Composer  Elliott  Carter

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


"Elliott Carter is one of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field." -- Aaron Copland nominating Elliott Carter for the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for Eminence in Music (1971).

Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, first composer to receive the United States National Medal of Arts, one of the few composers ever awarded Germany's Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize, and in 1988 made "Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the Government of France, Elliott Carter is internationally recognized as one of the leading American voices of the classical music tradition. He recently received the Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, bestowed by the Principality of Monaco, and was one of a handful of living composers elected to the Classical Music Hall of Fame.

December 11, 2008 will mark Carter’s 100th birthday with celebration plans in place worldwide.  In collaboration with G. Schirmer, Boosey & Hawkes has launched a centenary website,, to chronicle and announce the exciting 100th birthday season. It will, no doubt, prove to be even more successful than his 95th birthday celebration season which brought salutes from performing organizations around the world.  Concerts in Boston, London, Los Angeles, Minsk, New York, Washington DC, and other cities observed the milestone, as significant recordings were issued on the ECM, Naïve, and Mode labels.

First encouraged toward a musical career by his friend and mentor Charles Ives, Carter was recognized by the Pulitzer Prize Committee for the first time in 1960 for his groundbreaking compositions for the string quartet medium, and was soon thereafter hailed by Stravinsky for his Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1961) and Piano Concerto (1967), both of which Stravinsky dubbed "masterpieces". While he spent much of the 1960s working on just two works, the Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra (1969), the breakthroughs he achieved in those pieces led to an artistic resurgence that gathered momentum in the decades that followed. Indeed, one of the extraordinary features of Carter’s career is his astonishing productivity and creative vitality as he reaches the midpoint of his tenth decade. Critics agree that his recent scores are among the most attractive, deeply-felt and compelling works he has ever written.

This creative burst began in earnest during the 1980s, which brought major orchestral essays such as Oboe Concerto (1986-87), Three Occasions (completed 1989) and his enormously successful Violin Concerto (1990), which has been performed in more than a dozen countries. A recording of the latter work on Virgin Classics, featuring Oliver Knussen conducting the London Sinfonietta with soloist Ole Böhn, won Carter a Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition of 1994. New recordings of Carter’s music appear continually, making him one of the most frequently recorded contemporary composers.

Carter’s crowning achievement as an orchestral composer may be his 50-minute triptych Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei ["I am the prize of flowing hope"], which received its first integral performance on April 25, 1998 with Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of the ISCM World Music Days in Manchester. A prize-winning recording of Symphonia by Knussen and the BBCSO has been released on Deutsche Grammophon. It is paired with Carter’s lively and playful Clarinet Concerto (1996), which has traveled widely in performances by the Ensemble InterContemporain, Orpheus, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, and several other distinguished ensembles.  Those works were followed by a pair of works for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Cello Concerto (2000), premiered by Yo-Yo Ma with the orchestra, and Of Rewaking (2002), an orchestral cycle of three songs on texts by William Carlos Williams; Daniel Barenboim led the premieres of both works.  Boston Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered by the ensemble under Ingo Metzmacher, also made its debut in 2003 and has recently been nominated for the 49th Annual Grammy Awards in the category “Best Contemporary Composition.”

The composer's astonishing late-career creative burst has continued unabated: the first few weeks of 2004 brought a pair of acclaimed new scores: Micomicon, a witty concert-opener for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the incisive Dialogues for piano and large ensemble, commissioned by the London Sinfonietta.  France enjoyed the world premiere of Réflexions at Cité de la Musique in February of 2005 and celebrated Carter’s work with multiple ovations.  Back in the United States, the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought Carter’s Three Illusions for Orchestra to life in October 2005, a piece which the Boston Globe calls “surprising, inevitable, and vividly orchestrated,” while in the same month Daniel Barenboim assumed both the role of conductor and of pianist in the world premiere of Soundings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Carter’s first opera, What Next?, commissioned by the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, was introduced there in 1999 under Daniel Barenboim and made its staged premiere in July of 2006 at the Tanglewood Music Festival under James Levine. The 45-minute work, to a libretto by Paul Griffiths, comments wryly on the human condition as its six characters, unhurt but confused, confront the aftermath of an auto accident. What Next? has been hailed by critics from around the world for its wit, assured vocal writing, and refined orchestration and has been issued by ECM, paired with Asko Concerto

