual recording, partly due to the special business about the long-playing record, which must have changed the whole economy of recording, there was a great deal more adventurous spirit about contemporary music, and therefore it’s true that a great deal of music is available on recording that was not available certainly a long time ago. Although I must point out that I still have a recording of Petrushka, a complete recording of Petrushka that was made – must have been made in 1925 by Victor with Stokowski.(4)Igor Strawinsky, Petrouchka, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Victor Red Seal, DM-574, 1937. So that even in those days there was some contemporary music made, but nowadays there’s a very large amount of it. It’s also strange, however, that these recordings are far less bought, interest the public far less than the recordings of even the most minor composers of the eighteenth century, let us say. This I find very curious. That a composer, let us say like Albinoni, has a recording made, and he will sell better than the latest recording of Stravinsky it often seems, and this is a very curious state of affairs. There is a small group of people interested in contemporary music but the large group of record buyers seems still to be very much concerned with music… particularly Baroque music and Romantic music.
[ 5 ] Let’s look at it another way. You have today in America festivals of modern music. Now, you have been at Princeton for three weeks, and the total seminar is really devoted to problems and techniques of modern music.(5)The Princeton Seminars in Advanced Musical Studies, sponsored by The Fromm Music Foundation, took place in August and September, 1959, and again the following summer. See https://frommfoundation.fas.harvard.edu/princeton-seminars. There was a workshop for contemporary music in San Francisco, at San Francisco Conservatory last June. There is Tanglewood, they do some things at Aspen, and I would say ostensibly again the scene looks much more encouraging than maybe thirty years ago, when you fellows only in New York were doing a few things.
[ 6 ] Yes, it is true again that each one of these, there are isolated centers where such things are being done, and certainly in many universities there’s a good deal of interest within music departments in contemporary music. The very strange thing is that contemporary music itself has not become an accepted part of the musical life of this country, in terms of the big, the larger public. And that is what I meant when I said that more of such music was played thirty years ago in large public concerts than it is now because I think, partly because of a whole change in economic support in such matters as orchestras and concert series. Conductors are hesitant to play music that will estrange part of their public and perhaps keep people from coming to concerts or even supporting the orchestra. This was not true thirty years ago when there were many fewer supporters who were willing to give large sums of money.
[ 7 ] How many performing organizations do you know – symphony orchestras or quartets – who are actually opposed to modern music, whatever this may be? I don’t know any.
[ 8 ] No, I don’t think that any of them are opposed, but many of them are fearful of including a great deal of it on their program, for fear that it will estrange large sections of the public. We’ve had that experience frequently in concerts such as the Philharmonic in New York, which at various times has given large amounts of contemporary music, especially during the early days of Mitropoulos.(6)Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) was musical director of the New York Philharmonic from 1951 to 1958. And then there was a good deal of feeling that this was a mistake on the part of the Board of Directors from what I understand. This was radically curtailed in the subsequent years of Mitropoulos, and now Leonard Bernstein attempts to bring it back but you will see that one year he brings a considerable amount of contemporary music to the public and then the next year it stops altogether almost, because there is a real fear that this will antagonize lots of people.
[ 9 ] The thing that’s disturbing is that there is not the concept that music is a growing profession, and a living profession, on the part of everybody involved with it, and they feel really this is kind of a dream of a strange Europe, a beautiful, some kind of a golden age, and they don’t want it disturbed by our harsh modern life and our harsh modern noises. And as a result, there is a good deal of, I think, sentimental antagonism to contemporary music. I think music is attractive to a special kind of people that is particularly sentimental in this direction. You would not find the art lovers, I think, as conservative as musicians in this matter. Perhaps music is a more powerful medium and for this reason people are a little more hesitant to be experimental.
[ 10 ] As you see , I’m trying to nudge you over into the direction of consideration of this one word you use: depth. And I think that perhaps we have more so-called modern music than ever before in sheer amount, and I think that most performers are willing to play Bartók’s Bear Dance(7)Medvetánc (Bear Dance) is the second movement of Bartók's Sonatina for solo piano (1915). or maybe include a little bit of Stravinsky, and certainly I don’t think that Walter Piston suffers for lack of performances.
