Elliott Carter Studies Online

VOLUME 4 (2021)

Elliott Carter interviewed by Guy Capuzzo (May 22, 1996)

In May 1996 I had the good fortune to interview Elliott Carter in his Greenwich Village apartment. He had just completed Allegro Scorrevole and was about to begin work on the Clarinet Concerto. Given the scope of these and other recent works such as Partita (1993), Adagio Tenebroso (1994), and the String Quartet No. 5 (1995), I knew that Carter was in an especially rich and productive phase of his career. What no one could have predicted at the time, given that Carter was 88 years old, was that these works were only the beginning of a “late late” compositional period that lasted until his death in November 2012.

Viewed in this light, the interview presented here offers a snapshot of Carter at a significant juncture in his career. The discussions of pitch in his music will hold interest for theorists and composers, particularly when paired with the 1999 interview in the Harmony Book.(*)“Elliott Carter Talks About His Harmony Book,” in Elliott Carter, Harmony Book, edited by Nicholas Hopkins and John F. Link (New York: Carl Fischer, 1999), 27-35. The skepticism Carter expresses toward long-range polyrhythms offers insight into another facet of his compositional technique at the time, and foreshadows the fact that none of the compositions Carter completed after the interview contain long-range polyrhythms. Other topics include intervals and counterpoint, the meanings of “expressive” and “expression,” the roles of instrumental attack types in his works, and the books he was reading for pleasure at the time of the interview.
— G.C.

[ 1 ] Guy Capuzzo: I’d like to begin by asking what you’re composing at the moment.

[ 2 ] Elliott Carter: Well, I just finished it yesterday, a new orchestral piece that I’ve written for the Cleveland Orchestra. And now I’m searching around for all the information I have about clarinets [laughter] for a clarinet concerto for the ensemble in Paris. They want to do it in January of 1997, so I’ve got to hurry.

[ 3 ] I’d also like to ask what you’ve composed in the past two years or so. There’s a Fifth Quartet, Adagio Tenebroso, Of Challenge and of Love…

[ 4 ] Well, you know more than I do [laughter]! Well, I’ve been busy with this orchestral piece for the last, certainly for the last six or eight months. I wrote a short little piece for Paul Sacher’s ninetieth birthday, called A 6 Letter Letter. And it’s about the six letters of his name – it’s all based on that. And I got a very nice letter from him.

[ 5 ] What is the instrumentation of that?

[ 6 ] Just English Horn. Heinz Holliger was doing my Oboe Concerto on a concert in Basel, so I thought I’d write that as a kind of encore piece for Sacher.

[ 7 ] I recently found out that there’s a second Esprit rude/Esprit doux.

[ 8 ] Oh yeah, you know, I wrote that…. Well, it’s a very funny thing: Boulez, it was his seventieth birthday. He was coming over from France where they’d been giving concerts for his seventieth birthday, and he was flying on his seventieth birthday to conduct the Chicago Symphony that following week. And the Chicago Symphony never thought about this! They didn’t think about it being his seventieth birthday. So I got them started. They commissioned a number of pieces, and I offered to write this piece for him.

[ 9 ] It seems to be very much in the tradition of Boulez himself, who will often write a piece and then a sequel to it.

[ 10 ] That’s right. This is the sequel. And actually, the two of them can be played as a continuous piece. I’ve fixed it so that the last note of the first piece is the first note of the second one.

[ 11 ] The piece Esprit rude/Esprit doux is a wonderful example of making the most of attack-type differences between instruments.

[ 12 ] Well, I added a marimba to the second one. So there’s flute, clarinet, and then the marimba comes in.

[ 13 ] Many of the recent pieces are for solo instrumentalists, or smaller ensembles. How does this reflect your earlier concern for solving problems unique to a given ensemble, as in the Double Concerto for instance?

[ 14 ] Well, it all got started with the first of the solo pieces, Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi. And then, other people began to ask me to write these short pieces. I can’t say that there’s a problem-solving in all of this; I’ve just thought about it differently. You know, these pieces have different kinds of characters within themselves, all logically following one another.

[ 15 ] I’d like to turn to a few questions of expression. Stravinsky raised many eyebrows with his statement that music is powerless to express anything. How did you originally react to this as a young composer, and what are your thoughts on it now in relation to Stravinsky’s music?