Carter continues to show his mastery in smaller forms as well. Along with a large number of brief solo and chamber works, his later years have brought major essays such as Triple Duo (1983), Quintet (piano and winds, 1991), and String Quartet No.5 (1995), composed for the Arditti Quartet. Another dedicated advocate of Carter’s music, Ursula Oppens, joined forces with the Arditti Quartet to give the premiere of Quintet for Piano and String Quartet in November 1998 at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, followed by tour performances throughout Europe and the U.S.  [See Bruce Duffie's Interview with Ursula Oppens, and his Interview with Irvin Arditti.]  Recent works include Asko Concerto, written for Holland’s ASKO ensemble, and Tempo e Tempi, a song cycle on Italian texts for soprano, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello.  Recent premieres of chamber works include the playfully humorous Mosaic, with the Nash Ensemble in 2005 as well as three premieres in 2006: Intermittences, a piano solo co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival and performed by Peter Serkin, In the Distances of Sleep, with Michelle DeYoung and the MET Chamber Ensemble under James Levine, and Caténaires, a solo piano piece performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  Looking ahead, a new horn concerto is set to premiere in the fall of 2007.

Bridge Records recently released Vol. 7 of the extensive series of recordings entitled "The Music of Elliott Carter," which includes ASKO Concerto, and world premiere recordings of Grammy-nominated Boston Concerto, Cello Concerto, and 2005 Pulitzer finalist Dialogues.  Volume 6, released in 2005, included Violin Concerto, Holiday Overture, and Four Lauds.

A native of New York City, Carter has been compared as an artist to another New Yorker, Henry James, with whom he is seen to share multifaceted richness of vision and fastidiousness of craft based on intimate familiarity with Western (and in Carter's case, non-Western) artistic traditions. Like Henry James, Carter and his work reflect the impress of a lasting and deeply felt relationship with Europe, a relationship dating from adolescent travels with his father, nourished by study of the fruits of European artistic and intellectual culture, and cemented by a 3-year course of musical training in Paris with Nadia Boulanger during the period 1932-1935. Enriched through wide acquaintance with European artists, including many, such as Bartók and Stravinsky, who came to America during World War II, Carter has seen his work as widely appreciated and as actively encouraged overseas as in his own country. In 1987 the Paul Sacher Foundation moved to acquire all Carter's musical manuscripts, to be permanently maintained in a public archive in Basel alongside similarly comprehensive deposits of the manuscripts of Stravinsky, Boulez, Bartók, Hindemith, Strauss and other universally acknowledged 20th-century masters.

Elliott Carter is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

January 2007.  
Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.  (Links and slight corrections added later.)

Everyone who approaches a 100th birthday is special in some way or another.  News organizations, both print and broadcast, make special notice, and friends and family share a common wonder that a relative has hit the century mark.  But when someone would be noteworthy anyway, that special longevity takes on even more meaning.  This particular life, which is already significant, continues to produce music, and not just music but extraordinary scores which are dense and thorny and enjoyable and ennobling.  They are studied before their premieres and will continue to be investigated long after their creator has moved on to whatever next life is in store.

In June of 1986, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Elliott Carter on the phone.  He seemed pleased to talk with me and answered my questions with detail and humor.  As is noted at the end of this webpage, I've been able to use his comments - in part or in full - on several occasions, and it's particularly pleasing to be able to present them again at this special milestone in his life.

Here is what we said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie: Thank you so much for speaking with me. I appreciate your taking the time this afternoon. I was reading the jacket on the brand new Nonesuch recording, and something struck me immediately. It said your music is better understood in England than in America, and I was wondering if you can account for such a phenomenon.

Elliott Carter: Oh, perfectly. The BBC has played my music frequently in England ever since around 1955 or even maybe before that, and it’s been played there and in important concerts at the Albert Hall and all around. There’ve been a number of British groups that have played my works. The Arditti Quartet has just given my three quartets at Queen Elizabeth Hall and the works have been very well widely disseminated in England, both on recordings and by performances not only by chamber music groups, but by the BBC orchestra. The BBC orchestra has taken works of mine on tour of Europe. The BBC, in general, has been very sympathetic to contemporary music and it gradually developed quite a large public. Just recently London Weekend Television did an hour-long television show on my music. So I would have to say that showed some interest, more interest than one has here, for instance.

BD: Is dissemination, then, the key to acceptance of music?

EC: Music is well known and contemporary music is very much more accepted in England than it is here, in general for many different reasons, but one of them is that it’s just been played more and more frequently. And it’s been more intelligently reviewed. When I had my three string quartets played there about a month or two ago, I had six rave reviews. If I’d had them played in New York I doubt if I would have had one good review. I don’t know how you explain that. Maybe they’re very old-fashioned in England, I don’t know.

BD: Maybe they’re very OLD fashioned???

EC: Yes. I mean part of the review of music is that serious music is taken seriously. I have a feeling that happens less and less in this country.

