It was just a little over 31 years ago – during intermission at a recital by Paul Jacobs at the 92 nd Street Y, with Night Fantasies on the program – that I screwed up my courage, walked over and introduced myself to Elliott Carter for the first time. I can’t remember a single thing I said, although I must have mentioned spending about ten days during the previous summer poring over the sketches for his Piano Concerto, at that time still housed at the New York Public Library. This, in fact, would have been my sole plausible excuse for taking up any of his time; for I was hoping that there was an outside chance of persuading him to read what I had been writing about my study of that piece and some of his other music. To my considerable relief, he received me most graciously – and he must have been encouraging about the writing, because very soon after returning home to New Haven I sent him the paper in question. By early January 1982 I had a letter inviting me to visit him at his home and discuss the contents.
It was certainly thrilling to get such a letter; but I had to admit that the prospect of actually sitting down with a living composer, with my analyses of his work open to his scrutiny, made me pretty nervous. Especially this living composer. I had been listening to Carter’s music since my teenage years, when I came across a few recordings of his early pieces; later, in college, the magnificent Nonesuch LP issues of the Cello Sonata, the First and Second Quartets, the Double Concerto, etc. had seized my attention as no other recent music of the time had done. In my imagination, he had practically godlike status; how would I hold my own in conversation for more than, say, ten minutes?
The appointed day and hour arrived; I made my way to 31 West 12 th Street, was buzzed in, rode the shaky elevator up to the door of Apartment 8W… and in answer to my knock was greeted by Carter himself. And although my nervousness didn’t entirely fall away at his welcoming smile, I found myself able after all to speak in coherent sentences. What followed were two of the most rewarding hours I’ve ever spent talking about music – or about anything else, for that matter. For we didn’t just discuss my analytical investigations of a few pieces of his, or even just his music in general. From reading Carter’s essays, I already knew that his interests in art and literature were extensive – but even so, his sheer facility and range surprised and delighted me.
As for the “technical” part of our talk – what I had ostensibly come for – it turned out to be fascinating in ways I hadn’t expected. It quickly got across to me that there was little point in asking specific questions about compositional details long ago forgotten – although one question that I did put to him, about the spacing of the chords near the end of the Third Quartet where all four instruments are sawing away on triple stops, yielded a prompt and completely satisfying answer. Much more valuable, in the end, was what I began to learn on that day about the ways in which the mechanisms of his compositional method are inflected and, to varying extent, transformed by what Carter, if he’d had to put it in just a few words, would perhaps have called the human element. Even if the network of decisions about notes and rhythms couldn’t be perfectly reconstructed, the larger principles at work – principles that had motivated the selection of that methodology in the first place – shone forth in clear and consistent fashion.
I have carried the memory of those hours with me ever since, through all my subsequent study of Carter’s music and the many other hours I spent with him over the next three decades. Whether in his company at concerts, or sitting in front of a tape machine recording an interview, or working with him on the new edition of his writings, or simply paying him and Helen a social call, the generosity of spirit that he showed on that first occasion, giving up much of his afternoon to a young and unknown scholar, made it impossible to regard him thenceforth as just another research topic. I’ve wondered, from time to time, whether this orientation has made me less “objective” about the ultimate worth of his work; but even if so, it’s a tradeoff I would gladly agree to, had I to do it over again, for the sake of being allowed to watch, at fairly close range, the completion of his remarkable trajectory.