The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter is America's leading composer, though as he insists, he is a composer who happens to be American. Born in 1908 Carter has been increasingly recognised as a master of closely worked, disciplined, often passionate, sometimes violent music which he is now composing with a growing facility. His very first opera - 'What Next?' was written in 1999, a remarkable achievement for a man of his age. That will be heard in Britain in 2001. Carter has also written 5 String Quartets, music for the voice and major orchestral pieces. He has also written and talked very widely about music, as a journalist and critic. As a figure who spans the century he has known all the great leaders of contemporary music, from Stravinsky to Charles Ives, Edgar Varese and Aaron Copland and many, many others.
Elliott Carter, some 50 years ago in an essay you wrote, you said that everything is a problem for the composer. Everything that is from what to write, how to write it, how to make it popular or not, how to deal with publishers, audiences and performers. 50 years on, have any of these problems gone away?
Some of these problems have gone away. After all I was talking from the point of view of an American and from the point of view of my situation in America . Even before 50 years ago, there were very few composers and there was a difficulty for composers to learn how to write music. To learn the techniques of various kinds. It was my generation actually that started the idea of having music taught - composition taught, not only in conservatories but also in universities in the United States . We started out maybe with 30 or 40 composers at most in America . Now we have 20,000 - all as a result of my unfortunate efforts.
You taught a fair number of the 20,000 - well, a few score?
Well, yes, I taught some, so actually the problem has become a reverse problem that the publishers can't keep up with us, performers can't keep up with us. Too many pieces being written and, while in the old days it was quite the opposite. There were pieces written and it was hard for us to get performances because at that time there was not very much interest in contemporary music except amongst very small groups of people. Now the composers are fighting to get performances and as a result, the entire moral attitude about composing has changed.
It's a moral attitude, did you say?
Yes. mean, I should say moral in the certain sense that in our day, when we first started in the 1930s before the Second War, the composers composed because they loved to compose and then they thought, well, maybe we can get performances and possibly get publication. But publishers didn't want to publish much because the works didn't sell so and furthermore we didn't have the glory that you have. We didn't have the Performance Rights Society which was partly organised by myself with Aaron Copland and other people, so that the remunerative effort of a composer was nil except that he got a great deal of pleasure out of writing the music and being interested in it and having a few friends like it.
Are you suggesting that there's less element of writing for enjoyment now, simply because there is a sub-class, as you say, of composers - 20,000 people. This is a noticeable sub-section of sort of economic society, isn't it?
That's right, and actually there are a very large number of composers now writing who are very concerned with reaching the public. That was rare in the old days but it has now become one of the most usual things which is a little bit - from my point of view is rather disturbing because I feel that in the end the music that I've always liked, and the music that I admire and the music that I write considers the public as a secondary matter and the reason we write is because we love to write and we think music is a very beautiful thing and we hope that we can do something nice.
Let's just get that relationship right. So you're saying now composers are saying, I want my music to speak to the public and that is a prior consideration rather than, am I writing something which comes strongly from me and which is going to be a piece of good music. And that's a complete switch from the attitude you had?
That's right. I mean, the attitude I still have, as I say. So it's rather bothersome for me to have this attitude now while before it was a normal thing to have.
But just because you take that attitude and you say the audience come second, that's not necessarily wrong, so to say, because if you didn't have the drive to make the music as good as you can, you wouldn't have anything excellent to put to the audience, would you?
That's what I think, yes. But of course the thing that has happened is that the young composers will do anything to reach the audience, as you probably know... very large amounts of recordings of music for backgrounds of films, very often this kind of background of music is not at all concerned with the problem of writing pieces that have any length, that have any development. It's concerned with different kinds of styles and different kinds of characters. It actually makes no difference whether the music is, let's say, for a horror film, for which that may be a little 12 note music, or music for a love story, which will be like, I don't know, Gershwin ... and so all this kind of music is all mixed up into one stretch of music which, to my mind, is one of the things I can't stand.
It's a total confusion, though, if the absolutely respectable job of being a journeyman composer who is fulfilling a function such as writing music for films is confused with the word that you tend to use, which is the person who writes art music which is music which stands or falls in its own terms and in relation to its own quality.
That's exactly right, and the problem has become that many, many young composers and even many critics feel that the point of view of writing something that stands on itself, let us say, is not as important as something that is accessible to the public; and hence very often the music that the young people write is, you know - will have a little bit of Bach and a little bit of Schonberg and a little bit of Gershwin or anything else, all mixed together and this pleases the public and unfortunately it pleases even many conductors of orchestras nowadays.