BD: Is there any way to reverse that trend, to get serious music taken more seriously?

carterEC: It’s difficult to reverse such a trend because the whole field is very commercialized. The entire reason why all this is happening in England is the government gives great support to musical organizations. The BBC, for instance, and the people who run it - certainly in the past, anyhow - have been very partial to contemporary music, and developed a whole school of English composers that didn’t exist before. Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwhistle are largely the result of a great deal of sponsorship on the part of rather highly funded things by the government. We don’t have that kind of thing in this country.  [See my Interview with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.]

BD: But in talking with other composers who are also teachers, it seems that we are turning out a tremendous number of people who are calling themselves composers.

EC: I know we are but the number of composers is one of the problems in this country because the amount of music that is produced is so great that it can’t be played very often in many places. It’s only played once, by and large. We’re producing a large world of composers that have one performance of each work, which is disastrous in terms of dissemination of music.

BD: Would you then encourage a lot of these people who are composing to go into other fields?

EC: I think they should. It’s very hard to make any money at it. You can’t make a living in this country composing serious music, no matter how skillful you are.

BD: So there is a great competition amongst composers?

EC: Yes, sure! That’s one of the reasons. There’s a greater competition among composers than there is a need for the work that they produce. In England they developed a large audience for contemporary music because it’s been highly sponsored and frequently performed, and played over the radio all the time. I get performances there all the time.  All of my works have played many times on the BBC. I get more royalties for broadcast performances in that small country of England than I do in the entire United States.

BD: That’s a sad commentary for us, really.

EC: Well I don’t know about that. Maybe it’s a bad commentary for England.

BD: Let me ask specifically what do you expect of the public that comes to hear your music?

EC: What do I expect? I expect them to understand it and I expect them to want to listen to music for one thing, and to understand music, having heard some, and to be familiar with the field of cultivated and developed music, serious music if you want to put it that way. I don’t think, generally, that my music would appeal to many people who are not able to pay attention to what goes on in the music. I think a great deal of music that is written is more than insane. Music in the popular field is music that doesn’t require much attention and doesn’t require very much commitment. It’s what the Germans call entertainment music.

BD: Virgil Thomson mentioned to me that it creates a sort of "lack of attention."  [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.]

EC: I think in America everything destroys the ability to pay attention. The whole society is built on the idea that we must not pay attention to anything, so all kinds of things can be put over on us.

BD: Should an audience understand your music, even on its first hearing?

EC: I think many people DO understand it on its first hearing, surely. One of the basic problems, though, with first hearing is that the first performance is seldom faithful to the music.

BD: Really?

EC: Certainly! I mean to tell you, it takes a long time for performers to learn, or to find out what’s in the music. They can’t understand. The first performance very seldom presents the music as it will be worked out. I’ve always felt, at least up until fairly recently, that it took about ten years for the performers to understand what the music was about. It was very obvious in the case of older music. Very few people understood what Beethoven was about in his time, and certainly the last quartets took almost a hundred years to be understood.

BD: So then you are expecting your music to last a long, long, long time?

EC: I have absolutely no idea about that, and I don’t really care. It seems to me the kind of society we are, and world we live in, we have absolutely no idea what the future can be.

BD: Then let me change the question a little bit. Do you feel that you are part of a long line of composers?

EC: I’m very happy with the public that I have. I have quite a large number of people who like my music a good deal. I’m pleased about that and these people encourage me to write more music. Many composers don't have that. My three quartets played in London, the very next day there was a concert of my music in Geneva and the next day after that one in Milan - all in the month of April. I get lots of that and people are quite enthusiastic. They learn the music without any publicity or without my having made any effort. The concerts of my music show up here and there just by themselves because people like play them and there is a public that likes to hear it. I’ve got a letter that a violinist of the Sequoia Quartet that told me he’d played my Second Quartet a hundred times. I never knew, of course. We don’t get royalties for that, so I would, never knew anything about it.

BD: So you’re unaware of all the performances of your music.

EC: Oh, no! I don’t know at all, mainly because in this country we don’t collect performing rights. The law is very poorly done and so I don’t have any idea how often my works are played.

BD: Of the performances you know about, either here live or on tapes that you get, are you pleased, generally, with the performances?

EC: By and large, yes. We have very good musicians in the United States. I think that musicians, on the whole, are excellent, and when the performers are interested in the music and take trouble over it, I’m pleased with it. I’m always a little disturbed by first performances because they are trying their best to play the notes, and in the end the notes are only the beginning of understanding. This is obvious. I mean, I’m only saying something perfectly obvious. In place of mood music, we’ve heard lots of performances, rather perfect performances, of Beethoven symphonies and Chopin and the rest, but that were totally uninteresting. I get lots of that kind of performances. Not lots of them, but I do get it fairly frequently, and so does every other modern composer out there.

