Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century
Elliott Carter Photo by Kathy Chapman, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

Elliott Carter: The Career of a Century

5. Being an American

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that with all of this chamber-oriented work you’ve created something that is very uniquely American. I know you once described the Fourth String Quartet as mirroring the democratic ideal of each member in a society maintaining an identity while cooperating on a common goal.

ELLIOTT CARTER: I don’t think about it; I think that being American is being yourself. I think that it’s ridiculous to be American by putting some folk songs in a piece the way Dvořák did…

The Voice of Elliott Carter

FJO: I actually think there’s something very European about that type of approach. It reflects a kind of respect for traditions that I think Americans don’t really understand. Europe is completely surrounded by tradition, it’s saturated by tradition, whereas in America, we’re constantly destroying our older buildings, putting up new ones. There’s always this pioneer spirit, this sense of constant change, and it sort of has resulted in a very different aesthetic that we have as Americans. And I think that your music speaks to that, that individualism, each voice in a string quartet acting independently.

EC: The notion of tradition in Europe is also the notion of a kind of progressiveness we don’t really have as much. I mean, who could build a Pompidou Center here or the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Even though Frank Gehry, an American, was the architect that did it. There’s not going to be any building of that sort in this country as far as I know. Los Angeles has been wanting to put up a concert hall built by Gehry that perhaps will turn up, but the Europeans have spent large amounts of money building new buildings that are very advanced. France is very determined to try to be the most advanced country. I don’t know whether they’ll succeed. But this is partly true in other countries. Americans aren’t thinking about that because we have no unified culture from which we can break away. There are isolated and very remarkable things in this country that have been done, but as you say, they sometimes suffer from not being recognized very much and sometimes just being overwhelmed with other things. I mean, we have a building by Louis Sullivan downtown…

FJO: On Bleecker Street.

EC: Yeah. You can hardly see it anymore. And the Jefferson Market building, that old tower… This building itself is a historic monument, but this is not very meaningful to most people. There’s a little group of people who try to preserve these things, but I’m not sure it’s very meaningful. I have not thought about this as an act in itself in my own life, and so it’s something I’m trying to talk about without being very articulate. I can’t imagine being European, in the sense that I’m not aware of tradition in the way that somebody like Boulez is, for instance.

FJO: So you would consider yourself an American composer?

EC: Oh, of course. We’re a little bit like English composers but not so much. No, no, no, even the English have Holst and Vaughan Williams and Elgar to get rid of.

FJO: Right. Well, I mean, do we have figures that we need to get rid of? People like Ives and Cowell and Gershwin or even Copland at this point?

EC: Well, they never have sunk in that much. We’ve been making great effort to celebrate Copland this year because of his 100th birthday. But I wonder what repercussions that will have when it’s 2001. After we forget very easily our past in this country. MacDowell wasn’t such a bad composer, but he’s particularly unknown.

FJO: And John Knowles Paine…

EC: Oh, yeah, a whole bunch of them. Even Charles Griffes… When I was young, the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall used to play his White Peacock all the time, and now it’s gone.

FJO: He was a very unique composer who had a different approach to Impressionism that’s very original.

EC: Yeah, yeah, very original in his own way. But it’s not anything that hangs on. You know, America’s a peculiar place because it’s so different from what you expect. I wanted to give a friend of mine this book, Tristram Shandy, and I went to the bookstore and I said, “Have you got a nice bound copy?” “Oh, no, we only have paperback because people only read it when they’re in college.” That’s the story.

FJO: And it really puts a damper on creativity and on the arts.

EC: Well, we’re all sort of subversive in a certain sense. We’re doing something that is a little out of step with our society. But on the other hand, the society somehow, this can mean something to lots of people in any case, I think. It’s not something that is found in the spotlight of publicity. In fact, it’s very possible that publicity is the one thing that’s bad about all of this. The world of publicity is so intense now. And it’s what is unfortunately happening, even now, to a certain extent in music. Younger composers follow the trendy thing a good deal, and two years later, it ain’t trendy anymore.

FJO: What would you give as advice to younger composers?

EC: Better do what they like. What they like most.

FJO: You pretty much have managed to stand apart from all of the stylistic camps that we’ve found ourselves in over the past 50 years. You’ve distanced yourself from serialism and you’ve been openly critical of indeterminate music. You’ve spoken out against complex systems that are impossible for listeners to hear. But people who are not familiar with your music might say it’s very complex and difficult to comprehend. What would be your response to that? How should listeners approach your music?

EC: Let me say, you’re asking questions that would have been a very different one, if we had been in a situation like England, where British Broadcasting has played every work of mine over many years from 1950 on. Maybe some people don’t like it, but there are a large number of people who think they ought to like it, and they make an effort to like it, and that’s it. In America I can’t say, “I’m very good. You better listen and learn how to hear it.” You can’t say that. It doesn’t make any sense. So there’s nothing you can do. You just wait. But we know waiting in this country means disappearing, because this has happened. But it happened even with Mark Twain, practically, except for Huckleberry Finn. And it certainly happened with Herman Melville except for Moby Dick. I have a complete set of Hawthorne; I wonder if anybody reads any of it anymore.

FJO: I just got finished reading the complete works of Herman Melville…

EC: Oh, my God! Mardi

FJO: It was very intense.

EC: And then Clarel, that big poem.

FJO: The one that I’m really amazed by is Pierre; or The Ambiguities.

EC: Oh, yes, well, that’s all about incest.

FJO: It’s such a remarkably constructed and conceived parody of 19th century morals.

EC: Well, you know, the most interesting book about Melville is written by a Frenchman. And it’s the same with Poe. Except for Ph.D. dissertations, which don’t get printed in general, except privately or small copies, the general public in America is too busy with whatever it is, and not any of that old stuff.

FJO: Well certainly the American classical music community is still dwelling on music of the past, Europe’s past. Music that’s from another time and another continent, rather than paying attention to what’s happening here now.

EC: This is a very complicated subject. For instance, not so long ago, within the last three or four weeks, Anne Sophie Mutter played a whole series of contemporary music concerts. They all sold out because she’s a famous player. Half the audience goes to see a player; it doesn’t matter what they play.

FJO: It helps that she’s very attractive, too…

EC: Very pretty, yeah. I think that we’re very concerned with performers, and performance, and we don’t really care too much about the music. And there have been very good and very famous performers like Pollini, who plays the Boulez Second Sonata…

FJO: …And music by Luigi Nono…

EC: We’re very performer-oriented, and performers all learn all those famous Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart pieces, and they all play them well. Mr. Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma played my cello sonata in Chicago a couple of weeks ago and it was very successful.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 4 (1986)
The Composers Quartet (Matthew Raimondi and Anahid Ajemian, violins; Maureen Gallagher, viola; Karl Bargen, cello)
Three American String Quartets

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)
Fred Sherry, cello; Charles Wuorinen, piano
Elliott Carter: Eight Compositions


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