50 years ago of course American minimalism - the Adams 's, the Glass's..
That didn't exist.
... didn't exist.
The small public that we had we felt were very musically literate, and repetition was something that was not a very interesting thing to do. Now, the public apparently likes to hear the same thing over and over again because they can't understand it until they've heard it 10 times.
But you don't dismiss what the Reich's and the Glass's and the Adams 's do just because they base a lot of it on conscious deliberate patterned repetition?
Let me say, I think anybody should write what they want to write and what they think is important to write and assume the situation they want to, but I myself feel this is really a terrible thing because in my opinion we have been overwhelmed with the problem of advertising in the whole world, and advertising is a system of repeating the same thing over and over again, true or false, and trying to bulldoze the public into believing what they're saying, and furthermore, we're getting into more horrible and awful situations. We had this in many ways during all of our lives in propaganda. I mean, we have our own propaganda, but much more unfortunately, Hitler in propaganda. And I find that this repetition thing reminds me of all of that and I don't like it.
That's quite a charge against the minimalists.
Well, I'm not saying that they want to do it but to me that reminds me of it. I'm not saying that they're doing it that way but it bothers me very much that I see this in the background - having in the background this awful thing which is to beat people down to believing something just because it's repeated over and over again, and this is terrible. In my mind this is a way of destroying intelligence.
What made you first want to be a composer, and, clearly you're interested in music, but did you know that you were going to be a composer rather than a performer or a teacher of music?
What made me want to be a composer is odd to say. Hearing 'The Rite of Spring' played by Pierre Montou when I was... in the 20s.
The great Montou.
Yes. It was a scandal. Everybody walked out of the hall and people were terrified. Maybe that's why I liked it but in any case [laughter] I became a fan of modern music in very early adolescence. I think it was 23 or 24.
And did you take your father to hear 'Rite of Spring'?
Oh, father hated it. He thought it was awful. But everybody else did that was not unusual at that time; but at that time I also had a teacher in school who liked this kind of thing and he introduced me to Charles Ives and Varese and all sorts of people who were involved with this particular group of musicians who were interested in modern music so I just carried on as a person who liked modern music which were played in all places, but actually, let me say another thing, that in that particular period, post First World War, there was a very different economic structure in America . There was not the income tax system that we have now and therefore very wealthy people supported contemporary music in rather elaborate ways so that we were able, in those... in the 20s and early 30s before the Depression, there were very big performances of important works. I heard for instance Wozzeck - it was given by Leopold Stokowski at the Metropolitan Opera House and this was all private money that was paid for - I remember reading that one of the patrons was Mrs Thomas Edison, for instance. And other people, notable people. The sort who were wealthy and who felt modern music should be encouraged.
So what sort of audiences did they have for those concerts?
They had a full house. Everybody liked it very much. there wasn't much American music being played of contemporary, but there were these big important European things that were brought over that were very grand and very beautifully performed and very striking to this poor boy that wanted to hear all these things. I sat next to George Gershwin at Wozzeck I remember, rather timidly. I didn't dare say
anything to him.
So you don't know what Gershwin thought of Wozzeck?
No. I have no idea. This was also during our awful period of Prohibition when alcoholic liquids were not sold. We all went to what were called speakeasy's to drink whatever we drank - and I used to meet Varese in one of them often in those days and I got to know Varese . I knew him all through his entire life until he died; and I got to know Charles Ives. He was not a drinker so he didn't go to that kind of thing, but any case, I got to know him very well as a very young fellow.
And he helped you a lot, He wrote a letter to Harvard, did he not, recommending you and saying you had all the usual virtues and also saying apart from anything else, he has a fine sense of humour, which I think... which seems to be true.
Well, it was nice. It was nice of him to say that, Even Ives went to some contemporary concerts and supported one contemporary music group in New York for quite a long time and in fact later, when I became an editor of a magazine called 'New Music', I found that Charles Ives had always been supporting that for many, many years with a number of thousands of dollars every year. He was interested in helping contemporary music in New York , but then there was also, as I say, this very wealthy group that followed contemporary music, mostly European, and it was also the same group that started the Museum of Modern Art and all kinds of things in New York City . All of that disappeared with the Depression, and then a new income tax system came so that these people no longer supported the arts in the way they did at all. It all became something that only small individuals supported, let's say, symphony orchestras, and this has changed the entire character of it because in order for a symphony orchestra in America to persist, they have to raise large amounts of money from not such wealthy people so that they have to be sure to interest all of these people to come to the concerts, otherwise they won't. So less contemporary music is now played than it was ...