BD: Are there performances of your music where the performers have discovered things in your music that even you did not know that were there?

EC: Usually it isn’t quite like that. I hope they will always do that, in a way, because the music is sort of like a play.  You expect the performers to find in the music what they have in themselves. The performer brings something else to the performance and what we hope for is that they will find something that is interesting enough to them to make it a lively performance, and play it fairly faithful to the music. They need to be quite faithful to the music, but very imaginatively treated just as we have with other music, with any music.

BD: When your music is being done, is it better to be a concert of all contemporary music or a concert of all Elliott Carter, or would it be best to drop your music into a concert with Beethoven and Haydn and, and the others?

carterEC: Ha! I like every one of those. [chuckles] I don’t think it makes any difference very much. One of the problems of contemporary music concerts, at least here, is that it tends to draw a very small and specialized public. That’s because, as I see it, these concerts have not been highly enough publicized. When the city of Milan decided to give Musica nel Nostro Tempo, they give it a whole season long with contemporary concerts almost every week. Gradually they've developed a large public for them. These are highly publicized and they play all kinds of things. Even La Scala presented the Stockhausen opera and the radio orchestra plays concerts of modern music, so you gradually develop a public. We’ve never done it, and we’ve never insisted on it. Part of contemporary music is the way it’s been done in Milan or in London, or as Boulez has done in Paris.

BD: So it really must be more of a collective effort, then.

EC: Yeah. We haven’t done that for many reasons. One of them is culture or the basic cultural reason, but mainly it's because it’s a very big country and it’s very hard to assemble the information. After all, England is a small country so the few sources of information are very intense, while in this country everything gets lost. Beside that we have largely commercialized radio of one kind or another that isn’t interested in things that aren’t in some way popular or successful to a large public. Our public is very large and as a result, it tends to overwhelm the smaller public.

BD: Then when you’re writing a piece of music, for whom do you write it?

EC: Oh, for myself! I don’t feel any obligation to write it for anybody. I write what I think is good but I’m fortunate enough to have had quite a lot of other people who’ve thought so too.

BD: So you’re not conscious of any public at all?

EC: I don’t think about that public in that sense, and as the first public is the performer, I’m very conscious of writing something that they will play with interest, I hope.  It’s the performers, it seems to me, to be the source of interest. They find what there is in the music and play it and interests the public in it. As far as the public is concerned, I actually tried to write the music that I think is the best music I can. That’s judged by myself, and on the whole what music that wasn’t very much liked or very much understood twenty years ago now is very much played and very much liked. I’ve done it. I feel that my private judgment has been corroborated by the acceptance of my music in many places.

BD: I’ve asked you whether you’re pleased with performances. Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

EC: Yes, largely I am. I’ve had quite a lot. There’s going to be another recording of my Night Fantasy, so there’ll be three different recordings of that. Two are now on the market, and they’re both very different. I can honestly say that I think that all three of them will please me a great deal, although they’re all quite different.

BD: None of them have missed the mark completely. They
’re all different interpretations, though.

EC: That’s right, just as you have for anything, for any kind of music.

BD: Is there a chance that there would ever be too many versions of any one of your pieces?

EC: I don’t know about too many. I can’t answer that. You mean too many in the sense that it’s economically unsound to have too many?

BD: Too many in the sense that there are perhaps too many Beethoven Fifths available on the market today.

EC: Oh well, I can’t imagine that that would happen and I don’t think that’s likely to happen with my music. That’s the kind of thing that only Scheherazade deserves - if it’s deserving anything. Maybe justice or just deserts, I don’t know.

BD: Has there been an influence of recordings on the whole business of the electronic dissemination? Does that influence your writing style at all?

EC: One of my thoughts is that the music is sometimes quite hard on the listener if he isn’t paying great attention, and I console myself by believing that if he hears the recording of it a number of times, he’ll gradually come to like the piece and understand it. There are possibilities of repeating performances, but recordings, I think, are very helpful to listeners. I find that the pieces of mine that have been recorded do educate not only the public, but also the performers who are going to perform it in the future. They know how it should sound, or they know what parts need more attention, or what they would do differently by hearing the recording. The recording business is not something I think a great deal about, although, it’s true that you can do certain things with balancing in recording that are very much more risky in a public concert. But mostly that’s not true. Mostly I find it harder to make a good recording than it is to give a good concert performance. It’s very hard to get that sound, which is so fresh in a concert, on a record. But nowadays more and more they are. My new recording of Night Fantasy is coming out on a compact disc and I expect that it’ll sound very clear and lively.

BD: Does the recording, perhaps, set up an impossible standard for other concert performances?

