Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century

The Voice of Elliott Carter, excerpt 8

FRANK J. OTERI: So what are you working on now?

ELLIOTT CARTER: I’m working on a cello concerto for the Chicago Symphony, and I think Yo-Yo Ma, I’m not sure.

FRANK J. OTERI: When is that scheduled for?

ELLIOTT CARTER: It isn’t scheduled. I refuse now to accept a schedule.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I hear there’s a second opera awaiting?

ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, they’re hoping that. Since the opera I’ve written a chamber orchestra piece for the Asko Ensemble in Holland, in Amsterdam, and 8 Italian songs, and a number of piano pieces, and some solo violin pieces.

FRANK J. OTERI: With all this composing activity, do you actively listen to other music at this point, besides the music that you’re writing? Do you listen to records? Do you go to concerts?

ELLIOTT CARTER: I don’t, as a rule. No, I try not to listen. I must say, the other night my wife and I played over a videocassette of Rosenkavalier and I’ve had an awful lot of trouble getting it out of my head and I’m sorry I heard it. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] Do you listen to any music outside of the classical music tradition at all? Do you listen to jazz?

ELLIOTT CARTER: If I listen to anything, it’s something like east Indian music….

FRANK J. OTERI: In an interview you did with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, you were talking about the Dagar Brothers

ELLIOTT CARTER: Yes, they’re wonderful.

FRANK J. OTERI: I love them also. You said that the Dagar Brothers influenced your composition of Penthode, and I was struggling to hear that influence, and maybe that’s one of the reasons that I didn’t fully understand that piece.

from Penthode (1985)
Ensemble InterContemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez
Boulez conducts Schoenberg, Berio, Carter, Kurtag, Xenakis
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ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, I thought of it as one big long line. Maybe that doesn’t come across.

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to go back and hear it again… So you don’t really listen to any popular music at all, at this point.

ELLIOTT CARTER: Well, I don’t like it; I don’t like popular music at the present time. I mean, as sound. The words are very entertaining, but the music itself seems to me rather simple and not very interesting to hear. I like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans and Gershwin but I don’t really like popular music since that time. It bothers me. It seems too childish and simple. I don’t listen to music very much. I go to concerts of music that I think might interest me. I don’t go very much anymore because it’s hard for me to get around easily. But I will go to hear a new piece of Boulez. And I go to hear concerts of George Perle‘s music. I go to hear occasionally the new pieces, and I have been just listening off and on to different records of cello concerti, since I’m writing one. I got somebody to get me a lot of them but I haven’t played many of them. I don’t feel as though I really want to.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve told me that you don’t really deal with computers and the Internet at all. I read a remark that you made a number of years ago where you said that you aren’t interested in writing electronic music because you felt it hadn’t been developed enough yet, and I know that your music is very performer-oriented, so to write music for machines would be antithetical to your whole conception of music, I think. But would you write for electric instruments? Are you at all interested in synthesizers?

ELLIOTT CARTER: No. This is very old-fashioned, but I like to feel that I’m hearing the touch of the musician, and the voice of the musician directly. It’s part of human life. To have it filtered through a machine, or through an amplifier in a concert, is to me rather disturbing. It seems to me it’s falsifying the person. That’s what I feel. Now I listen to records, and I don’t mind it so much, but I don’t like it in a concert. I don’t like amplified. Now, it’s true that in my Double Concerto it’s often hard to hear the harpsichord, and we sometimes amplify it a little bit. But if it’s amplified too much, then it spoils the piece, because it’s, it immediately destroys the sense that, you’re not hearing the harpsichord, you’re hearing the amplification.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you do listen to recordings from time to time?

ELLIOTT CARTER: Oh, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you listen to recordings of your own music?

ELLIOTT CARTER: I listen to old music. Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro, things like that. And I listen also occasionally to composers whom I would like to know more about. I don’t know as much as I would like to know about Milton Babbitt‘s music. I’ve heard some of it, and I wanted to hear more, so I’ll get records of his and play it. Or go to a concert when it’s played. There are other people. Mario Davidovsky interests me a great deal and I like to hear his music. But I don’t listen very much; I listen to or play it once or twice and I don’t want to hear it again.

FRANK J. OTERI: Thank you for taking this time with us. It’s been an immense delight. And I’m very much looking forward to hearing What Next? live next month. It’s going to be very exciting.

ELLIOTT CARTER: Yeah, I’m going to go Chicago for it first. They’re bringing over the cast, you know, from Germany.

FRANK J. OTERI: They’re terrific.

ELLIOTT CARTER: I don’t know how they can do things like that.

FRANK J. OTERI: They’re amazing.

ELLIOTT CARTER: Mr. Barenboim is a very devoted man. I mean, he’s very devoted to doing my stuff. I don’t get that in other people. There’s no other conductor except for Pierre Boulez that would do that much.

FRANK J. OTERI:Oliver Knussen….

ELLIOTT CARTER: Oh yes, Olli Knussen made that extraordinary new recording

FRANK J. OTERI: of the Symphonia…

ELLIOTT CARTER: It’s an amazing performance, and the Clarinet Concerto’s amazing, too.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, yeah. That was a real delight, hearing that.

from Double Concerto (1961)
Gilbert Kalish, piano; Paul Jacobs, harpsichord; Contemporary Chamber Players, conducted by Arthur Weisburg

from Clarinet Concerto (1996)
Michael Collins, clarinet; London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen
Elliott Carter: Symphonia; Clarinet Concerto
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