[ 16 ] Well, I think Stravinsky was talking about expression in a very special way. He was talking about expression as it came to be known in the music of Schumann and Brahms. I don’t think that he thought about earlier music – though he was always interested in Bach. And I think to him, that was expressive. And then the other side of it is that all of Stravinsky’s music – and a good deal of Boulez’s is somewhat like this – is music in which the expression is not so much by lyrical lines as by the total sound effect. And it is very expressive, in a special sort of way. It’s actually like very old religious music, in which there’s a very strong feeling in the music itself that is not underlined by the Romantic expressiveness. And I think they were all trying to get that at that time; Stravinsky was not the only one. The whole neoclassic period was basically expressive in a new kind of way. I remember, as a very young man, being very interested in Stravinsky’s music, and when I heard Wozzeck done by Stokowski at the Met as a very young fellow, I was disappointed, because it was so expressive. It seemed very old fashioned, like Strauss or Mahler. Now I don’t feel that way, but at the time I did. And for that reason, a lot of Charles Ives’s music bothered me, because it was so Romantic. I’ve changed a good deal in that respect. I still see that there is a power in the quality of Stravinsky’s music that is very striking just the same, which is quite remarkable. He even got it when he got into those jumpy twelve-tone pieces. Abraham and Isaac is a very moving piece, and yet it’s not expressive in the ordinary sense. Now, I can’t do that; that’s not the way I write music, but I understand it.

[ 17 ] Has simplifying some of the technical matters in your works freed you up to express yourself more easily?

[ 18 ] Well, you know, I don’t express myself. I’m writing music, but I don’t think about expressing myself. I think this is an idea that comes from the Romantic period. I’m just writing pieces of music. I generally decide on the general character of the piece, because there are many types of characters, like that Adagio Tenebroso. The (more) recent one is an Allegro leggero(1)Carter later titled the piece Allegro Scorrevole that goes flying around. I’ve decided on that, but after that the musical ideas come in. I don’t write any music that doesn’t seem to me to have a musical meaning by which you would mean expressive. But it’s not expressive of myself. I don’t write music because I have a stomach ache, or because I feel bad.

[ 19 ] Has simplifying the technical matters in your works freed up performers in their interpretive tasks?

[ 20 ] Yes, I suppose I’ve simplified the technical matters. I don’t think about it that way. I just write it, whatever interests me at the time. Of course, they are in a sense simpler, and I guess there are more people who can play them, especially when I write short pieces. But the longer pieces never get played. I mean, in America you write orchestral pieces – they will never be played; maybe once. Look, those Variations for Orchestra had a terrible time. They were played on and off, very seldom. When Levine finally made a recording of them, it was with the Chicago Symphony.(2)James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon 431698-2. But I asked Solti why he wouldn’t make a recording, because he played it so well, and he said that the record company wouldn’t stand for it! And now, what’s happening with my music is that the very early pieces like the First Symphony and the Holiday Overture get played quite often, because I have a certain reputation, so people play it. But it’s because they can play an easy piece [laughter]! We don’t have the kind of money that would support elaborate rehearsals of my pieces, while in Europe they have state subsidy, which helps a lot. Michael Gielen made a recording with the Southwest German Radio Orchestra of Three Occasions, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the Piano Concerto, all on one record.(3)Elliott Carter: Orchestral Music. Arte Nova Classics 1995: 74321 27773 2. That took a lot of rehearsing, many many hours, something no American orchestra could afford.

[ 21 ] To the extent that much of your music is often inspired by your reading of a poem and thus tries to capture aspects of that poem, do you consider such pieces of yours “absolute music”?

[ 22 ] Oh, yes. In almost every case you’re talking about, the poem was discovered after the piece was partially written. I had an idea for what the piece was, and in an effort to explain it, not only to myself but to other people, I found poems that seemed to exemplify the piece. But then of course I’ve also written song cycles, which do relate to the words of the poem.

[ 23 ] David Schiff has viewed some of your recent music through the work of Roland Barthes, and Thomas Warburton has published an article called “A Literary Approach to Carter’s Night Fantasies.” You have mentioned in print that you did not fully agree with all of Schiff’s points. Is literary criticism in general a sound way to approach a musical work?

[ 24 ] You know, I don’t remember the David Schiff article, and I don’t remember why I didn’t agree with it. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about the other one. But for a composer, the primary thing is the music itself, and one always hopes that people will come to listen to music as music, without the program. Music is more interesting to me than any program that might be mentioned or talked about. And this is even true of the mechanical things, these charts of rhythms and things: this is all secondary to the general quality and character of the music.

