7. Vocal Music
FRANK J. OTERI: Literature has always been so important to you, and you wrote a lot of vocal music and choral music in your early career. But when you embarked on the style that was to occupy you for the rest of your life, you turned away from vocal music until the mid-‘70s when you composed an Elizabeth Bishop song cycle, A Mirror On Which To Dwell, which is quite wonderful. I think having a vocal line on top of the music that you were writing made it very different. You can’t write for the voice the way that you write for other instruments.
ELLIOTT CARTER: Oh, no.
FJO: It’s fascinating how much the music articulates the rhythms of the words of the poetry and how much the music is about the poetry. And with your opera What Next?, I was even more thrilled at how dramatic this music can be, and how the music propels the action, and I would dare say, and I know that you say that you don’t notice this, but perhaps my ear perceives it, and I’m looking at the score and perceiving it as another listener, as being simpler and more concise, and maybe with the voice and a dramatic context, you can’t be as complex if you want to get the message across. Am I feeling anything that’s at all logical?
EC: It’s very hard for me to say I’m getting the message across. I mean, I get the person getting the music the message gets across is me. It’s rather hard for me to think about it any other way. I just feel that this is the way it should be. Obviously, in opera there are many kinds of things that go on in one’s head. The problem in the opera, for instance, is the idea that a woman, who is the main character, should be a singer so she would sing almost from beginning to end, with pauses, but she carries on enormous arias. So the opera involved all sorts of different things about how to subordinate, how to have her come in while somebody else is singing, when would she come in, and oh, God, thousands of interesting problems which were fascinating to deal with. I thought about Wagner operas and Strauss operas and I decided that I really wanted to write an opera in which the singing was more important than the orchestra by far. And this is what I did. Now Oliver Knussen said to me that I shouldn’t. Die schweigsame Frau by Strauss is a comedy but there’s an enormous orchestra doing everything all the time, and I said to myself, that’s just what I don’t want! I want to have something in which the people on the stage sing, and they’re the ones that are living characters. And it’s really carrying on the same ideas I had in the string quartets.
FJO: What was it like working with Paul Griffiths?
EC: Well, I told him what I wanted. And I told him that I wanted an automobile accident, and people recovering from it, and getting sort of disjointed in their lives, and he just wrote the libretto, and there were very few things that had to be changed. It was a very good libretto from the point of view of what I wanted. Some people think it’s an awful libretto, but I think it’s a very good one.
FJO: Oh, I think it’s fantastic. Yeah, I really enjoyed it.
EC: Now, I also chose Paul Griffiths because I decided that he had heard many contemporary operas and he was more familiar with the operatic problem than most writers would be. There are many writers that I know. John Guare lives around the corner. I realized that if I chose a writer who might have had a little bit more publicity connected with him, I would have had to explain to him how to write an opera. Now, this man knew how to write an opera right away.
FJO: And he’s also a very big fan of your music.
EC: He knew my music, and right now, he wrote a libretto that he thought would provoke my music, you see, which is not something I would find in any other writer, except John Ashbery perhaps, but his poetry would have been too disjointed for me to deal with.
FJO: It’s interesting to me that there was such a long period where you did not write any vocal music.
EC: Well, that’s very simple. When I first heard those Robert Frost songs and my Hart Crane setting and the rest of it, they were badly sung. I had never heard a very good performance of them at the time when they were written. And I was rather discouraged. I thought, well, evidently I don’t know how to write in such a way that people will sing these pieces well. That was one thing. And then when I began to decide to write the kind of music that you heard in the First String Quartet, I realized that, if they couldn’t sing those earlier songs, then nobody could sing what I might have written later. And so, granted, this was just in the back of my mind, and finally I just got very interested in writing chamber music. And it was only because Fred Sherry and Speculum Musicae asked me to write a vocal piece and so I did. And then I talked to a friend of mine, and said that I wanted a text that was written by a woman since it was going to be a woman singing the songs, and so he said Elizabeth Bishop.