EC: The recordings do set up a certain standard, certainly. On the other hand they also make errors. Many times performers come around and say, “We play it better now in concert than we did on the record.” Or there will be other performers who will come and say that they play it better than the other performers did who recorded it. So it does set up a kind of norm, or a kind of means of judgment.

*     *     *     *     *

BD: I assume that you are in the happy position of having too many commissions awaiting you.

EC: Oh God, yes. Happy, yes, I guess it’s happy. The commissions are, in one sense, a trouble because when you accept them, then you feel obligated to do them. There was a time in my life when I didn’t feel obligated to do anything but what I wanted.  Now I have so many I can choose and do the one I like.

BD: Then how do you decide which commissions you will accept and which commissions you will pass by?

carterEC: I never accept a commission that I don’t want to do, of course. And although there are lots of those, I generally turn down all orchestral commissions.

BD: You turn down all orchestral commissions???

EC: Most of them, yes. I have too many. I have a few as it is, and that’s enough. I think orchestra music is tiresome to write. It’s too much orchestra. It takes too many notes. It’s too large a problem, and then you don’t get good rehearsals. You don’t get enough rehearsals, except occasionally, and you get a public that is not terribly interested in contemporary music.

BD: So you’re much more now into chamber music?

EC: Yes, it’s better. The performers take much more care with it, and the public that comes to that kind of a concert is much more interested.  The subscription audience at symphony concerts is not terribly interested in contemporary music, certainly not in this country. I guess it isn’t anywhere. And it’s not much fun to write for those people with their poker faces.

BD: Let me throw you a little bit of a curve, and ask you about a piece called Tom and Lilly.

EC: Oh, that doesn’t occur.

BD: It’s listed in one of the books as being an opera.

EC: Yes, I know it was. It was something I wrote as a student and then destroyed. That particular book, which is Claire Reese’s book on contemporary music, largely lists works. She asked me to write those things out when I was a student, just as I was stopping to be a student, and most of those things I later decided were not working and were not interesting to me, so I destroyed them.

BD: The brand new “Baker” lists it as an opera, and in the “Grove” it’s listed as an oratorio.

EC: You wanted to know what they’re talking about. In David Schiff’s book on my music which just was published in England - there is another case of the English being interested in my music - he totally explains, in one chapter, all about these works that were listed and then deleted.

BD: Would you never write an opera, then?

EC: Oh, I don’t see any reason to write an opera in America.

BD: So unless Covent Garden commissioned you for an opera...

EC: Iit’s a very long process. I have no experience at writing an opera, and I have only seen one opera that was written since the war that I felt was worth seeing; no, maybe two, and both of them have been played very poorly in this country, and have been very poorly received: Die Soldaten by Zimmermann and Roger Sessions’ Montezuma. Why would I write another one of those crazy things that nobody wants to play? I don’t like to spend all that time with that result.

BD: With all the commissions that you have, do you ever write a piece just because it’s what you want to write?

EC: Well, they’re all that. I never write any of the commissions until I want to write. I only fulfill a commission that interests me at the time. I hope right now to write an oboe concerto for Heinz Holliger. That interests me a great deal. There are other commissions that I put on the back burner for a while until I get interested in them.

BD: But at some point, because you’ve accepted them, you’ve had the interest.

EC: Yeah. I have the interest but I don’t have an idea. For one reason or another, when there’s a new commission, another commission interests me more. I’m just now finishing my Fourth Quartet. The idea of writing another quartet suddenly took me and I decided I would write it. That’s what the deal is. I couldn’t accept things that didn't interest me a great deal to write, and probably some of these commissions that I have accepted I will never write. I don’t know that. I hope I can, hope I will.

BD: I hope so too. You’ve been involved in the teaching of composition most of your life, have you not?

EC: Yes, I have.

BD: How has the teaching of composition changed over thirty or forty years?

carterEC: It’s changed enormously in a very unpleasant way. When I first started to teach, contemporary music was something that the teacher had to teach the student because generally the students were not terribly interested in it, or, one felt, didn’t know much about it. In truth, generally they were interested in older music but were trained comparatively little in harmony and counterpoint. There’s been lots of books that taught them how to write contemporary music without knowing anything about harmony and counterpoint, and at a certain point you have students that don’t know anything at all, who can’t recognize the opening of Tristan und Isolde or who write music like Stockhausen. I began to feel that they just had absolutely no knowledge of the fundamental things that would be taught in a simple manner by harmony and counterpoint, and it became harder and harder for me to deal with this. The last straw was when the composers decided that modern music was all finished and they wanted to write old music, but they had no idea of harmony and counterpoint. So they began to write this mess that they thought sounded like Brahms because they couldn’t hear Brahms anymore in an intelligent way. I was trying to write like Brahms and Mendelssohn when I began, and now I find that students who want to write that way haven’t had the faintest idea of what they’re trying to do. They do it the most inept and stupid way. Finally I got sick of the whole thing, so I quit.