[ 25 ] Schiff posited a very creative interpretation of Triple Duo on his record jacket notes to that piece, comparing the three instrumental pairs of the composition to the three character pairs of Così fan tutte. Was that a post-composition analogy of his?

[ 26 ] I think it was, but I mean it’s partially true. I mean, after all, I’ve known all those Mozart operas since I was a child, and they’ve always impressed me a great deal, just for this reason. This has been in my mind throughout my life; I’ve written pieces that sort of parallel that. There was a man named Edward Dent, who wrote a book about Mozart’s operas that I read when I was in high school.(4)Edward J. Dent. Mozart's Operas. McBride, Nast & Company, 1913 (Reprinted, Oxford, 1947). He drew attention to different singers carrying on their own characters in those duets and trios and quartets and so forth, and that impressed me. When I was in college, I used to go to Munich before the time of Hitler to hear the Mozart operas, and I’ve always liked the Mozart operas because of that particular character.

[ 27 ] You have spoken several times in recent years of your fondness for Mozart’s ability to intermingle all sorts of opposites. On several occasions you’ve mentioned Don Giovanni.

[ 28 ] I noticed it also in one of the articles that Schoenberg wrote; he said something like that. I’ve forgotten which one or where now, but I remember reading it a long time ago, and I’ve never seen it again. That interested Schoenberg too, and there’s something of that same character in some Schoenberg, like Pierrot Lunaire.

[ 29 ] What are the sorts of things that motivate you to be creative at the moment?

[ 30 ] I like to write music. I find it very interesting and absorbing to write music; I don’t know how I would live without doing it. The thing that motivates me is that people ask me to write for them. I pick out the ones I’d like to do the most, and do them.

[ 31 ] Do most or all of the works you begin these days reach completion and publication, or do you occasionally abort pieces midway through?

[ 32 ] No, everything I write gets finished and published. I mean, I haven’t the leisure to write pieces I’ll throw away [laughter]!

[ 33 ] Has there been a change in your thinking about harmony in the last ten or fifteen years, or rather has it evolved from piece to piece?

[ 34 ] Well, each piece has, well there are sort of groups of pieces with different ways of dealing with, so to speak, harmony. But that particular all-trichord six-note chord has been very dominating for many years. In the Fifth String Quartet I went back to an eight-note chord that I used in my Double Concerto, one with the two four-note chords that are all-interval chords. The Fifth String Quartet uses those pairs of all-interval chords frequently – not all the time. But there are moments where it plays in all the parts.

[ 35 ] Much of your music since Night Fantasies is based, at least in part, on vertically-ordered twelve-note chords.

[ 36 ] Yeah, that’s right. Also, John Link sent me a great list.(5)Link presented Carter with two lists of chords. The first list shows all-trichord hexachord voicings which do not repeat intervals between their five pairs of adjacent notes. The second list shows all-interval series whose interval sequences produce the all-trichord hexachord as a contiguous segment. See Link, “The Link Chords,” www.johnlinkmusic.com/linkchords.html I went through his list, and found certain things that were more useful than others.

[ 37 ] Have you employed those chords in your pieces?

[ 38 ] Oh yeah, certainly in the big orchestral pieces, in the desire to have chords that are spread over a large range and use all the twelve notes. I think Adagio Tenebroso has many of them.

[ 39 ] I wonder how those vertical beginnings evolve into horizontal surfaces.

[ 40 ] Well, if you remember Link’s listing of chords, it gave all these twelve-note chords. And I had gone through this a good deal, in that old pamphlet – it was published in Perspectives – and I had found, within that, the groups of intervals that produce the all-interval tetrachords. I went through that whole thing, and then he found more of them. And I use those, but basically it was always that four-note all-interval chord, sort of the crux of the whole thing.

[ 41 ] Do concepts of consonance and dissonance, in any sense, operate in your music?

[ 42 ] Well, each interval has its own character, to a certain extent, but each interval has its own character depending on whether it’s played loudly or softly. Playing a minor second very softly is quite different from banging it out. But still, they all have their own certain characters, and I feel those are very important. That’s one of the things that makes my music difficult for people who are not accustomed to listening to modern music. They don’t see that those intervals really have a meaning in themselves. To them, it’s all just not clear. But to me they have a very strong meaning, and I think this is something that is not new with me. I mean, Stravinsky had this too a great deal. He talked a lot about how music is written with intervals. What he stopped saying was, “Music is written with an eraser [laughter]!” then he started talking about intervals [laughter].

