The first time I ever saw Elliott Carter was on the 7th Avenue IRT, as it was called then. We both happened to be in the same subway car, coming from the 125th Street station going downtown (that was the nearest stop from Juilliard, which was on 122nd St. and Claremont Avenue at that time). He was on the faculty and I was a student there, must have been 1964 or ‘65. He seemed to be deep in thought and I certainly was not about to disturb him. Little did I know what lay ahead. Fast forward to the mid ’70s, when I was a member of Speculum Musicae; we had commissioned Elliott to write a vocal piece with ensemble – A Mirror on Which to Dwell, his first piece for voice in over forty years. Other than the Woodwind Quintet (which I had performed as a student quite a few times), this was the first of many of his pieces with which I was to be involved as a clarinetist. I remember that we rehearsed intensely, without the soloist; during those years Speculum, as a matter of principle, rehearsed about an hour – minimum! – for every minute of music. Elliott showed up at one of the full rehearsals, and to our amazement decided, without hesitation, to make some significant note changes in the vocal line in one of the movements to make the soloist more comfortable. (I remember the conductor of the piece, Richard Fitz, being quite taken aback by this.) That was the first time, as I look back, that I witnessed how Elliott was almost always willing to make revisions in a carefully composed piece to accommodate a soloist.
Fast forward again to the early ’90s: Elliott and I had worked together frequently and had become friends when I got a telephone call from him asking me to talk to Phil Lesh (the bass guitarist with the Grateful Dead), who had called him. Elliott was not exactly sure who Phil Lesh and the Grateful Dead were at that time, but Lesh had offered to give a substantial grant from the Rex Foundation towards a Carter project. Elliott called Oliver Knussen for advice, and Oliver suggested that I would be the right person to discuss this with Phil. Oliver (who was a close friend whom I had also managed in the U.S. for a number of years) and I decided that a recording project, to include the Violin Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra and the Three Occasions for Orchestra would be a good idea; Phil Lesh agreed and this became the first of many Carter recording projects on which I worked as Executive Producer. From that point on my involvement with Elliott and his music intensified dramatically, and soon thereafter I became his personal assistant, a role I assumed for the next twenty-plus years.
During the summer of 2001 I was surprised to find a fax from Elliott waiting for me one morning with sketches jotted down for a solo bass clarinet piece (which became Steep Steps), and the note “Is this possible, Virgil?” I immediately called him and told him that it certainly was! I had had no indication that he had decided to write a piece for me; we had never talked about the possibility, and I would never have asked him for one. I was, of course, thrilled! Throughout the compositional process he asked me to play passages for him. Except for the very few last measures, on which we collaborated, and which were revised a few times, no other modifications were made; but I could see that he was always open to any suggestions. Another example of the care and respect he showed to performers: the opening measures of the piece he wrote for cello and bass clarinet, Rigmarole, for the cellist Fred Sherry and me, for his 103rd birthday concert. Elliott decided to write it at the very last minute, a gift for us. The original opening had the bass clarinet playing a treacherous note pattern in groups of septuplets at a very fast tempo without any rests, played continuously over and over again, nonstop. I practiced this section relentlessly before I finally realized that the chances of my being able to successfully achieve what he had written were very low indeed. I very reluctantly went to him and asked him – quite embarrassed and extremely apologetic – if he would consider changing the passage. This was a first for me. I played it for him at a reduced speed at first so he could hear what I meant; I was fully prepared for him to reject my plea, and was worried about what he would say. But without hesitation he added a few rests in one of the measures in the middle of the passage, and asked me if that would be all right. I cannot tell you how relieved I was. It made all the difference in the world; and he later even said that he thought it had improved the opening of the piece.
I’ve recounted these personal references as they speak to Elliott’s attitude to the performer. He had said on many occasions, and in countless interviews, that he always wrote the music he wanted to write regardless of trends, or other outside pressures, which might give the impression that he was rigid regarding what he wrote; but I found him to be quite the opposite, always placing the utmost importance on the performer, without compromising his musical integrity – and while always pushing the musical envelope along the way.
What a remarkable composer he was and an equally remarkable human being. What a privilege it was for me to have such a close relationship with him and to be with him all these years.