I see. So by broadening the base of the supporters to whom you appeal,
then you also narrow the range of music that you play.
That's exactly what's happened. What has happened is that they approach the arts, and in particular, music as if it were entertainment and not as education, while with the state support it's assumed that this is more of an educational thing than we consider it as a result of an entirely different programme viewed by what you
Let's just go back to Charles Ives for a moment; because you were so close to him - you wrote many letters to him and so on and so forth - and I just want to take up the time when you were a young music critic and you were reviewing his 'Concord'
sonata and you really weren't happy with it.
Ives encouraged me to be a composer very early on in my life. I wrote some little things before I studied music that were settings of James Joyce and other things, and he thought they were quite interesting and I should be encouraged. And it was partly due to that fact that I finally decided to be a composer; and then I realised when I went to Harvard that the music department disliked contemporary music very much and I was very unhappy. I finally studied English Literature and didn't study with the music department at all because it was... meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra were playing all the works of Stravinsky and I was very happy to be in Boston because we heard more contemporary music with the Boston Symphony than we would have in New York; and then I felt I had to study and I went to study with Nadia Boulanger and became very much more interested in the sort of neo-classic Stravinsky and Poulenc and everything, so that when I heard Charles Ives Concord Sonata I was no longer seeing Ives as I had as a very young person but I was seeing it through the eyes of a neo-classicist, and it seemed to me that that music was accessibly Lisztian and extravagant, which was something that at that particular time I didn't like. Now I do.
So then there was a break between you and Ives for a period over that?
Well, it was a nervous... I mean, it was largely timidity on my part. I didn't like that I had to say what I thought and it worried me that I might have hurt him. That gradually disappeared over the years and before he died I saw him a good deal...and I can't say it was guilt but feeling badly about this whole thing and my feelings also changed; I actually started a group of us when I was rather ill and couldn't do very much, getting his scores in shape, because he wrote scores that were very messy and very confused and re-wrote them and wrote one thing on top of another. They were terribly confused things and I thought, well, it would be nice if we straighten these scores out and got him to okay them before he died and so I started a whole project which in the end bothered me so much I had to stop, but other people like Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell continued and edited a good many of his works so that they could be played.
But you were very frank with him, weren't you, because in one of your books there's a letter from his wife to you recalling that Ives said to her after one of your visits, that Ives said, 'Carter says people think I'm crazy. I'm really crazy.' That's a very brave thing to have said to Ives; and clearly came as something of a shock to him. It hadn't occurred to him that music created that impression on people.
Yes, well it did. Ives, when he published his Concord Sonata, which I think was in 23, he sent the score - he was a wealthy man, after all, he made a lot of money selling insurance - he sent copies of this to every important organisation in the United States so that everybody knew what this crazy man was doing. They all thought it was crazy. In fact when I was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome there was a copy of the Concord Sonata that he'd sent it even to Rome to the American Academy in Rome in the library, and as a result there was a great deal of negative feeling about Ives because of all of that.
What about now? I mean, he's still not an easy composer. He still hasn't, as it were, tamed down. He's still radical and shocking and unexpected and surprising,
Well in general that's true. The pieces that composers - that performers want to play are the extravagant ones but they're also very conservative in rather obvious and not terribly interesting ones.
Let's talk for a moment about how you write and the actual disciplines and personal routines of being a composer and even before that, do you find that there is the seed of a particular composition, let us say a string quartet, suddenly starts to appear, or do you start to think and say, I want to write another quartet so I'll now start to think about. Four minutes, thematic subjects and so on and so forth?
Well, at this age of my life everything I write is commissioned ... on the other hand I don't accept any commissions that are for pieces that I don't want to write so that the focusing on what the commission should be becomes an important matter. But still, you know, string quartets want me to write a quartet or a symphony orchestra wants me to write or in the case of the opera, the Staatsoper wanted me to write a opera. These are all directed things and I decided that I would do each one of them so that I already had the instrumentation and the general type of thing decided for me in collaboration with another group.
But you must have had the idea that you were ready to write a quartet and certainly ready to write an opera...
I wouldn't write a quartet that I didn't want to write. In fact I tried throughout my life - I've written now five, I guess that's all I will write - but I've always felt that I shouldn't write another quartet until I had another idea that was different from the previous one or previous two, so I've always tried to write the opposite of what... or differently from them. They aren't that different but I always thought they were at the time.