[ 43 ] So, may I summarize what you’ve said by positing that inversional equivalence with intervals does not function in your music?

[ 44 ] Not really, no. No, no, no. I feel each interval has its own character: a minor second is different from a major seventh – very strongly.

[ 45 ] Your engagement with these twelve-note chords originated with Bauer-Mendelberg and Ferentz’s Perspectives of New Music article from 1965. Have you found any subsequently published articles useful?

[ 46 ] No. You see, what happens is, I rather conscientiously avoid reading Allen Forte and other people who have written these things in Perspectives of New Music because I have this all in my head, and if I start getting into something else, I might get mixed up. I try to keep what I’ve done and the way I’ve thought about it clear in my head, and not start going into what other people have done very much. My stuff has all been pragmatic; I’ve worked at it a great deal, how I could use each one of those chords in one way or another. And I found that when I started to look at what other people like Allen Forte had done, all it did was confuse me, because it was another way of thinking about it.

[ 47 ] John Link also presented you with a list of all-trichord hexachord voicings which do not duplicate any intervals. Have you also found those useful?

[ 48 ] Yeah, I looked through his list; yes, I’ve found them useful. Not all of them; I was very selective. All these things are sort of a background of information of which I choose little bits when I need it.

[ 49 ] Since the all-interval twelve-note chords we spoke of obviously contain all twelve notes, do they suggest a different sort of realization than, say, those hexachords we just spoke of, which do not duplicate any intervals?

[ 50 ] Well, the hexachord that has all the three-note chords, the orchestra piece I’ve just written [Allegro Scorrevole] is just that, all the way through, everywhere. But I mix it up; I sometimes use these hexachords, but sometimes I join it with the eight- or twelve-note chords, and one goes into the other in one way or another.

[ 51 ] Will the dramatic and expressive concerns of a given piece influence your choice of harmonies – say, an all-interval tetrachord versus the all-trichord hexachord – or do the expressive aspects begin to realize themselves on the surface proper? That is, are grammar and realization inextricably linked at every stage of the compositional process?

[ 52 ] At any given moment in the piece, there will be sort of intervallic qualities, which will have a certain specific thing – maybe minor sixths, or major sevenths, or something. Just as in older music, those will usually be brought back into the total system, but at that particular time, they’re emphasized. Maybe there will be two minor seconds, or three or four, but they will always be connected in some way with the total harmonic structure. What I’m hoping to do, is in a desire to make the whole thing very coherent. Obviously, you have not merely the problem of coherence, but also the problem of variety. And you want to have something that’s very varied, with different characters and kinds of qualities; but I also want to have it all connected together in some way. After all, you have that in older music too; in whatever, Bach. Whatever dissonance, or whatever interval there is, is always brought back into the harmonic system.

[ 53 ] If I may, I’d like to ask a few questions about your Scrivo in Vento.

[ 54 ] You can ask about it; I hope I remember it!

[ 55 ] The work seems to feature a 012357 chord, which contains both of the all-interval tetrachords. And these sounds run throughout the piece.

[ 56 ] This is not the hexachord that contains all the three-note chords?

[ 57 ] No, this is not, it’s a different one. Perhaps I just do not understand well the harmonies of the piece, but there seem to be passages which do not resemble the chords which run throughout the piece.

[ 58 ] I can’t answer that; I don’t remember. If I got the score, I would remember. I would guess that, by and large, it’s mostly built on those four-note all-interval chords, and I should think that every part of it is connected to that. I don’t know about the six-note chord; it’s possible that that’s a continuation and expansion of these two chords.

[ 59 ] Scrivo, if I understand correctly, does not feature a polyrhythm –

[ 60 ] Probably not. That’s another problem. David Schiff is rewriting his book, and he went to Basel just now, within the last couple of weeks, and looked over a lot of my manuscripts, and he comes back, and he’s going to come here to find out which of the pieces have the polyrhythm patterns and which don’t, and I can’t remember myself [laughter]! And also, I didn’t keep them all. I found two of them yesterday, but most of them I don’t have. Of course, it’s one of the problems, and the curious thing is, it’s very hard to find them if you don’t know where they are, so that I’m beginning to think that it really doesn’t matter! I mean, it’s useful to me, but I don’t know if it’s useful to anybody else.