[ 11 ] That’s true.
[ 12 ] But I wonder if what you aren’t talking about is a vital concern for the here and now, what’s going on right now. I mean, what are we complaining about, really? Arthur Berger says in many ways the same thing that you are saying, that the spirit, the desire to promote new music and to get in there and pitch, has been vitiated in the last couple of decades, and he talks about the “good old days” of 1930.
[ 13 ] Well, it’s true that there… I’m talking in several different ways…. You’re getting me into a more aesthetic question [than] when we started discussing this. There is no doubt for instance that more American music is played than there was. First of all, there’s a great deal more American music – there’s been an avalanche of American music in the last thirty years. And then there’s been a very large increase in performing organizations and opportunities to play this music. The thing that I’m really perhaps talking about, and should make clearer, is that I’m a composer committed to a sense of rather advanced music, of music that seems to be…. I feel that music must somehow express the novelty of life as well as its depth, and I feel that we somehow have to assert ourselves in the musical medium as living somehow in the present, and the way we see it. Music itself, the musical tradition has developed very rapidly in the twentieth century; new techniques of every kind have come in. When I talk about new music I really mean the music that uses these new techniques, new conceptions, and I feel that a great deal of the contemporary music that is being played is music written by people in the present but is not contemporary in the sense that it doesn’t seem to be aware of many of the new conceptions. It doesn’t seem to make itself, make its own point. It’s a kind of, it’s sort of parasitic on the past. This is disturbing because music at no time in the past has ever been this way.
[ 14 ] You know, I think this all may be circumlocution. We should start with the question: what is it to be modern in music?
[ 15 ] This is a very difficult thing. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I guess one of the things is that we have a pretty good idea of what it is to be modern in music since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was not so clear what it was before that time because music was much more institutionalized, and it remained on certain levels. But still in the eighteenth century there was a very rapid change from the early part of the eighteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. And from then on, it seemed to me modern music has been written. Beethoven was perhaps one of the first composers of modern music, and certainly still remains the symbol of what it is to be a modern composer, and that is, one who somehow imposes his conceptions on the musical technique and transforms the world of music to meet his particular view of music, his view of life, and his feelings and his conceptions of human thought – all this is expressed very definitely in Beethoven’s music, and all techniques of music are made to obey these underlying visions. I object to certain kinds of modern music because it seems to me that the press of the composer and of his conceptions is so weak, that they’re simply taking over large amounts of material that had been worked over a great deal, and very often in a very accomplished way, but in which the sense of the composer’s existence is not at all evident – this is just a man writing an accomplished piece in the way that many other people in the past have written, but there’s no sense in writing another accomplished piece like Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Schoenberg even. Each one of these [composers] wrote their pieces to correspond to their vision. This is the thing that seems to me to have come out of the inevitable result of democracy, striking as aristocratic art, which music was before that time, and this is the concept of, so to speak, the human, the individual, on the field of art. And this is what we feel. I think most of the composers of my time and in this country feel it is a real contribution, this sort of personal imposition, a personal ability to make all the facets of musical technique express a human vision that the composer has. And as I said, all of the music of the nineteenth century that we admire is all imbued with this completely. And weaker works are weak because the composer either didn’t have an interesting vision and had to borrow somehow from other composers, and his vision is not made sharp and distinct.
[ 16 ] Well, I would…
[ 17 ] I’m sorry to go on so long…
[ 18 ] Oh, that’s alright…
[ 19 ] …but I feel rather strongly about it.
[ 20 ] I think I would say this, and I am interested in how you would feel about it, that we stand now at a point in which we can understand, superficially perhaps, the techniques of a man like Schoenberg, that we can understand the Bartók style. A few things about Stravinsky, although I think he’s one of the most difficult men to get a hold of, because I don’t know what Stravinsky technique is; you can’t describe it very well. But at any rate, we have these things now, and a great deal of our contemporary music draws on these techniques in a superficial way. You can write a little piece which sounds like Webern.
[ 21 ] That’s right.
[ 22 ] And maybe it is that now we can look at these men, but they’re already old composers.
