The first piece of Elliott’s I heard was a recording of the First String Quartet; this would have been 1958 or 1959 while I was a student at the University of Iowa. In its language, scale and hyper-rich complexity, it sounded like no American music I’d heard up to then, and is a work I’ve come back to often over the years, both for itself and as a reference point for engaging his later quartets. Shortly after I moved to New York City in 1960, his Second String Quartet had a comparable effect, and since then my engagement with his music has been a continuous journey of discovery and inspiration. Each work of his defines a world, or, as I like to think of it, is a “house” one can inhabit, draw breath in and endlessly explore. He defined a view of music as something “more”: more than entertainment, more than virtuoso display, more than the dispirited mash-ups of unrelated elements and traditions that one so often encounters today. Elliott sought and at his best achieved something I can only call transcendental in his melding of imagination (poetry) with intellectual and formal rigor (prose), and in doing so was the last of the Great Modernists – in any field. But perhaps not the last, for his music invites response, provokes those who engage with it and carries within it the seeds for the extension and enrichment of the Great Tradition that it embodies. In that sense, his music is “the gift that keeps on giving” – and giving and giving. And in the moral force it projects, it challenges us to find an equivalent voice and vocabulary for articulating and singing the mysteries of time, space, sound and motion that continue to evolve and surround us. It is a great achievement and a great charge to those who hear his music and sense its implications.
Performing Elliott’s music has been woven through my life since my youth. Starting with the early years of the Group for Contemporary Music when I performed his Woodwind Quintet, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy and the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord with my colleagues, I can identify a number of unforgettable milestones. Such as the 1969 recording for Nonesuch of the Sonata with Charles Kuskin, Fred Sherry and Paul Jacobs. Issued first as an longplaying record and then on compact disc, that recording, amazingly, remains in print. And what amazing French meals Paul cooked for us in his apartment after the rehearsals! Ten years later I had the privilege of conducting the first performance and recording of Syringa with Speculum Musicae on Elliott’s seventieth birthday concert. Following that came performances of A Mirror on Which to Dwell, the Sonata again in 1984 on the memorial concert for Paul Jacobs, recording, Scrivo in Vento in 1993, and performances of Tempo e Tempi and the Triple Duo in San Francisco in 2009. I still haven’t caught up to Elliott’s output, and probably never will, but I keep on trying.
Elliott the man: courtly and exacting in rehearsals and always thoughtfully sending a note of thanks after a successful performance or recording. I recall that my fee for performing and recording Syringa was not exactly kingly, and, indeed, I found out some time later that he’d anonymously funneled a thousand dollars to me through a cooperative foundation to make up the shortfall. So add generous to courtly and exacting. On another tack, I always found it hard to connect Elliott, the man, to the extreme physicality of his music. Another way of saying that is that I’ve never been able to imagine him shooting hoops or throwing a baseball. Which goes to show … what? I’m sure the Sicilians have a saying or proverb for it.
Anecdotes? A couple. My oboist friend, Josef Marx told of being telephoned by Elliott’s wife and helpmeet, Helen, sometime in the late 1950s. Helen wanted Josef to engage musicians for a performance of the Sonata at the Greenwich House Music School. She would pay the musicians, but only on the condition that “you don’t tell Elliott”. It seems Elliott Carter was not always famous and above the fray.
My own anecdote concerns running into Elliott on the front steps of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in the spring of 1990. His violin concerto was to have its premiere that week with the San Francisco Symphony, and I assured him I was looking forward to it. Furrowing his brow, he said, “wonderful, just don’t come to the first performance. By the third or fourth they’ll know it”. He said this not meanly, but with a small self-deprecating smile that indicated he was saying something that another composer would understand. And I did and took his advice and went to the fourth performance that week. It was just fine.
February 6, 2013