[ 61 ] What motivates your decision to use or not use a polyrhythm in a given piece?

[ 62 ] Well, I think it’s just a matter of fatigue – I just decided I wouldn’t do it. I mean, I thought I’d see what I could do without it, because I felt that it was, in a way, a kind of crutch that I really shouldn’t be depending upon; I want to be more free and do what I want. I don’t think Scrivo in Vento has anything like that.

[ 63 ] Concerning some of the passages in Scrivo that I just mentioned, I wonder if it might be profitable to hear the passages that don’t immediately resemble the all-interval tetrachord passages as perhaps creating some sort of dialectic between passages that seem very obviously structured, and passages that might ostensibly not seem so structured.

[ 64 ] I can’t answer that. That’s very possible. I mean, I don’t know how the choice – if you want to look at it, I probably have a copy. [Carter opens to pages 4 and 5 of the score, at the piano.]

[ 65 ] One could identify C♯, C, D♯, (E), G in measures 88-89 as an all-interval tetrachord, but of course, one is not on a hunt.

[ 66 ] Well, there would be one [plays C4, D♯4, E4 of measures 88-89, but as C6, D♯6, E6], but then the next one would be [plays B♭6]. Yeah, it’s very possible [plays E♭6, B6, G♯5, A5]. But anyhow, in my piece for Sacher, there’s not one note that’s wrong [laughter]! Just those six notes – nothing else.(6)Carter refers here to the six notes suggested by the name Sacher: S = E♭; A = A; C = C; H = B (in German nomenclature); E = E; R = D (Re in French Solfège). You see, I’m not very dogmatic about this. You do see that I don’t follow everything strictly from beginning to end. Most of the time. But I’ll find that there are certain little things that I need, for me, for my ear, for the way I like things to sound, and these passages get into that just because – there are a hundred different pieces, and they don’t necessarily follow the logic of the harmonic structure. I mean, it’s like that in the Double Concerto – I always feel it started there. The idea in the First String Quartet that there was a dominating harmony, but that there were many little wanderings from it, but mainly it was insisted upon.

[ 67 ] It’s interesting: some scholars, in accounts of your work, have considered all the harmonies that a certain focal chord either contains or is contained in. This seems to be a very strange approach, because, first of all, it seems to rob the piece of its individuality, what makes it special. There’s something about such an exhaustive approach that seems quite –

[ 68 ] Well, this whole academic world is very, very tightly – they want it – certain people want to explain every note. I don’t understand what they are talking about. One of the things: I can’t read these articles very much, because I don’t like to read about them. I just want to go on – let other people worry about it. Jonathan Bernard – that article he wrote in the new Musical Quarterly is very good.(7)Jonathan Bernard, “Elliott Carter and the Modern Meaning of Time.” The Musical Quarterly, Winter 1995, Vol.79, no. 4: 644-682. Did you read that?

[ 69 ] No, I’m not aware of it.

[ 60 ] Here, I’ll show it to you. One of the few articles that seems to make sense. He sent it to me; I would never have known that it existed.

[ 71 ] You have said in interviews that you will often go through several sketches of a given passage before you hit the one that best expresses your vision. Does this part of the compositional process assume a given harmony? Or might you work only from a harmonic framework and move towards the surface?

[ 72 ] Well, there are a hundred different kinds of – at any given moment in a piece, there are a hundred questions that come up. Will this be too repetitious to what we’ve heard before? Are we sticking too much to the same register? Or should we stick in the same register? These are questions. Or whether the particular note itself has been exhausted by being heard too frequently, or should it sound new, or should it not sound new. Now, if I start to list it, I couldn’t do it. Should the rhythm keep going in one particular way, or should it be interrupted; should there be silence; all of these things are primary considerations, more important than the harmonic structure or the rhythmic structure. There’s a rhetoric of composition which is very important to me, and the rhetoric – that’s the only word I can use, rhetoric – the rhetoric is more important than the grammar. I don’t know; I’ve just been reading Plato, who’s very much against rhetoric [laughter]!

[ 73 ] With my question about a harmonic framework, I was thinking in some sort of general analogy to species counterpoint. A note-against-note setting contains harmonic implications which may be subsequently realized in any number of ways. Obviously, your music is not written in the tonal system. Is there anything analogous to that during that stage of composition, where you’re trying to hone in on the best realization of what you’re hearing?

