Elliot Carter is still rockin’ at 100 years old
Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 11, 2008
A life in music: Elliott Carter
‘I used to write gigantic pieces that took a long time to compose, if not to play. Now I couldn’t stand working for so long on the same thing’
Elliott Carter is sitting at the dining table of his Greenwich Village apartment. In front of him is a large pile of contracts for upcoming performances of his work. As he begins to sign them, he turns quickly to his manager to check the date. “It’s the 22nd, yes?” “Yes,” replies his manager, who adds, with a stage wink: “and the year is 2008”. Carter puts down his pen and laughs. “I really needed to be reminded what year it is.”
Next Thursday Carter will celebrate his hundredth birthday. All year has been filled with performances of his work that will culminate next week with concerts all over the world. But while these events will mark an extraordinarily long and distinguished career, they will not be exclusively retrospective occasions. New work will be as much a feature as old, especially in New York, where a “kind of piano concerto”, Interventions, will be premiered by Daniel Barenboim with James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “And they’re also going to play a Schubert four-hander together, which is one of my favourite pieces,” he explains. “And there’ll be some Stravinsky, which really got me started as a composer in the first place.”
In London, two long-time champions of Carter’s work, Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, will perform recent work, including Dialogues for piano and ensemble, while another Carter disciple, Oliver Knussen, will conduct a programme comprised solely of works composed by Carter in his 90s.
Carter does admit that his production has dropped off a little this year, but insists it is not his age that has slowed him down: it is people wanting to celebrate his age. “This year has been a bit peculiar in all sorts of ways, mostly in that there has been a lot more talking about music than writing it. But I don’t really mind that. I sometimes think of my pieces as wayward children. I feel an obligation to encourage them and help them on their way, so I don’t mind talking to people about them. I can’t just let them run off on their own.”
Carter, a comparatively late starter, first built a reputation as a composer in the 1940s with work that seemed to capture a certain American expansiveness and confidence. Then, in the 50s, he reinvented himself as a harder-edged and more innovative composer in a series of monumental pieces that established him as a leading figure in the postwar avant-garde music scene. His recent output has represented a remarkable late burst of prolific creativity.
He treats his longevity with a relaxed shrug: “I know it must sound amazing, but it doesn’t really feel so odd.” He can remember the first world war starting – “actually, I can remember knocking over a goldfish bowl, but it was on the day that America entered the war” – and he has known some of the most significant musical and artistic figures of the past century. Charles Ives was a family friend, Varèse was a neighbour, he knew Bartók, Cage and Copland, and sat next to George Gershwin at the American premiere of Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Stravinsky became a friend, and Carter was witness to a legendary musical encounter when he and Stravinsky were having dinner in a New York restaurant. A waiter asked if a fellow diner could have Stravinsky’s autograph. A somewhat irked Stravinsky chose to keep the fan waiting. So it was only after an agonisingly lengthy pause that a bemused Frank Sinatra, accompanied by his then wife Mia Farrow, were signalled that they might be allowed to approach the table.
Boulez describes Carter’s career as a “résumé of the century” and contrasts its arc with that of Messiaen, who was born just one day before him: while Messiaen established his approach early in his career and then, albeit in highly imaginative ways, largely stuck to it, Carter rediscovered his “compositional voice” in his 50s and “became quite adventurous. Today,” Boulez continues, “he is more flexible, inventive, less complicated and easier to perform as a consequence. I am amazed . . . everybody is amazed that he still composes and creates so many new works.”
But such productivity also, perversely, militates against continued productivity. “I get quite a lot of musicians coming here to practise my new pieces. So things I wrote six months ago are going through my head, which means I can have a hard time getting back to the piece I’m writing. And these musicians always want me to say something. But I have to be careful about imposing my way on it, which might not be so easy for them, and therefore they might not play it so well. When I was younger, my music was not being played that often or that well. A lot of people play my music well today, but in the old days it bothered me a great deal and it made me wonder that I hadn’t written it right. So I used to change things, but always ended up going back to the first version. But it is a peculiar business. Just as there are a hundred ways of playing Hamlet, I hope there are a hundred ways of playing my music. But there is still that play, Hamlet, no matter what people do to it. And I’m now happy enough with that thought.”
Carter was born in New York, on December 11 1908, into a prosperous family of lace importers. His father would visit France four times every year, even during the first world war, and it was assumed that Elliott would take over the business. He was taught French – “for some time I could speak it better than English” – and he even accompanied his pacifist father to Europe in the early 1920s, “when there were still a lot of unpleasant things to see”. They visited battlefields, and he remembers starving waiters in Berlin stealing food off the tables.
Carter attended a renowned private school, where his best friend was the son of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. A teacher would take students to concerts, and in 1924 Carter heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall. “Half the audience walked out, but I thought it was the most wonderful thing.” On subsequent trips to Europe with his father, Carter began to pick up scores of music by Schoenberg, then all but unavailable in America. A later introduction to Charles Ives – who was at that stage not composing, but selling insurance – ensured that Carter was for ever lost to the world of lace importing.
Ives wrote a letter recommending Carter to Harvard, where he studied English as well as music and was tutored, briefly, by Gustav Holst. Ever since that evening at Carnegie Hall, he “consciously didn’t like old music” and had walked out of concerts of Beethoven and Brahms because “I thought they were tiresome. But then I realised the pieces I was writing weren’t terribly good, and that I had better learn about music properly”. In 1932 Carter travelled to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and “learnt traditional things such as counterpoint and harmony and analysis of various pieces. So I studied how people had written music in the past, which, unsurprisingly, was very helpful.”