BD: You have stopped teaching completely?

EC: Yes, mainly because of this dilemma. It’s all very understandable in terms of the historical development of music, but it’s very hard as a teacher, especially when you’re brought up in my old-fashioned way, to find students who want to go back to this old fashioned way without knowing what it’s all about. To them it is very new and fresh because they were brought up on how to write serial, 12-tone music. This problem bothered me a great deal I gave it up, in any case. It was one of these things that began to worry me more and more as time went on.

BD: Were any of your students quite promising?

EC: There are, yes. I’ve had some students who were very fine. Many of my students have become very avant-garde in an old-fashioned sense. One even wrote a piece for fog horn. [laughs] It sounds funny.

BD: You encourage, then, this expansion of the possibilities in producing music?

EC: I encourage whatever the student feels he must do, which is the most important thing. I encourage each student to be what he wants and to do what he wants to do as well as he can.  I’m not very good on fluff or teaching people to use foghorns, I can tell you that.

BD: Where is music going today?

EC: I don’t know. I think that the music hasn’t really changed a great deal over the years. The only thing that’s happened is that the general public and the musical performers no longer have any direction, so they play things of any kind. There was a time in each period when there was one group of performers and public that were interested in the new things. The music of Schumann, for instance, or of Chopin or Liszt were all the avant-garde of their day, and they were helped by one group of the public who were there. Meanwhile there’s another group of the public who was interested in Gretry and other composers we don’t know very much about now. But there were these two poles that persisted and persisted through the good part of the centuries up until around 1950 or so. Then this whole thing disintegrated and there is no direction. Everybody does what he can, and who knows which is good? Who knows what is good and what is bad anymore?

BD: Is there hope for the future of music?

EC: I have no idea. I don’t know. Of course there is hope for the future as long as people are lively and want to live and want to hear music, sure.  It’s a very much more perplexing time because of the fact that there is no longer an idea what it is to be competent in music, which there was, after all, in the early part of this century; the things that are interesting about Schönberg and Bartók and Stravinsky, although they were highly competent composers. Competence after the first World War began to deteriorate, and certainly after the second World War the question of competence is not half as important as oddity or novelty of one kind or another. Stravinsky was very novel but he was also very competent, even at the age of 23, or 22 when he wrote The Firebird.

BD: Is Elliott Carter a competent composer?

EC: Well, I try to be. I don’t know. I feel that this is an important thing. What does it mean to be competent? It means all sorts of things that would be particularly impossible to describe right now, but one is being able to solve all sorts of problems that music has always been involved with. Many of these things are completely sidetracked by composers in these years; being afraid to write a good and melodic line, a warm, big melodic line, for instance. I had trouble, for instance, at the end of Triple Duo which runs on for 40 or 50 measures. It’s a very big long line. This is something that I think takes a lot of training and competence to do. It’s not something you find most people can do anymore.

*     *     *     *     *

BD: Your career has been that of composer and teacher and writer, and yet not that of a performer.

EC: I once conducted a madrigal choir in college when I was a student, but I’ve never done much. I get too nervous in public.

BD: Has this had an influence on your writing?

carterEC: I have no idea. One of the things I do feel is that my music is written for performers. If I were performing it, I would lose track of what it is that goes on in the performance that ought to have been put in the score. One of the things that I find is very important in the early stages of the rehearsals of the work is to hear how other people interpret what you’ve written. I try to make the score as foolproof and as clear to the performers as possible. When it doesn’t come out exactly the way I want it to, I change to make a little bit louder, a little bit softer, or change the articulation or something like that. I don’t think I would do that if I were conducting because then, no matter how I do it, you’re too much involved in too many other things, and I would not be able to get the score in the shape that I would like to have it. I would lose track of all this.  Being apart from the performers, I can sit back and check these things, and I can go to the next rehearsal, or whatever, done by another group and find out whether what I put into that score will be read by those people that way. I understand every time Stravinsky conducted The Rite of Spring, he changed the score. It is really not possible to find out what the score is anymore, and he did this in every place he went.  In Minneapolis there are differences in the parts with the New York Philharmonic because he changed something or other, and he did this over and over again. We know that this practice is very draining, and if he had been a bystander not involved in it, it might have been better. It’s the same with the Mahler symphonies, where Mahler continually changed everything.

BD: Do you ever make alterations in your score at the suggestion of the performers?