[ 74 ] Oh yeah. I mean, with so many pieces, there’s so much fast counterpoint that the question immediately becomes one of, how much clarity do you want? Parallel intervals are out, most of the time. You can’t run around in seconds; it’s going to be boring. It loses its quality of expression. You see, I have a very old history of studying old counterpoint: one part goes up, the other goes down – that’s a sort of a general pattern. If they run together, that’s another, but less interesting, way of behaving. Or one can stand still, and the other can go like that. There are all these different patterns, and they are chosen from the point of view of patterning itself – I don’t know how to describe it. And there’s also the question of, what intervals do they form? And, on the whole, I try to make each part have its own character, and at the same time, not to make too many dissonant or confusing things that go on between the lines. All of these are very complicated choices, very hard to verbalize, because I know what I do, but I can’t say more than what I’ve said now. It’s very tricky, but there’s also the question of, you know, you have one part going along rather slowly and the other comes up and goes down; that makes an effect of its type.

[ 75 ] All of these effects defy words.

[ 76 ] Yes, there are a lot of interesting questions. You get into five or six parts, and it’s really something.

[ 77 ] There are two other questions I have regarding specific pieces. The first concerns Changes. Schiff and others have discussed your use of vertical all-interval chords. Changes features instances of horizontal chords which repeatedly overlap the same hexachord. Is this a feature of your earlier and later music as well?

[ 78 ] Oh yes, well there’s – let’s put it the other way around. The whole harmonic structure that we’re talking about depends enormously on the idea of using one note as a pivot, two notes as a pivot from one chord to the next, sometimes three. For instance, in the all-trichord hexachord, there’s no complement – it doesn’t have a complement. It’s possible to hold five and change one, or hold four and change two, and so forth – I’ve studied all of that quite carefully. A lot of my pieces come from having this study – which notes can be held and which – when you want a maximum harmonic change – hold two notes and have the other four move, and so forth. When you want a little, just have one note move. In the end of Partita, for instance, the whole orchestra holds four notes, and the trombones play all the major thirds that produce that all-trichord hexachord. There would be four different major thirds while the rest of the orchestra is holding a four-note chord. So, this is a result of that study, how that chord can be used. I’ve done that also with the all-interval tetrachords.

[ 79 ] I also have a question about your piece 90+. If I understand correctly, the piece does not employ a single polyrhythm. Rather, it features different streams of notes, perhaps ninety of them?…

[ 80 ] That’s right, yeah.

[ 81 ] …which are evenly spaced in time, though those spaces change during the course of the work.

[ 82 ] No, I think they’re all identically the same distance apart, although the speeds change.

[ 83 ] In some cases, the stream’s pitches will spell out an all-trichord hexachord, a harmony that seems to be central to the piece. Do your other pieces work with non-contiguous presentations of a chord, as we just discussed in 90+?

[ 84 ] I think I tried to do that, but I’m not sure it succeeded, because there was also an overwhelming use of – I’ve forgotten what chord it is, but it’s stated at the very beginning, so to also make it horizontal was sometimes not so simple. I’ll never forget, when I taught a Salzburg seminar years ago, in Austria, I wanted to analyze Milton Babbitt’s piece – the thing with the harp; it’s a twelve-note piece. Anyway, it’s a piece where the twelve notes are running not only horizontally, but vertically. And that impressed me a great deal – I never knew how he solved that. 90+ has this sort of idea in the back of my mind.

[ 85 ] Both the vertical and the horizontal.

[ 86 ] I tried to make it that way; I don’t think it’s successful. Not that important.

[ 87 ] Was that piece also based on the twelve-note chords?

[ 88 ] I don’t think so. It’s possible that when it gets to those staccato things that there’s some sort of twelve-note chord that controls it. John Link’s patterns have been useful to me in many ways; in places where there are big spread-out things, I use those.

[ 89 ] These crop up in 90+ and other pieces.

[ 90 ] Yeah.

[ 91 ] I have read that you feel that many of the technical aspects of your harmonic language need not be fully known by a listener or performer. For a reasonably well-disposed listener, what are some of the perceptual issues attendant with your music these days?

