Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century

The Voice of Elliott Carter, excerpt 3

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in talking about music in relation to other trends in the 20th Century, and to talk about your music, I know that you studied literature as an undergraduate, you’re very interested in poetry, you wrote film and theater reviews years ago, and you collect art. You’re very much connected to other disciplines. How do you see music and the advances that happened in music in this century connected to the other arts?

ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, I feel music has kept pace with the best parts of other arts. I mean, with the development of Picasso and the development, even of Bill de Kooning, for instance, this has been something that I think music itself has done, at least I’ve done, and I don’t know whether this is true of other people but in some sense, I looked into the question, for instance, of how musicians play together. And in the course of this whole period you’re talking about, more mature work, I suppose it’s more mature, the desire to make the people that are contributing, contribute with their own individuality, so that we have, most of my work since 1950 have been concerned, so to speak, with deconstructing the normal situation of music. And this has been true, all painting is like that, too, and also a lot of literature.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think music’s in a very strange position, because a lot of people are aware of de Kooning, and have an appreciation for de Kooning, and a lot of people on college campuses to this day name drop James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, and maybe even more contemporary writers like Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis, who are writing really experimental work, or Frank Stella who is an enormously successful painter doing highly complex work. But in music, we’re still sort of beholden to the standard repertoire and the old works are still sort of the focus of classical music life.

ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, I think there’s a very simple explanation for all that. It’s perhaps mean to say this, but in any case the explanation is, a painting is something you can buy and sell, it’s physical object that exists. Music doesn’t. And furthermore, a good part of my own life was spent in trying to prove that music was worth something… that a composer’s music was something worth paying for. We organized, back in the 30’s, the composers, American Composers Alliance… Up to that time, American composers were not paid for anything. And, I mean, serious music, if you had a piece played by the Philharmonic, you had to find money to pay the Philharmonic to play it, and we organized and did the old union stuff, and finally got orchestras and performers to pay for our performances. It’s still, of course, very primitive. I find in my own case, I was only looking at my quarterly royalties, for the last quarter of 1998, and I have 13 times as much royalties from Europe as I have from America. And this is because we are not as developed in this particular field partly, and partly my music isn’t played as often. But it’s because of this financial situation as much as anything else that these things have persisted this way, in my opinion. Money is right at the basis of all of this, and beside that, the expense of producing these contemporary musical works is great, so it takes lots of rehearsals. So you sink a lot of money in, but you don’t get any of it back. Sotheby’s does mighty well with even minor painters. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Well, we have this whole tradition that we’re working in, a classical music community that plays the old standards and, you know, we’re lucky, in an orchestral program, let’s say, if we get one modern work on a program, and I find it interesting that your music is so very much about now, yet, it has to be tied to the music of Europe’s past, because that’s the music that it gets to be played with. So, you’ll write works that have names such as string quartet or concerto, and these bring up certain associations for listeners, and certain assumptions within the community, although, it’s curious to me that you avoided the term symphony. There’s an early Symphony that you wrote, and you’ve titled your recent three-movement orchestral work “Symphonia,” but you’re not calling it ‘symphony.’

from Symphony No. 1 (1942)
American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel
American Composers Orchestra play Thorne, Roussakis and Carter
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ELLIOTT CARTER: That brings up lots of different kinds of thoughts. One of them is that I haven’t thought a lot about naming my pieces in different ways, and I realize in hearing many of my colleagues’ works with peculiar names that they were more conventional than mine. So why should I bother? The very fact that the string quartet was called a string quartet and it carries on a newer point of view about a string quartet is, is more important than to call it “Ainsi la nuit,” for instance, as Mr. Dutilleux did, which is a very beautiful title and, actually, a beautiful quartet too, and his is not so conventional… But I find in general, it’s absurd to bother with that. I mean, I realize, it’s a way to sell your pieces, if you give some kind of funny title to them, but I want mine sold on the basis of what you hear, not what they’re called.

from String Quartet No. 2 (1959)
The Composers Quartet (Matthew Raimondi and Anahid Ajemian, violins; Jean Dupouy, viola; Michael Rudiakov, cello)
Elliott Carter: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2
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