When he returned to America in 1935, Carter became musical director of the Ballet Caravan and produced what is widely regarded as his first major work, the ballet score Pocahontas (1939), as well as beginning his first symphony. The same year, he married the sculptor Helen Frost-Jones. She died in 2003 after 64 years of marriage. When war broke out, Carter was rejected for military service on health grounds. “I had all these allergies, which made me very guilty, so I tried all sorts of things to get into the war.” For a time he was asked to spy on Germans in New York – “they were often people I knew and I didn’t want to get into that” – before working for the office of war information, where he was behind broadcasts to Nazi-occupied countries. “We played Schoenberg and all sorts of things.”
He says he knew, “more or less”, when D-Day would happen, and in 1944 wrote Holiday Overture, which reflected the liberation of Paris and linked back to his time studying in the city with Boulanger. Immediately after the war, the Carters moved into the Greenwich Village apartment where he still lives. He says he has seen the neighbourhood transformed in recent years into an adjunct of Wall Street, with mostly bankers moving in. “It wasn’t always like that. When I was in high school, and even college, there was prohibition, and Greenwich Village was one of the few places you could get an illegal drink. When we moved in, the poets EE Cummings and Marianne Moore lived down the street. So did the composer Varèse. As a young man, I would go to jazz clubs here and on 57th Street. I loved Art Tatum and was very interested in the whole movement of jazz, which is reflected in some of my music. In some ways, the whole conception of music from that time is jazz-related in terms of irregular rhythms and working against rhythms, and improvisation are things I’ve done in many of my works.”
On his return to America from Paris, Carter says, the serious music world was dominated by a group of composers, including Aaron Copland, who were writing “semi-populist” music. Carter attempted for some years to write in a similar style. “But then it dawned on me that these pieces, which were intended to be accessible and easy to understand for a more general public, were still considered modern music and the public didn’t like them. That allowed me to go back and write anything I wanted, because if the public didn’t like the music written specifically for them, I might as well write the music that I’d like.”
In 1950, he retreated with his family to the Arizona desert, where he began the next phase of his career. Over the next quarter of a century, he produced a series of newly complex and challenging works. His first string quartet (1951) featured the four instruments apparently running on quite separate tracks. Variations for Orchestra (1954-55) is now routinely described as a 20th-century masterpiece, and his double concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1959-61) was acclaimed in the same terms by Stravinsky.
“Even though I was now writing what I wanted to, I hope I wasn’t writing in a selfish way. I did have some ideas I wanted to deal with and I thought of each piece as an adventure. I tried to discover something new that I hadn’t written before. That would not normally be something that attracted a crowd, but I did seem to build an audience.”
Although Carter was honoured with prizes and posts in America, it was in Europe that he found his public. He travelled to France often after the second world war and “got to know a lot of musicians, such as Boulez, as friends. There was a big reaction after the war to the Nazis having refused modern music. So modern music was well thought of up to the level of governments sometimes, as well as by musicians and concert-goers.”
The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross has identified how “the tireless mechanism of cold-war cultural politics gave Carter’s international career an early boost. Although the first quartet had little hope of charming American audiences of the period, it went over well in the new music centres of postwar Europe.” Carter, while always politically and socially progressive, says his strong early interest in leftwing politics had been eclipsed by the realities of Stalinism and he had not adopted any other ideology.
“Of course I wanted my music to give pleasure to and interest people who might play or listen to it, but the notion that it might change the world in some way seemed to me hopeless. Remember I’ve lived through two world wars. And I saw France and Germany right after both of them. What I really wanted was just to make music that I liked.”
In the past three decades, he has done that with an astonishing frequency, producing his first opera at the age of 90. “I used to write these gigantic pieces that were very complex and took a long time to compose, if not to play. I am now much more impatient and couldn’t stand working for so long on the same thing. But also those pieces were me working out certain ideas about music. Those ideas are now part of my life, so I don’t have to think about them in quite the same way. But some things never change, in that you are still glad to finish a piece and still wonder whether it is as good as you hoped it might be when you started out.”
Carter has been so productive that, alongside works being premiered to mark his centenary, there are even newer works lined up for next year. He has a long history of setting American poetry to music, and has just finished adapting some of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos for a piece of music that will be heard first at Aldeburgh next year.
“Robert Lowell had shown me certain things that he liked very much in the Cantos and I have chosen a good deal of what he told me. The Cantos were a gigantic project that was going to be something like an Americanised version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, although that only emerges now and then. Some of them are wonderful poems, and I’ve used a section in which he talks about paradise – which for him was writing the perfect poem. Of course he never succeeded and he ends the piece saying that the ‘only paradise is in the wind’. It’s a wonderful way for an artist to look at things. But my turn of mind is not quite as apocalyptic as Pound’s. I prefer to think of myself as just working along, like any other person. I could be mending shoes or something, but I’m also aware that sometimes newly mended shoes are not only useful, but beautiful. And perhaps even fascinating.”
I’ve been interested in the idea of the concerto for a long time and have written works that might be called concertos for several instruments, including the flute, oboe, clarinet and violin, as well as things like my concerto for orchestra. These have not often been straightforward uses of the form, and I’ve enjoyed playing with the ideas that concertos raise.
There is the obvious fact of the soloist contrasted against the orchestra, which is often seen as the individual set against society. It’s a very potent idea. But there are many subtle variations, starting with the fact that the individual is also within society and the society is made up of individuals. For many years I thought deeply about these things. But today, maybe because of my age but more likely because these ideas are now ingrained within me, I just write the piece.
The new piano work for Daniel Barenboim and James Levine is called Interventions because the piano intervenes with the orchestra. It is a little like a concerto, but as Levine specifically told me to write something interesting for the orchestra as well as the pianist, I hope I’ve made something in which they both can shine.