[ 92 ] Well, A: I think the first thing that should be noticed is: these are expressive pieces in their particular way. I have not tried to express myself, but I’ve written music that I consider expressive. And B: I want the listener to be aware that this is all one, continuous piece, that it’s part of a whole big organism – it’s not a collage of many different things with many different styles; it’s one thing.

[ 93 ] We spoke earlier of Esprit rude/Esprit doux as an example of making the most of attack-type differences. Many of your solo pieces also go along that route. For instance, Changes has all sorts of paths created by staccato notes versus legato notes.

[ 94 ] Well, that’s what I do. In the Fifth String Quartet, there are many different attack types, and almost all of them are presented at the beginning of the piece: pizzicato, another holding a slow note, another playing big chords. Each one of these things is considered as an item which later becomes an important thing in the piece. Like in my Second Quartet, the second violin tends to play pizzicato, off and on, little bits here and there, but finally at the end, the piece ends with a pizzicato movement. And it’s the same with all the different things that are presented. One of the instruments plays very high harmonics right close to the beginning. And finally there’s a movement in which mostly all of it is in harmonics. So it’s as if each instrument wins over the other one, presenting each type of thing. But each one constantly refers to what’s going to happen, and then after it’s happened, they also continue to do a little bit of what was heard before.

[ 95 ] That’s the sense in which I refer to dialectic – there are competing modes of organization.

[ 96 ] Yeah, in this case, this was thought out quite carefully, so that the idea of continuity is destroyed. Have you heard the Fifth Quartet yet?

[ 97 ] No, not yet.

[ 98 ] Well, I have a score; I’ll show you what I mean. (Carter obtains the score.) I thought of the piece programmatically, where everyone’s trying out bits of what they later would play (Carter points to various measures on page one). And then, finally, they break down – the first violin sort of leads with these little fragments. And finally, the whole thing goes to pieces.

[ 99 ] On a different subject: when your First String Quartet was performed at Columbia University, you were a member of the faculty there. There’s an interesting quote from an interview of yours in which you state that someone said that evening that the piece would never have been performed were you not on the faculty.

[ 100 ] No, I wasn’t. I had been on the faculty, but I don’t think I was at that time. When Otto Luening took a vacation, I took his place at Columbia for a year. It was actually 1949, because the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy was part of what I was teaching at Columbia at that time. Actually, by the time the Quartet was played, I was no longer a member of the faculty.

[ 101 ] This comment did seem to speak in some way to the state of the university composer at that time. I wonder what you think of the state of the American university composer at present.

[ 102 ] Well, you know, that’s a very puzzling question. There’s been a lot of criticism about university composers being isolated from the general musical public. Then there’s now quite a large number of composers who are not university composers, who’ve managed somehow to get along. My former student Ellen Zwilich, for instance, said she would not teach, and she writes music which people love to commission, and she makes a living out of her commissions. Of course, what happens with Ellen was impossible when I was young. There’s been a whole change in the musical world because there is more acceptance of American composers than there was. The only composer who was widely accepted in my time was Morton Gould, who actually did make a living, I think, on his compositions. And then Aaron Copland also began to make a living towards the end of his life. But it was very difficult to do that. And as a result, when I started in the 1930s, there weren’t that many American composers, and now there are twenty thousand. And a lot of them don’t get played anywhere except in their own university. Even the Arditti Quartet, who makes a tour occasionally of America, has to play the local composer there, at universities. Of course, they can read like mad. It’s a very strange situation, as I see it, because there’s no doubt that the musical world in universities, all that stuff in Perspectives of New Music, is very off-putting to the general public. It’s rather off-putting to myself, as a matter of fact. And yet, obviously that’s something that is devoured by a large number of people, by musicians in universities around the country. And it is interesting, I suppose, but it’s a very obscure thing in terms of the general public.

[ 103 ] Perhaps it might be possible to explain some of its presence by the fact that, say thirty or forty years ago, music was first being institutionalized, so to speak, into universities.

[ 104 ] To establish an academic situation, so that they were worth having in universities. The university world in America is very puzzling in general. After all, it’s not so different: there are similar things in other countries now. In England, France, and Germany, they publish articles which are something like the ones in Perspectives of New Music.

[ 105 ] We spoke earlier of the differences of rehearsal conditions in America and Western Europe. I wonder if you could continue to speak about what you just did: the idea of the university composer in America in 1996, as opposed to the idea of the university composer in Europe in 1996.

