Remembering Elliott Carter

I think it was in the summer of 1958 that I attended the Aspen School of Music, in Aspen, Colorado, high up in the Rocky Mountains. Darius Milhaud was the major composer in residence. Lukas Foss and Elliott Carter were composers-in-residence for a week or two during the festival. I may be leaving some things out and forgetting some of the people and some of the details, but I do remember two things with great clarity. One of them was my explorations of the mountains around Aspen on horseback, going off in a different direction several times a week with a fellow student – her name was Meg – on adventurous, exhilarating long rides, sometimes all day, feeling an extraordinary sense of freedom as we moved through a landscape alone on top of the world.

The other one was a workshop in percussion offered to the composers at the school by George Gaber, exceptional percussionist, at that time active in the New York music scene. At 8 in the morning, Gaber was there in the music performance tent, surrounded by an enormous number and variety of instruments from timpani to finger cymbals. A few composition students were there. So was Elliott Carter. To my pleasure and surprise, Carter dominated the conversation as Gaber went through the instruments, playing each one and demonstrating different techniques for playing them. Carter had brought a notebook with him. He asked a lot of questions and took copious notes. It occurred to me later that he had begun to think about the Double Concerto, finished in 1961, but at that time we – “we” being the students that were there – knew of Carter through his String Quartet No. 1. That a composer we respected as a leader in the avant-garde would come to a workshop with young students, ask questions that told us what he didn’t know, and took notes, was very impressive. But thinking back, my guess is that at that time in his career, he had achieved a level of self-confidence and comfort with what he was doing musically that allowed him to display without embarrassment what he didn’t know. Early on, he had actively sought public recognition for his Americana style, for example his early orchestral piece Pocahontas, but as he told me and, in fact, said in many interviews, he had reached a point when he realized that he hadn’t gotten anywhere and he decided to go off to the desert and work out his own ideas. His first realization of the new ideas was his String Quartet No. 1 which was widely recognized as a masterpiece, albeit a little-understood masterpiece. As a student, I followed him around a little bit at Aspen, and I vaguely recall that I asked him if I could study with him.

Well, I got my chance. In September 1959, I began the three-year master’s degree program at the Yale School of Music. Carter was there to teach in 1961 and 1962. His class was a seminar that met for a couple of hours every week. The four or five of us taking the seminar presented what we were working on. I remember writing a piano piece that had an unusual little figuration in it. I remember it because Carter said something to the effect of: “Hmmm, well, that seems to work very well, but I don’t see why it does.” His teaching was largely by critique and discussion of our work. His ongoing messages to us were to do things in the most interesting way and (I paraphrase this advice, given to young composers starting their careers) to follow our own ideas and not be swayed by the lure of an artificial public success. I do not recall that he ever discussed his own work with us, but he did play examples of works by other composers, especially works that he thought we didn’t but should know. He played and we discussed parts of Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maître, for example, as well as Improvisation sur Mallarmé from Pli Selon Pli, and a piece by Gilbert Amy, a student of Boulez. He discussed the orchestration of these pieces. He often discussed orchestration and orchestral sound in general, pointing to examples, as I recall, in Mahler’s orchestration where colors shift as instruments mix, and come and go, in the course of a single thread of melody.

He was very interested in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and, he told us, spent a considerable amount of time trying to analyze it. But Stravinsky, who was a friend of Carter’s, apparently assured him that there was no underlying schemata, a statement that Carter accepted with the lingering suspicion that Stravinsky had simply forgotten what it was. It’s interesting that Carter searched for an underlying schemata in the Rite of Spring, not something that would have occurred to me to do, for example, but the mainstream of music in the early 1960s was based on underlying structural procedures, as in Boulez’ and Babbitt’s serialism and Cage’s chance operations, and Carter was interested. His own compositions were organized by an underlying procedure based on chords and intervals. In fact, for a theory class at Yale, I did an analysis of Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, a piece that I have grown to know better as years go by and that I consider the first definitive expression of his musical ideas.

I graduated with an M.M. degree in 1962, the same year that President Kennedy was awarded an honorary doctorate, at which occasion he said, “Now I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” In the fall of 1962, Carter went to Rome as the composer-in-residence at the American Academy. After a few adventures, as George Mully’s stage assistant in the chamber opera workshop at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art and as an employee for Poseidon Steamship Company (principal Mediterranean agent for the Turkish Maritime Lines) in Haifa, I ended up in Rome to study with Carter.

It was an absolutely wonderful experience from the beginning. I had made an appointment to meet him in Rome in that October, and prior to my arrival he had found a place for me to stay, in a pensione in which Mariolina De Robertis, harpsichodist, lived. Partly through Mariolina, I met many composers in Rome, among them Franco Evangelisti, Aldo Clementi, Walter Branchi, many others. I also met John Eaton, who had strong ongoing ties with the American Academy, and Larry Austin, who was there for the year.