[ 23 ] That’s right. That’s what the young people I feel often don’t understand, and it disturbs me. I find that the students are always busy working over some old composer they’ve just discovered that seems new to them. And then they don’t realize that that music will get old as they get older, and they will get older too, and it will all fade out, and they’d better be rather careful and a little bit more fussy about their method of conception.
[ 24 ] Well, now let me talk out of the other side of my mouth. I could take the view that men such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg are really old-fashioned, and this is a current view, you know.
[ 25 ] Oh, yes.
[ 26 ] Especially young European composers, such an offensive essay as “Schoenberg is dead…”(8)Pierre Boulez, “Schönberg is Dead,” The Score 6 (May 1952): 18-22.
[ 27 ] Yes, certainly.
[ 28 ] …which I object to very much.
[ 29 ] I think Boulez wrote that essay.
[ 30 ] Yes. Now, do you think that really this is so much a part of our tradition, that we must go on for new tricks and new things, or aren’t we at a point now where we were handed so many ideas in such a short time by men such as Schoenberg – and I think especially Schoenberg – that our problem really now is how to synthesize, how to understand, and how to use these things in a more personal way to make something new, to make something fresh.
[ 31 ] Well, this is a very complex thing, and I think it depends on individuals: that is, the notion that there’s a, so to speak, a common vocabulary of music, which certainly existed prior to, at any given period in the past, and persisted right up until its disintegration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whether we will ever return to the common vocabulary, let us say, of chords, in which many composers share similar sorts of methods, or whether there will be a constant increase, an individualization of every facet of musical technique, I really couldn’t say. There’s certainly the very severe problem of public understanding: music, more than any of the other arts except perhaps the theater, is an art of public demonstration. It’s a little questionable whether a composer can do any kind of a strange thing that comes into his head without some kind of a contact with what the public already knows – well, first of all, what the musical profession knows, since he depends on that to perform his works, or what the public knows, in order to somehow understand it. After all, while music isn’t like a language, in the sense that you have to know words and understand the vocabulary, it has certain aspects that are like that. In other words, it’s a kind of business of order, and there are certainly commonly accepted patterns of order which are more intelligible, more expressive, or more meaningful than others.
[ 32 ] Let me ask it another way. I was going to ask this: You would be regarded, for instance, in certain circles, as a rather conservative composer.
[ 33 ] I think so, yes.
[ 34 ] I don’t regard you as such.
[ 35 ] I think I am. I regard myself as a conservative composer.
[ 36 ] Well, Schoenberg regarded himself as a conservative…
[ 37 ] …yes…
[ 38 ] …whatever that means. But, to make my point, we are told by some composers that the techniques and the musical approaches of the first three decades of the twentieth century are now so much a part of our musical life that this is really no longer fresh, and the new challenges lie in electronic music, in the manipulative tricks of Boulez or Stockhausen. And there is this real attitude that the crisis is to find something new.
[ 39 ] I think that there’s a very, very strong trend throughout the twentieth century in all artistic fields to get the impression of the vividness of the moment. This is described, for instance, even in Ezra Pound’s articles back in the 1900s, 8s, and 10s. There’s the sense of trying to catch the liveliness of the moment. Therefore, for instance, this technique is very obvious in the Stravinsky works, in which there’s a use of great abruptness, so that the listener is constantly being caught up, and his attention is being made to realize that this moment is a very dramatic and intense thing. And I think that a great deal of the separation of notes, for instance, in Schoenberg or Webern, comes from a desire to give a great vividness to every aspect of the thing, to make it all very lively, and intense, and bright. But then of course when these things become patterns and formulas, and people begin to use them, then the sense of vividness begins to wear thin because you recognize this as a formal shape; it soon loses the sort of liveliness of its novelty. This is a very great problem, and obviously the young are continuing in this older pattern; the young like Boulez and Stockhausen are trying to find the sort of freshness of the moment.
[ 40 ] And to the extent, even to the point where each piece must be very much different.
[ 41 ] Yes, and I think this is – I must say, I understand it very well, it seems to me that we see this on every side in all artistic and literary fields. This is clearly being expressed all the time; this is something very vital to us, the fear of going to sleep in our artistic world is a very, very strong one. We want to have the sense of the very liveliness of experience and of life.
