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

6. On Difficulty

FRANK J. OTERI: But you must admit that some of your music is very difficult for listeners.


FJO: [laughs] As a composer, and somebody who’s lived with music my whole life, speaking for myself, with some of the pieces, I’m still quite perplexed. And I find that following with the score, I get so much more out of this music, but then there are certain pieces that I tried following with the score and I was completely overwhelmed. I’m thinking of Penthode, or the Piano Concerto, and…

EC: Oh, that Piano Concerto. That’s a wonderful piece.

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto (1965)
Ursula Oppens, piano; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen
Elliott Carter: Piano Concerto; Concerto for Orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra; Three Occasions

FJO: It’s very, very difficult to understand, though, I think.

EC: Really?

FJO: For me.

EC: Oh my!

FJO: [laughs]

EC: I never thought, well, I don’t know that. I mean, Ursula [Oppens] played it with Michael Gielen in Chicago not so long ago, the audience seemed to think it was fine. I mean, I don’t know what the audience felt, but they applauded a lot and they didn’t boo.

FJO: Well, what do you think is the best approach that somebody should come to your music with? Should they prepare by reading about it, studying a score, or should they just listen to it with completely fresh ears?

EC: I think they should just listen to it. Of course, well, let me put it this way. I think that the whole understanding of music has a background of literary description. I think that the public now wouldn’t like Beethoven symphonies if they hadn’t been told something about them. I wonder whether they would be able to take in all the things that happen, and what the music is and what the character of it is, if they hadn’t been told, or if it hadn’t been pumped into them a little bit. I mean, it gets passed on finally, but it’s familiar… I think the history of music has always had a certain amount of literary explanation that’s gone with it all along. The question, for instance, of counterpoint is a very interesting one. I mean, it’s obvious that most people who are not familiar with music can’t hear counterpoint very well. It’s just confusing to them. Now Bach wrote these pieces of staggeringly complicated counterpoint. The opening of the B minor Mass is one great big thing that, who knows what goes on, as a matter of fact, it’s much, it’s so dense and there are so many things happening. He has a big harmony, and it changes from one thing to another, and that makes an effect. But I don’t think that people would grasp that piece if they were not aware that this is the Kyrie Eleison and knowing what the text was.

FJO: Well, you have to admit, though, with music of the past and with other music of our time, that there are certain things that people can latch on to. Melodies that people walk away humming, things that linger in the mind.

EC: There’re not many, there are lots of sections in Chopin where there’s no melody at all. Some of the Preludes and some of the Etudes don’t have any melody, they just go up and down little tiny scales.

FJO: Those are probably not the more popular pieces, though.

EC: I wonder. Well, no, of course, but they’re the pieces that people play all the time. I feel my pieces are very melodic. People say that. They said my opera was very melodic.

FJO: It is. It really is.

EC: It doesn’t have a melody you can sing because it never repeats. There’s no melodic line that is repeated, so it doesn’t sink in. It’s just a type of melody which goes on and on.

FJO: So, since we’re living in an era where people are maybe going to get exposed to something once, how can they grasp something where there isn’t a single repetition? What can we do to make people understand this better?

EC: Just repeat it over and over again like Philip Glass.

FJO: What is your thought about minimalist music?

EC: I have a feeling about it that is very strong and it’s probably not correct. And that is that we are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement. I try to follow the movie that’s being shown, but I’m being told about cat food every 5 minutes. That is minimalism. I don’t want it and I don’t like it. And it’s a way of making an impression that doesn’t impress me. In fact, I do everything to avoid it. I turn off the television until it’s over. I refuse to be advertised to.

FJO: Could you appreciate music using repetition to attentuate a structure in a piece?

EC: Well, my music repeats in a certain sense all the time. I mean, it uses the same material but it carries on a development that is constantly drawing new ideas out of a basic chordal, whatever it is—I’ve done different things in different pieces, but it’s always one limited thing that it sticks to, that any part sticks to, or any one sound in an orchestra piece that persists throughout the piece. This gives it a structure. I mean, this is not anything really new. For instance, a lot of the Mahler symphonies are like that. There’s not really a repetitive thing in a lot of the Mahler symphonies; it just goes on and on more or less alike all the time.

FJO: But there are themes that always return.

EC: Sometimes, yes.

FJO: There have been a lot of comments, in recent reviews and in the press about music from your Violin Concerto onward claiming that your music has grown more emotional and more expressive, that it has become leaner, that there are sparer textures. It isn’t quite as busy, and it is easier to understand for people. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

An excerpt from Elliott Carter’s Violin Concerto (1990)
Ole Böhn, violin; London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen
Carter: Three Occasions, Violin Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra

EC: Well, I wouldn’t know that. I mean, I just do what I like. I never thought about it that way. It’s very possible, as far as I’m concerned, I just write one piece after another as it comes into my head. I do not think that I’ve tried to be simpler, or have tried to reach an audience more easily. No, I do not think that at all. Every composer must have this experience: You write a piece and you hear it, and then you think about it and you write some more, and the second piece is affected by what you heard the last time, by what you heard in the other piece. And in my life, there’s an accumulation of having heard, of having heard many, many of these different pieces, many times, sometimes badly played, sometimes, part of all of what goes on in my head, if I do certain things, it won’t come out very well, you know, or they won’t play it very well if you do this. I mean, there are whole thousands of little thoughts that are all part of the sort of subconscious business. It’s very hard to articulate.

FJO: Have you at all been influenced by other composers’ music that you’ve heard?

EC: I’m not aware of it. I probably have been but I don’t think about it. The only composer that’s influenced me more than others is Mozart. Because the thing that interests me in Mozart is the extraordinary change that we were talking about. The extraordinary ability to get through many things rather rapidly, many different things, like the opening of Don Giovanni, for instance, which is one of the remarkable things in music.


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