EC: If the thing is too difficult, I do. If they show me that it’s too difficult, I've done this. I’ve changed certain things in some of my scores, and sometimes I’ve regretted it because the next performer came along and said, “I don’t know why you changed that note. It’s perfectly easy.” So it’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to get a clear-cut thing, but I usually change it and decide that it looks better. I don’t change it that much anyhow. I couldn’t bring a new taste. Playing a stringed instrument, which I don’t, it’s rather hard for me to judge sometimes what the difficulties of certain passages are. But sometimes they show me that it’s too difficult and I do rewrite, but not very much. I’m pretty expert at that.

BD: Should you be concerned with the technical problems? Shouldn’t you only be concerned with the final result, the way it sounds?

EC: I’m concerned deeply with the technical problems because they produce the final result, the way it sounds. Every moment of every piece has been thought of very, very much - how the violin can play or what the trumpet can do. In fact the pieces were written for the instruments that play them with the concern for their technical abilities. To me, that’s partly being competent. I don’t go to the rehearsal and find I’ve written half a dozen things that nobody can play and have to rewrite the piece constantly at every rehearsal until there’s a different piece. My pieces are difficult, I know.  I wrote, wrote my Third String Quartet and the Juilliard Quartet took it and learned it. I went to some of the rehearsals and I don’t think I changed it very much in it. Certainly I never did any changing in the first or second quartet. It’s the same with orchestra pieces, but this comes from very long experience with the orchestra and with the instruments. It's the same with singers.

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BD: You have won the Pulitzer Prize twice. What influence has that had on you?

carterEC: On winning the Pulitzer Prize, I can’t tell you that exactly. You write something and it’s among the list of things that you’ve got and the actual effect of the Pulitzer is very odd. They just give it to you. The first one was won by my Second String Quartet which the Juilliard were playing at that time, and they got a lot of engagements to play it around the United States. After the first two or three performances, the audiences were so angry that I had ever received the prize because the piece was so peculiar as far as they were concerned. The Juilliard Quartet finally made a recording and sent it around to the people who had asked for it, and asked them whether they really wanted to hear this piece or not. Many of them canceled it. The Pulitzer Prize in music is a very different thing from that in literature or journalism.

BD: How so?

EC: If you get a Pulitzer Prize in literature, your book sells. It doesn’t mean a thing in making modern music, as far as I’m concerned.

BD: Is that a mistake on the part of the selecting committee?

EC: No, this story I told you about the Juilliard Quartet is the case. There were a lot of people that wanted it, or thought they wanted to hear it, but when they heard it they were very cross about it. Finally, lots of people didn’t want to hear it when they saw or heard what it was going to be like when they heard it on the record. It did not, in other words, increase appreciably the number of performances that the work got at the time. It’s possible, having won two of them over the years, the reputation that this produced finally made some of my music more acceptable to some people. But the music prize is a very different thing, as I say. The Pulitzer Prize doesn’t have the same effect on the musical field that it does on others.

BD: Is that something that a composer should strive for, to try and win the Pulitzer Prize?

EC: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think that one knows that the thing about the Pulitzer Prize, as far as I understand it, is that they have a different jury every year, and who knows whether who’s going to get it? The jury is varied. If you look at the list of people that have received it, there’s every conceivable kind of person who’s receiving it.  I don’t know whether it has very much, but I really, honestly, can’t answer what effect it had. It’s nice to have prizes of this sort, certainly, because they all add up somehow. Especially if you have enough money to do a lot of publicity, they add up to a lot. But if you don’t make a lot of noise about it, it’s as if you haven’t got it, just as when Mr. Reagan gave me that medal last year.

BD: Was that not significant for you?

EC: It was significant and I liked getting it. I was interested in being in the White House and sitting at a dinner table with Mr. Reagan. Yes, that interested me a great deal. There’s a silver medal and people play. I was very touched and moved that the government wanted to do this. I have a feeling that as far as increasing the number of performances of my music, it’s just nil. You have to understand that this is a field that’s very unlike painting or literature in the sense it doesn’t make any money; I would have to have thousands of performances of my Symphony for Three Orchestras, for instance. It was played in Chicago in order to pay for the cost of the score, and to pay for the amount of time that I spent on it. That could never happen in this country, or it couldn’t happen anywhere. The Chicago Symphony plays it maybe three times and that’s it for a very long time, and maybe forever. It’s the same for the five or six other performances it has gotten around the United States, and there may be ten that it’s received in Europe. So I get two or three hundred dollars, maybe a thousand dollars for a performance. It’s not very much, and my chamber music doesn’t pay at all. It’s not something that has a commercial value. As you may know, the copyist gets more to copy my score than I get.

BD: I was unaware of that balance!