[ 42 ] But, I wonder if there aren’t some indications that this is changing.
[ 43 ] It may be so; it’s…
[ 44 ] …I think perhaps the post-Webern trend, whatever that was; this clinky-clanky music…
[ 45 ] …Yes…
[ 46 ] …extreme orchestration. Much of it is quite fascinating. But I wonder if this isn’t over the hill already.
[ 47 ] What happens is, of course, overstimulation leads to numbness…
[ 48 ] …Yes…
[ 49 ] …in a way, and therefore as attractive, and especially as useful as this all seems – it seems to have a kind of wonderful charm of novelty and pleasure, and even fascination – this does in the end begin to wear thin, there’s no doubt about it. And I believe for instance, the techniques of mathematical manipulation such as Boulez and Stockhausen have used are actually with the intention of making unpredictable effects in the music, so that the listener is always being confronted at every moment with something unexpected. And even your friend Krenek, for instance, I think, in using his special systems, when he describes and describes how they produce, even an almost unmusical effect at times, an effect that he never would have thought of…
[ 50 ] …Yes…
[ 51 ] …as a composer. But because the numbers turn out this way, he produces this unexpected and very surprising effect. This has been a useful thing, to draw composers’ attention to a part of the musical continuity that they never would have thought of out of traditional training. And I think that this has been useful but I also think it leads to numbness; I agree with you.
[ 52 ] Well…
[ 53 ] …I try to fight against that in my own music.
[ 54 ] Who is to say where ideas come from? First, we can’t account for everything that happens in music. So certainly there is this element of unpredictability even in your own music because you just don’t plan everything. Things happen, and they may have been an idea, they may not have been, and you may use these things, but I think this is in all music. But I wonder if the attitude that one must start something, let’s roll the dice, or set up a chart, or rattle bolts in a coffee can – you know what John Cage does – if this isn’t in a way very cynical as far as one’s imagination is concerned, because it implies that we have no confidence in what we can envision, and what we can do, and what we as composers can control.
[ 55 ] I tell you what: I have two minds about this. As far as I personally am concerned – this is why I think I’m a conservative – I have the old-fashioned idea that if the composer isn’t paying attention, neither the performer or the listener will pay attention. And if he throws the dice, he can’t expect the performer to play the right notes, and he can’t expect the listener to pay any attention to anything but what he’s been reading in the newspaper the day before; he’s not going to pay attention to the music. I believe that there’s a collective attitude of belief and attentiveness that comes out of the kind of music that I write, and that I know about. On the other hand, I feel that this collective attentiveness has been blunted so much by a kind of over-repetition of the same things, that it’s understandable that many young people feel that the whole profession is a very… sort of a tired old elephant, and that they want to sort of give it a prod and make people think, “What is this profession anyhow?” So you bring into the concert hall something that they never would expect to be there and make some strange rattling sound, and it makes everybody think [about] what this is. I don’t think this is important in itself, but it’s an important demonstration, to make people more alive to what it is that they might value in music. It’s a kind of sharpening of…
[ 56 ] I find much of this very amusing.
[ 57 ] Yes, it’s amusing!
[ 58 ] …Quite entertaining…
[ 59 ] …It makes a very good vaudeville show. There used to be such things in the old vaudeville…
[ 60 ] It helps if you have a couple drinks beforehand, and go in very good humor, and just sit and see what these people do. But I always have the feeling that I don’t wish to go through this again.
[ 61 ] Well, I especially…. What always bothers me a great deal are concerts in which the largest amount of the concert is silence. And when you have a piece within which there’s a short note at the beginning and then there’s two minutes silence, and there’s another short note later. This I always find seems to interest abstract painters but it rather disturbs musicians since we’ve been so accustomed to writing a lot of notes. And I must say that I had a student when I was teaching in Dartington Hall in England who had written a piece that had sixty seconds rest in the middle of it. And when it came to the rehearsals he got more and more nervous about this.
[ 62 ] Shortened the rest?
