A Composer for the Century

Ken Smith writes about music for Time Out New York and other publications

“I am a radical,” composer Elliott Carter once said, “having a nature that leads me to perpetual revolt.”

And for most of his nearly 90 years, Carter has stuck to his guns. As a high school student in the ‘20s, he discovered the wild rhythms and extended harmony of cutting-edge Stravinsky and Varese, attending concerts with another American musical radical, Charles Ives. At Harvard, he grappled unhappily with a curriculum that “didn’t contain contemporary music.” “I tried to write modern music,” he remembers, “but I ended up sounding like Mendelssohn.”

For a while he embraced the more accessible neoclassicism, with its fashionable updating of 18th century music, but in the late ‘40s he found the radical voice that would lead him to two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1960 and 1973. As he approaches his 90th birthday in December, Carter remains the uncompromising dean of American music.

Carter’s First String Quartet (1951), which critic-composer Virgil Thomson likened to “four intrinsically integrated solos, all going on at the same time,” embodies his style--a complex swirl of musical confrontations and collisions that to his champions expresses the chaos and disunity of our time, and to his detractors displays merely the thorny incomprehensibility of modern music.


This year, those detractors have been mostly in retreat, particularly in his hometown of New York City. His birthday tribute at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre was packed with appreciative ears, and the applause at the New York premiere of his 1996 Clarinet Concerto by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 31 seemed to last nearly as long as the piece itself.

Next month, Carter plans to celebrate his milestone birthday--appropriately--at a concert where Oliver Knussen will conduct his 45-minute “Symphonia” with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Carter tributes are scheduled in London, Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt. In Los Angeles, the celebration has already begun: Today the Los Angeles Philharmonic performs “Allegro Scorrevole” (one-third of the “Symphonia”), and Southwest Chamber Music plays his Sonata for Cello and Piano. Next Sunday, the Arditti Quartet will be joined by pianist Ursula Oppens in the West Coast premiere of a new Carter quintet at Caltech, just five days after the same forces give it its world premiere in Washington.

Carter spoke to The Times at the Greenwich Village apartment where he lives with his wife of 60 years, Helen. Like his music, his home is free of clutter, with a fine attention to detail.

Question: As someone who embodies most of the 20th century, what does it mean to be a 20th century composer?

Answer: In my particular instance, it means to reflect the time we live in, which has changed enormously in every aspect. When I was a little boy, we lived up on Riverside Drive and 114th Street. I’d walk to school on 120th Street, hitchhiking on the back of a horse-drawn ice truck, which I still remember vividly. We’ve lived through two horrible wars, which is one reason I went back to writing the kind of music I had been writing at first. By the time of the Second World War, neoclassicism didn’t express to me the tension and worry and stress of the time; I wanted something more adult and significant. In my [early] music, I like to think you can hear the horses trotting; in my later music, you can hear marching. Now war is fought in tanks and airplanes, and I feel my music today reflects all of this.

Q: Something particularly endemic to our time is that although modern music reflects the 20th century, the audience remains stuck in the 19th. Why do they resist the new?

A: It’s hard for me to understand why audiences don’t like modern music, because I feel it’s so interesting, so lively, with so much more to think about. Sure, Beethoven and Brahms are beautiful in a way, but they don’t have that freshness that contemporary music always does. I think people today go to concerts because it reminds them of that grand, great period in the 19th century, when people were wealthy and had great chandeliers. They enjoy being bathed in the sumptuous world of the past. It’s all very beautiful, but it just ain’t there anymore.

Two factors are at work. One, particularly in this country, is that what we call serious music has been treated as an entertainment, where in Europe it has maintained [its intellectual] prestige. The BBC, for example, plays large amounts of contemporary music--including my own pieces. I don’t know whether audiences like it or not, but my concerts in London are always packed, partly because of familiarity with the music.


Then there’s the financial problem. Before our present income tax, there were wealthy people in this country who supported contemporary music. Leopold Stokowski performed [Berg’s] “Wozzeck” [in Philadelphia in 1931] and it was completely sold out, partly because there were a lot of wealthy people who could support it. After the income tax, orchestras and musicians had to depend on small amounts from many individuals rather than one or two large donors. To put it another way, the Boston Symphony was supported by [Henry Lee] Higginson, who said, “We will play Brahms and Wagner until the audience likes it,” and paid for it until they did.

