I first met Elliott Carter, and Helen, at their house in Waccabuc, in the early ’80s. I was terrified. He was musical royalty; he had written some extraordinary pieces which I loved, had invented metric modulation, knew everyone, been everywhere and done everything. I was astonished (and deeply relieved) to find that he was warm, friendly and very funny – and of course, incredibly knowledgeable and interesting, but that I’d expected.
Over the years, I got to know him well – among other things, our birthdays were a day (and a few years) apart, and we often celebrated together over a nice dinner – and was repeatedly overwhelmed by his legendary, prodigious memory (a sample drive up, say, 6 th Avenue: “Oh, there’s the building that was a [bank] in 1915, but that turned into a hotel where my friend [insert name of famous poet, choreographer, sculptor, etc. here] lived before he got divorced and moved, and then it became a theater where I saw [name of landmark performance here] but then it went dark until it turned into a greengrocer two years ago.” (He could do the same thing in the streets of Paris, or Rome, by the way.) And by his quirky way of viewing the world (during the same ride: “Aren’t the trees confused at night with all those lights strung all over them?”). Of course, the stories! The time he’d sat next to Gershwin to hear Wozzeck at the Met, and was much too shy to introduce himself; his memories of Nadia Boulanger, with whom we’d both studied; hiking the Arizona desert with Joseph Wood Krutch between sessions of writing the First String Quartet. And more, and more.
I once asked Elliott if he had ever experienced writer’s block. His answer was that he didn’t understand writer’s block; that though he’d had many periods in his life when finding the right answer to a musical question came only with difficulty, he’d never had a day without the question, and without the desire to answer it. The definition of happiness, I think; and the joyousness of the man always struck me each time I saw him. And how lucky we all were to share in that joy, for so many years.