[ 63 ] And he shortened – no, he began to fill it up, first as one little tinkle on the percussion that came in the middle, and after about the sixth rehearsal he’d filled it up with a great loud, a whole bunch of percussion instruments. And I kept thinking that somehow he felt that he was covering up a kind of nakedness that disturbed him a great deal; he was embarrassed, basically, by the sense that he was revealing some kind of nakedness in this, and wanted to cover it all up. Silence, to a musician – within the confines of a piece of course – is a terrible thing; it’s a very frightening thing. Mélisande dies to a moment of silence, and it’s perhaps the most expressive moment in a piece of music and it has to be used so carefully.(9)Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande, opera in five acts, premiered in Paris by the Opéra-Comique on April 30, 1902. Either the loudest point or the silent point is the most moving part of a piece of music; it has to be so judiciously used; it can all be spoiled.
[ 64 ] You mentioned a couple of words which prod me into some other questions. I believe one of them was democracy and aristocracy. And I know you have said publicly on occasions, what we need is a more devoted professional class of musicians. I wonder – we’ve developed really in another direction, haven’t we? And aren’t we now?
[ 65 ] I don’t understand what you mean by another direction; from what?
[ 66 ] Well, I mean, we have very many composers in this country. We have very many music lovers who read the record jackets. And all of these people have a voice in a sense in music, and don’t you think that the total impact of this in a way is detrimental to the creation of anything such as you would call a professional class of composers?
[ 67 ] Yes, I think that the operation of our kind of a laissez-faire economy, and even laissez-faire intellectual and cultural world, is such that there’s no conception of the progress and development of the individual. After all, to be a composer is not an easy thing; it was obviously recognized from the very earliest times when composers began to write pieces that it takes many years of rather complicated experience – hearing pieces, studying what other people have done, and learning lessons of all different kinds. This has become increasingly great as time has gone on, because now composers have the whole heritage of the past to understand, and all the knowledge of the contemporary techniques of instruments which have grown fabulously in the last thirty or forty years. Beside that, all the new kinds of combinations that are possible within, let’s say, the orchestra or chamber music. And all of this represents a very elaborate study which you just can’t do by sitting down one day and getting wonderful inspiration and writing a piece without ever having had any training; this is impossible.
[ 68 ] However…
[ 69 ] …Go ahead.
[ 60 ] Well, I was going to say: is it not possible…? I know it’s difficult to be a composer today because, if nothing else, we live at a time when there is more music than at the time of Beethoven, for instance. But is it not possible, to get back to my point of the great public involvement in music these days, is it not possible that we are creating a broad base of understanding, and one’s life as a composer should be much better?
[ 71 ] Oh, we are certainly hoping to do that. This has been, I think, one of the important efforts that composers in the last thirty years in America have worked on. We have tried to establish the fact that composing is just not a thing that can be undertaken easily and quickly. It’s something that takes a great deal of training and a great deal of knowledge. After all, when you’re a composer for the orchestra, you have all these musicians, all of whom are very accomplished people, all of whom have to be written for in such a way that they will use their techniques very well, so that the composer – it’s obvious I suppose – in a sense has to have an imaginative ability to deal with each one of the instruments in the orchestra effectively and up to the competence of the performer. And beside that, to combine all these – this is not something that can be learned easily, and as I say it requires a kind of professional world for the composer to develop into. It can’t be something that he just picks up today, and then because the public is uninterested in his music that he can throw off and go off and do something else. This is like an old craftsmanship job which takes years of development, and there has to be a continual support or interest in his works. When you think that many of the leading composers, such as Puccini for instance, rewrote their works many, many times and didn’t suffer from constant criticism that finally might have destroyed them, but enjoyed the confidence of the profession and of the public to the extent where they were able to produce failures for a number of years and yet, at the end, out of the experience of these failures were able to finally produce something good. Like Tosca, as you know, was rewritten twenty-one times, and not only that, but published twenty-one times with new scores, which today would be unthinkable. A composer is not like a playwright, for instance, and I always find this very curious. It’s usually not known: a composer in America is a man who writes a piece that at the first rehearsal has to sound very well. If a composer writes a piece that has to be fooled with – as almost all Broadway plays for instance have to be rewritten, hundreds of times at the rehearsal – if you write a piece that has to be fooled with at the rehearsal it wastes so much time and money that it will be thrown out immediately. We’ve had this experience many times; there have been composers who somehow made some kind of a mistake or they were doing something too experimental, and the orchestra just hadn’t the money and the time, and the effort, or the interest, to work on this piece and help the composer develop to the point where it will amount to something. We’ve got to write a practically perfect product even before it reaches the stage of being rehearsed. This puts a kind of terrific onus on us, very severe. It’s one of the reasons why I think American music has tended to be unadventurous, especially in the orchestral medium, because we haven’t the confidence of the public, a confidence which would enable us to be more experimental and be willing to put up, let us say, more money to allow more rehearsals and more experiments, which can happen under conditions such as they are in Germany where the radio supports the orchestras, and composers can feel a little freer to do things that might be more novel, and if they don’t sound well they can try it over differently the next time. For us, you’re finished if you make a mess of the first rehearsal.