[ 106 ] Well, the social situation of university people in America is different from that in Europe in general. A learned person in Germany is an important figure in their society; a learned composer is an important composer in their society. A learned person in America is someone who contributes to destroying Philip Morris or something like that [laughter]!

[ 107 ] There are incredible differences in the cultural milieu.

[ 108 ] Aren’t you aware of that? I’m very aware of that.

[ 109 ] These differences are made acute constantly.

[ 110 ] Yeah, take a country even like Italy, where everything’s so crazy. Every important composer has a job in an opera house. Petrassi for a while ran the opera house in Venice. My friend Roman Vlad, a Romanian who’s a nationalized Italian, is running La Scala; he’s a composer. Before that he ran the theater in Florence. And even in Germany: just now, I got a letter from the Southwest Radio, signed by Dieter Schnabel. And he’s artistic director of the Southwest German Radio.

[ 111 ] Had you ever thought of living in Europe, in light of all these differences?

[ 112 ] Yes, of course, I thought often of living in Europe, but in the end, the friends we like are here. In the end also, one is aware as I see it that it is very difficult to establish a group of friends in a foreign country that are really friends. I lived in France when I was a student, and you can’t choose your friends very well because there are such limited possibilities. We always thought we’d go live in England, but in the end, we have all these friends here that we like. But I must say that I get eight or ten times as many performances in Europe than I get here, and I get something like six times the amount of royalties. It’s a very large amount.

[ 113 ] Two more things. Have you been particularly engaged by any of the work that has emerged from the studies at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel?

[ 114 ] Oh, yeah. The Sacher Stiftung is extremely useful in one way that we could never do in America. They have librarians who list all of my correspondence, everything, in very good order. That’s impossible in America: we don’t have the money and libraries to do it. I sent an enormous amount of sketches, and I guess they’re interesting; I don’t know. I suppose they’re helpful; it depends on the approach of the person looking at them.

[ 115 ] Does reading fiction continue to engage you now as it always has?

[ 116 ] Yes. Now that I’m an old man, so to speak, I’ve decided to read the books that I like most, so I’m reading the Dialogues of Plato, and other things like that. I would read a lot of the Greek things, and a lot of Goethe, the Italienische Reise. I’ve been working through my German. It’s a hellish language! I’ve spent a great part of my life trying to learn it. I used to go to Munich before the time of Hitler; during the Hitler time I never thought about German. Then after it was over we started in again. I got a Siemens prize in Munich some years ago.

[ 117 ] So you’ve been reading Goethe in German.

[ 118 ] Yeah, Italienische Reise; I can’t read Die Wahlverwandtschaften [laughs], but Italienische Reise, I can read. There are not so many technical things.

[ 119 ] I’m about to read [The] Magic Mountain

[ 120 ] Ooh! Ohhh, that’s hard [whistles].

[ 121 ] …but I don’t know if I’ll read it in German or not.

[ 122 ] Thomas Mann, well, I have a copy of Tonio Kröger that I can just barely read. But it’s an interesting language: I speak German, French, and Italian, but German is hard.

[ 123 ] It’s a wonderful, beautiful language.

[ 124 ] Yes it is, although I come from a very Francophile family.

[ 125 ] Thank you.

[ 126 ] Oh, you’re very welcome.


* “Elliott Carter Talks About His Harmony Book,” in Elliott Carter, Harmony Book, edited by Nicholas Hopkins and John F. Link (New York: Carl Fischer, 1999), 27-35.

1. Carter later titled the piece Allegro Scorrevole.

2. James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon 431698-2.

3. Elliott Carter: Orchestral Music, Arte Nova Classics 1995: 74321 27773 2.

4. Edward J. Dent, Mozart's Operas (McBride, Nast & Company, 1913; Reprinted by Oxford, 1947).

5. Link presented Carter with two lists of chords. The first list shows all-trichord hexachord voicings which do not repeat intervals between their five pairs of adjacent notes. The second list shows all-interval series whose interval sequences produce the all-trichord hexachord as a contiguous segment. See Link, “The Link Chords,” www.johnlinkmusic.com/linkchords.html.

6. Carter refers here to the six notes suggested by the name Sacher: S = E♭; A = A; C = C; H = B (in German nomenclature); E = E; R = D (Re in French Solfège).

7. Jonathan Bernard, “Elliott Carter and the Modern Meaning of Time,” The Musical Quarterly 79, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 644-682.