About 12 years ago, [conductor and violinist] Paul Sacher asked if he could buy my manuscripts for his library in Basel. I’ve been criticized for letting [them] get out of the country, but the thing I realized was that it’s better to have money in the United States than music.

Q: Although you’ve greatly expanded the musical language, your instrumentation remains rather traditional. Why is that?

A: I’ve thought about electronic music, and I have used percussion, which isn’t really traditional. But our traditional instrumentation is very delicately graded--scales of notes and tone colors making subtle interconnections. Next to that system, electronic music--at least what I’ve heard--seems so crude. And then there’s the other problem, which is that it would take years to learn, and that is time I would rather spend composing.


Q: In what pieces did you find your voice as a composer?

A: The Cello Sonata [1948], the Piano Sonata [1946] and, of course, the First String Quartet were a big turning point. One of the big problems in the 1930s and 1940s was that I was running several contemporary concert series, and it prevented me from composing. I wrote my First String Quartet on a Guggenheim fellowship, where I could work without being interrupted. I also wrote quite slowly in those early years--the first quartet, for instance, took all of 1950 to write. I write much more quickly now, but at the time, I had these ideas that I’d never put down on paper before because I was afraid no one would play them. Finally, I decided I wasn’t going to think about that anymore, and [the quartet] drew more attention by far than anything else I’d written.

Q: Those pieces you mentioned were all chamber works. Was chamber music your own inclination, or a practical consideration?

A: My First Symphony was a bit of neoclassical Americana and was played by a WPA orchestra downtown at Cooper Union. And who was in the audience that night but Duke Ellington, who came up to me after the performance and said, “I like the way you treat jazz.”


But the idea of writing orchestral music, by the time I was writing my First String Quartet, meant that either it wouldn’t be played, or would be played so badly no one would want to hear it. So I became very leery about orchestras, and in fact over the years I’ve never written orchestral pieces except when they’re commissioned by groups who know what they’re going to get. When the Second String Quartet won the Pulitzer Prize and the Juilliard Quartet had it in their repertory, people all around the country asked them to play it, and it elicited outright displays of anger from their audiences. Finally, the Juilliard made a disc and sent it around asking people if they still wanted to hear the piece and most of them said no. This has been my experience.

Q: How do you respond to that as a composer?

A: I’m writing this music for performers who want to play it. And if they want to play it for audiences that don’t like it, that’s their problem and not mine. The Juilliard Quartet has been extremely supportive from the beginning. Also Ursula Oppens, Daniel Barenboim--by now quite a large group of people think very highly of my music. So I’m not so concerned about what the public thinks.

Q: At the age of 90, you’ve written your first opera, “What Next?” What can you tell us about it?


A: Daniel Barenboim had been nagging me, and I told him I’d never found a libretto that interested me. I was in the hospital with pneumonia and I got this call, “Where’s my opera?” Never before had someone been so interested. So I’d seen a movie by Jacques Tati called “Traffic” in which there’s an automobile accident and everybody then gets up and does exercises. I thought it would be amusing to start an opera with a traffic accident. Paul Griffiths came up with a very amusing libretto--you can’t tell whether it’s a horror story or a comedy. It is set to premiere in September 1999 at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

Q: Your music today remains highly complex but it seems more approachable than in the past. Is this due to better performances or to the music itself?

A: The earlier pieces trained people to hear my music, but I guess I do write in a comparatively more transparent style now. I don’t think much about that, but I’ve written things and not been able to hear them clearly, so I began to make sure that what was going on in the music became more evident. The Fourth String Quartet [1986] is one of my densest pieces and the Fifth String Quartet [1995] is one of the most transparent.

Q: How does it feel today to hear pieces from different stages of your life?


A: I guess this sounds arrogant, but I’m always rather surprised that they’re as good as they are. Every time I hear the Cello Sonata I think it’s a pretty good piece and I don’t know how I wrote it. Sometimes I hear it as if it were somebody else’s, or like reading an old diary--familiar events that seem a little remote. But from the First Quartet on, the music remains very vivid to me.


“Allegro Scorrevole,” Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. Today, 2:30 p.m. $11-$65. (323) 850-2000.



Sonata for Cello and Piano, Southwest Chamber Music, Zipper Hall, Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave. Today, 7:30 p.m. $10-$20. (800) 726-7147.


Quintet for Piano and String Quartet and String Quartet No. 5, Ursula Oppens, pianist; Arditti Quartet, Beckman Auditorium, Caltech, Pasadena. Next Sunday, 3:30 p.m. $13-$25. (626) 395-4652.