[ 72 ] Do you think that there is really a broader base of support among music lovers, people in Europe, than there is in the United States?
[ 73 ] No, there isn’t. The great difference between Europe and the United States is that there’s a tradition of support. I do not think that the public in Europe really likes contemporary music any more than the public in America. But there’s a tradition that contemporary music must be supported. It’s gone on for so long now, obviously, that everybody knows that this is so. And hence, men who are interested in this matter are able to get positions in important places, such as the directors of the German radio stations. And since the German radio is a state-supported thing – people pay money as a radio tax – part of that tax goes to supporting an orchestra, and part of the orchestra’s time naturally is assumed to be devoted to contemporary music. And as a result composers are actually able, under rather free conditions, to play with the orchestra and find new things that work, or all kinds of things… I feel that this is a terribly important thing in the United States. It would be very important to counteract this kind of development by some kind of thing in this country, because here we are all very much tied down by the limitations that our musical life imposes on us. And I think this is partly due to the fact that there was a break in the continuity of tradition when serious music was brought to the United States. What was brought here first were performers, and then later the performers brought the music, and it was never quite clear that all of this was written by composers, and somehow there should also be a world which would encourage composers to continue this. And still we remain, therefore, a kind of parasite of Europe, still depending on Europe to supply ideas even for composers. Because a composer like Stockhausen, Boulez, for instance, have had a great deal of opportunity to try out all kinds of things. They finally produce these rather remarkable works, and our composers use ideas from these very naturally; they couldn’t have developed them here on their own because of the conditions under which we work.
[ 74 ] What are we going to do?
[ 75 ] It’s a terrible thing! It bothers me a great deal, because we are filled with very bright, very accomplished composers, and yet all of them live under very difficult circumstances as professionals, not to speak of economic circumstances.
[ 76 ] What are we going to do about it? Perhaps the composing profession is partly at fault. Maybe…
[ 77 ] …Well, we can’t…
[ 78 ] …composers should be more articulate.
[ 79 ] I think that the fault is very, very complex. There are many factors. One of them is that the universities took pity on this situation and brought music into the university, with the attending problems that the university always brings in when it comes into a profession: that is, there’s a tendency for overdevelopment of certain sorts of aspects, and not others. This is inevitable, and any public field has the problem of over-intellectualization to face when it comes into a university, especially in America where intellectualization itself is looked on with very mixed feelings on the part of many different people, and doesn’t command universal respect. And therefore, the fact that the university brought this field into it has its faults, but on the whole I think it has its virtues, because if it hadn’t been brought in there the public and the musical profession up until recent times was very unaware; it was too busy trying to keep itself going to be concerned with the problems of composers.
[ 80 ] But I wonder if music doesn’t suffer from less respect than many other things?
[ 81 ] I think it does. I think that one is always very much surprised at composers’ forums, for instance, that the composer is always treated as if he were the last one that knew anything about his music, or about any music, while even the performers of his works are treated with a great deal more respect and interest, and listened to more intelligently. The composer is treated as if he was a madman, and this is disturbing – well, I suppose it’s amusing – but it reflects a funny kind of public attitude because, to have gotten to the point where he writes a work – string quartet or another work – that uses the instruments in a very accomplished way, in itself represents an enormous effort of human thought and of human knowledge and training. And it’s very curious that the public is totally unaware of this, and I run against this frequently. It doesn’t occur to them that this is a physical object that’s been made, been written on paper, and it’s quite a complex thing to write notes that have to be translated into a piece by performers – it takes a lot of training, especially, as I say, when we’re under the conditions that we live under in America where this all has to be done in the composer’s head, and it all has to come out as if it had been sounding well, and that takes a hell of a lot of work.