Carter was staying in a charming small building used by guest composers at the American Academy, located outside of the Academy building on the Gianicolo, one of the hills of Rome far from downtown. The living room was large with a grand piano on one side and a view of a beautiful garden on the other. For my part, I was living a free-lance musician’s life, copying and editing music, playing piano, managing somehow, and I was writing music. That winter of 1962 was the coldest ever. Not to be taken literally, the oldest man in town didn’t remember the last time that the water in the fountain at the Piazza Barbarini had frozen. I was for the most part sitting at my desk, fingers frozen, wearing sweater and overcoat, composing. When I finished something, or when I felt I needed it, I called Carter, went to see him, and we spent an afternoon together, several hours, talking. We talked about my music, which I recall as helpful, insightful, and encouraging. But as I was becoming more sure of what I wanted to do and more clear about how to do it technically, our conversations evolved into discussions of music in general. I thought it was wonderful. I loved the process of our conversations, the depth and breadth of Carter’s interests in literature and languages, and, in short, as I think back on those days, those conversations were so exceptional and I gained so much from them that I am left somewhat speechless in trying to characterize them. It was not like information that I could write down and walk away with. It was like growth. Carter must have enjoyed it as well or he wouldn’t have been so relaxed and talkative for so many hours at so many meetings. I was a young guy. He was thirty years older and he was sharing his thoughts. I also had some thoughts to share about music, opera, and literature. And now, especially as I reflect on those days, I think we were forming a friendship. I think it was sometime during that period that I began to call him Elliott.

In 1964, the Ford Foundation started its residence program in Berlin and Elliott told me that he was going. I said, How can I apply? He said, you’ve already applied. You’re going. In fact, I made an early round trip. It was probably in October or November 1963 that Elliott asked and I drove his car to Berlin from Rome, then returned to Rome, then went to Berlin in January. Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski were also there, and Elliott and his wife, Helen, were very much a part of our lives in Berlin. One memorable moment was a performance of the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano, with Mariolina De Robertis playing a new electronic harpsichord, Frederic Rzewski playing piano, and Bruno Maderna conducting. It was a bit of a nerve-racking experience for Elliott because Maderna missed the first rehearsal, showed up late to the second one, and when he did arrive he looked at the scores on the podium, turned to Frederic who was seated at the piano and asked, “Frederico, che facciamo?” Then, looking at the score, he said, more or less to himself, “Oh, I see, ok, percussion up there (and he changed the percussion’s position onstage), let’s go,” and he started to conduct through the piece, learning it on the way. He stopped at the beginning of the coda. “Hmmm,” he said, “one group is in 2, the other is in 3, I’ll have to conduct one group with my left hand and the other group with my right hand. But then, how will I turn pages? Ah, I’ll memorize the score.” At about that time, there was a problem with the electronics in the harpsichord, so a technician from the harpsichord company was called in and he fixed it. But between Maderna’s irritating calm-and-in-control attitude and the harpsichord problem, Elliott seemed to be a little unnerved. I sat next to him during the performance, and when it was finished, as we were getting up to go back to greet the musicians, he asked, “How was it?” I told him that it was great. It was.

Back in the United States a year or so later, I joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Albany. I was traveling quite a bit, but of course I was in touch with Elliott and saw him fairly often. As those years passed, and as I become more involved in electronics, we talked more often about his music than mine. During those years, Elliott and Helen had a house on Lake Waccabuc in Westchester County, just north of New York City, and my wife and I, and eventually with my son, visited during the summers while they were there. We often went swimming in the lake. Elliott had a cabin on the grounds, and of course I visited it to see his current work, which we talked about. I remember that on one of those occasions he was working on the Concerto for Orchestra. He had thumb-tacked all of the pages of the score around the room so that he could work on the beginning, then the end, then in the middle, and so on, always seeing the whole as he made the parts.

Structure is the relationship of the parts to the whole and we usually think of structure as the ‘backbone’ of a piece. The role of structure in many of Elliott’s works, however, is more in the presentation of the piece than in its driving ideas. What drives the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, is the evolving interaction in the relationship between “personalities”, different characters or “forces” that are musically identified through orchestration as much as through the notes the instruments play. In composing the Concerto, and also in other works, Elliott thought of the forces as poetic narratives as well as in musical terms. The forces in the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, are based on “Vents,” a poem by Saint-John Perse. It’s the forces of Perse’s winds that give us the spirit of the Concerto and it’s the narrative of interaction between elements that becomes the long line of the composition. Elliott played through that narrative in his thoughts, and then, when he found the best realization of the idea, he froze the thought in notation and presented it in a coherent structure.

Elliott’s music in general is a superb amalgam of the contemporary concept of music based on underlying process and the classical concept of structure and balance. It’s a superb generalization of narrative in literature and sound. Elliott has been a wonderful example of the composer as a knowledgeable educated person with a broad-based understanding of literature as well as music.

I’ve seen Elliott many times in the past few years, almost always with my wife who is well versed in French literature. He was composing and, fascinated with the language as well as the content, reading Proust. About a year ago, he declared “Enough Proust, no more Proust” to me and my wife. When we saw him at a later visit, he said “I’m back on Proust”. And during this time, although clearly growing weaker physically and tiring easily, he was composing many of the lighthearted and lovely short pieces that were perfectly performed at his 103rd birthday concert at the 92nd Street Y.

We attended the ceremony, on September 21st at the French Embassy Cultural Services building in New York, at which he was designated Commander in the Legion of Honor. It was a touching moment. And what a happy way to say goodbye.