EC: I am making a clear copy of my Fourth Quartet. I can copy, regularly, sixty pages, and I copied about four to five pages a day. It’s very hard work. I work all day long as a dentist doing that. Now it will take the copyist much more time than that, because I don’t do it with a ruler and a pen and an engraving tool. I just do it with a pencil, but to get everything neat and clear is a chore. This is not composing the piece, it’s just copying. So it would take me - whatever, four goes into sixty is fifteen - so fifteen days, maybe more, to do this.

BD: Right, so there’s half a month gone.

EC: Yeah, that’s right, with no pay whatever. This means there’s nothing.

BD: Let me ask you perhaps an outrageous question. Is composing fun?

carterEC: Well of course it’s fun. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t. It's not like a funny toy, it’s infuriating like everything, like all fun. This particular aspect of copying drives me a little crazy because I would rather write the piece than copy it, but when it’s written this way, it’s in such a mess that nobody could make it out. It’s not clear enough, so it has to have copies made.

BD: But the actual act of composing and deciding what will be used...

EC: Oh, that’s fascinating; it interests me a great deal. Even all of this copying interests me too, but it still has its tedious side. I guess everything has that.

BD: Let me ask you a philosophical question. What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

EC: It’s hard for the composer to answer that. I don’t know that it’s the ultimate meaning, but certainly one of the things is that it makes life worth living. It’s a very interesting thing to do and it’s a very interesting thing to hear, and it gives a kind of value and a kind of order in the sense that it communicates very interesting human feelings and human thoughts in a very intense and strong way when it’s done well. It seems to me that this is a valuable thing. These days, the opposite is happening, which I find is less and less desirable, the tendency to do everything as relaxed and lackadaisical as possible. It’s important to learn to pay attention, to pay attention very intensely and have the attention rewarded.

BD: Should music be art or entertainment?

EC: I can’t say. I don’t know whether it could be used as entertainment. Under many conditions it would be not at all entertaining to many people, but I can say that some of the music I’ve written is certainly entertaining. Certainly there was that old First Symphony. It’s a very entertaining piece; even Duke Ellington told me that.

BD: When you’re writing a piece, where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

EC: I never write anything if it doesn’t seem to me to be inspired. The technique is like the grammatical technique that we are now using as we talk to each other. It’s not something we think about, but there it is. You wouldn’t understand me if I wasn’t using my verbs and my nouns in proper order and with the proper ending, and so it is with music. That’s the technique. On the other hand, there’s the whole thing we’re saying and talking about, and that’s what the technique helps to preserve.

BD: What is next on the calendar for Elliott Carter?

EC: I’m writing that oboe concerto for Heinz Holliger, the Swiss oboe player. He and Paul Sacher from Basle commissioned it, and that I will write with great pleasure because I once learned to play the oboe when I was a student.

BD: I wish you lots of success with that.

EC: Well, I hope so too. [chuckles] Thanks.

BD: And I want to thank you for being a composer.

EC: Ha, ha, ha, ha. Not many people would say that.  Thank you.

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Elliott Carter

Born in New York City on 11 December 1908, Elliott Carter began to be seriously interested in music in high school and was encouraged at that time by Charles Ives. He attended Harvard University where he studied with Walter Piston, and later went to Paris where for three years he studied with Nadia Boulanger. He then returned to New York to devote his time to composing and teaching.

carterWith the explorations of tempo relationships and texture that characterize his music, Carter is recognized as one of the prime innovators of 20th-century music. The challenges of works such as the Variations for Orchestra, Symphony of Three Orchestras, and the concertos and string quartets are richly rewarding. In 1960, Carter was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize for his visionary contributions to the string quartet tradition. Stravinsky considered the orchestral works that soon followed, Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1961) and Piano Concerto (1967), to be "masterpieces".

Elliott Carter has been the recipient of the highest honors a composer can receive: the Gold Medal for Music awarded by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Medal of Arts, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and honorary degrees from many universities. Hailed by Aaron Copland as "one of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field," Carter has received two Pulitzer Prizes and commissions from many prestigious organizations.

As Carter's centenary approaches, celebration is already underway. The BBC Symphony Orchestra presented Get Carter: The music of Elliott Carter at the Barbican Hall in January 2006. This concert series showcased the breadth of Carter's compositional output with orchestral works, string quartets, piano pieces, concerti, and more.

Recent recordings of Carter's music include: Variations for Orchestra — Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine, Oehms 502; Concerto for Orchestra and Concerto for Piano — Ursula Oppens (piano), Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen, Arte Nova 277730; String Quartets 1-4 — Arditti String Quartet, Etcetera Records 2507.

[Biography from G. Schirmer; © Associated Music Publishers]

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 10, 1986.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1988, 1993, 1998 and 2000; and aboard Delta Airlines In-Flight Entertainment Package in September, 1989.  Audio copies of the interview have been given to the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, and the Oral History American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2008.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.