[ 82 ] But you’ve mentioned another thing on occasion, and that is [that] among so-called intellectual classes there seems to be less interest in what is going on in music now than a kind of rather patronizing attitude towards past music.
[ 83 ] This is… I don’t understand…
[ 84 ] …Many people love the so-called masterworks…
[ 85 ] …That’s right…
[ 86 ] …And they may even be rather concerned about what is going on in modern medicine, for instance; may be concerned about politics, but very little concerned about what our composers today are doing.
[ 87 ] This is a very puzzling thing. I’ve tried to understand it. It’s not at all true in Europe. This is a great difference. You will find that the European magazines devoted to intelligent subjects very often have articles, sometimes of a very penetrating nature by people often who are not even part of the musical profession, about music. And one has the impression [that] music is a function of European society. This is of course an old pattern, and I suppose it’s impossible to wish for this to happen when this pattern is broken. But it’s certainly true in the United States that the very audience that contemporary composers would like to deal with seem to be very uninterested in and not at all knowledgeable about contemporary music. I’m always amused to find that the abstract expressionist painter will usually like Bach better than contemporary music. This is a very puzzling thing.
[ 88 ] Mr. Carter, why are you reluctant to talk about your own music?
[ 89 ] Well I don’t think a composer can explain his own music. Music, like many practical matters – and I mean practical in the sense of dealing with the physical, material things – is too bound up with how you do certain things to produce certain effects, which partly are done subconsciously, to discuss it intelligently. It’s very misleading for us to talk about our music, I think.
[ 90 ] Do you feel that this is really not a help to the listener in understanding the music?
[ 91 ] I have mixed feelings about it, but I think that… well, I’d rather have somebody else talk about it than myself, even though they sometimes seem to me to misunderstand it a little bit, I think they are able to understand certain sorts of things that I could never put into words. I mean, it’s as if you were to ask a carpenter to explain a table. For one thing, it’s very boring if he starts to tell you, well, it’s spruce, and nails, and how the wood was sawed, and all that – that wouldn’t be of interest to the public. But there’s this table. And it’s really more the thing itself – it’d be better to have an art historian come in and describe the table, I feel, than have the carpenter describe it.
[ 92 ] I wonder if sometimes there is a disadvantage that people become more concerned with how you did it than what hits their eardrums. It’s in a sense a kind of program music, then.
[ 93 ] Yes, oh, it becomes program music on any level – that’s one of the problems, that the composer himself is so concerned with the actual production of this physical thing – the sound that goes on in sound – that any attempt to try and describe to the public always seems to me a kind of programatizing of it. And ultimately, even program music is interesting because it’s music first, and secondly because of its program. You wouldn’t be interested in The Merry Pranks of Till Eulenspiegel if there wasn’t a beautiful piece of Strauss there.
[ 94 ] And I would say, if the music isn’t good, no program is going to pull it along.
[ 95 ] Exactly! So that the composer feels this so strongly, and this is so part of the professional business, that he’s very reluctant to tell you any kind of a program at all, no matter what it is, even if it’s the program of the symphony, the first and second theme, and so forth.
[ 96 ] A rather personal question: what are you working on now?
[ 97 ] Well, I’m working on a piece for the Fromm Foundation, a double concerto for harpsichord and piano and small orchestra. And I’m also at the same time working on a piano concerto for the Ford Foundation. And these works are both rather elaborate in character, and they’ve taken a lot of thought.
[ 98 ] Mr. Carter, I want to thank you very much for your insights and for your discussion of these really very difficult things to talk about in contemporary music, and I make one solemn promise: we will program your music without explanation.
[ 99 ] Thank you very much, Mr. Glasow.
5. The Princeton Seminars in Advanced Musical Studies, sponsored by The Fromm Music Foundation, took place in August and September, 1959, and again the following summer. See https://frommfoundation.fas.harvard.edu/princeton-seminars.