Where might you find that idea coming from? Is it something that it's only when you sit down with the blank music paper and you know that you're writing a quartet that the ideas start to come, or from the time that you started to think about it that you think, that figure will work, that phrase will work?
I think about it a great deal before I write it, oh yes. Well you see.. my music always arises from the instruments that are going to play it or the situation of the singers or the orchestra. That's the first thing. The second thing is that there are certain types of things which I like to do and there are other things that I don't like so that there's a focusing on the particular field of operation that I'm concerned which I have been concerned with since 1950 when I wrote my first string quartet. And that idea was that music is played by, or sung by individual people and I wanted to give the impression in a concert or in a performance that these individual people exist as individuals and that they are not sunk in one mass of things. They're not all following the orders of one leader, so to speak. That they're all living, to a certain extent, to themselves and they contribute in their own way, each in their own way, to produce a piece. In the concert, there will be four individuals, let's say in the string quartet - all of them having their own character and they will contribute to produce the piece. That's the dramatic notion of the pieces that I write. When I come to orchestrate music I either think of them as groups of teams... or in some pieces like the concerto orchestra is even down to the point where even the teams have individualities. In the concerto for orchestra the double basses have a whole little fight between themselves and that kind of thing, so I'm very concerned with individualising the players which means very much giving contrasts so that they are
sometimes co-operative. Sometimes they're not so co-operative, and contrasting the various elements that these different people are contributing.
Does the word, which outsiders always tend to use about artists, so I will use it - but does the word, 'inspiration', figure in your work or is it something which really is not a useful idea to describe what goes on when you compose?
If there is inspiration it's not something that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it. The more I get into the piece the more so to speak the inspiration of ... well, I don't know exactly what inspiration means but I would see more clearly and with more excitement and more interest - new things - and would not be in the process let's say of discarding a great many things I don't want to do. Once I've gotten focused on this thing, inspiration of a certain source - let's say the excitement of writing it - becomes more and more important as I write the piece. I mean this is the way we would normally behave under other circumstances. Not even in music. If you were writing a letter or a novel, the more you get into the novel, the more clearly you see what you're trying to do, and so forth.
Are you a tidy writer on the paper or are you constantly scratching out? I mean, do your scores look at all like what you said Charles Ives' scores look like?
Well, there was a long time ago when Stravinsky said you write a music with an eraser. I don't do that quite that way. What I generally do is that I sit down and I don't play the piano very well anymore and I never did very well but I would just sit down and write large amounts of the music. I'm writing a cello concerto, for instance, right now and I'm writing first the cello part from beginning to end and then there are two things that happen after that. One of them is that I begin to go back over it and sometimes play it on the piano and I don't like this or I change that, and a little bit here and a little bit there, and then the second thing is that I take this particular part to a cellist - a very good one - and he shows me what it is that's awkward and then I decide whether I really want it to continue being awkward or not and he discusses instrumental problems which some may arise. Most of it doesn't but there might be little details and I might change them or I might now. I mean, we have a little discussion about what... about the speed, let us say, of certain passages that are may be too fast to make an effective performance out of them.
Charles Rosen has said, hasn't he, that at the end of one work - I forget now which one it is - that the only thing to do for the pianist is to ignore the conductor, put his head down, and just get to the end of the score because it is so complex and so fast, and that is you, presumably, setting a major problem for the performer and doing so deliberately?
Well yes. Except I'm not quite like Brian Ferneyhough, I don't feel I should make a drama out of the difficulty of playing - the excessive difficulty that makes it so hard that you feel that the performer is in a state of frenzy. Now let me say though, that old cello sonata that I wrote in 1948 was a piece of frenzy for the two performers at the time. It's played now and taught in conservatories and students play it with ease. But when it was first written it was a horror for the performers. They all sat there and they came out dripping with sweat.
Well, again, reading some of your essays, it reminded me again of how much we've come on in 50 years and we have learnt an enormous amount about contemporary music. I mean, in 1940, I think the early 50's, you were saying how difficult Stravinsky's 'Agon' was thought to be. Well we don't regard that as a difficult score and we have taken a lot in our stride and I suppose that one of other things that one has to remember is that it does take 30 to 40 years for music to, as it were, fall into our ears in a way that makes it comparatively easy rather than just difficult.
But you know the other side... you're talking about that... when I was much younger I felt that it took me 4 or 5 years before I could hear the music the way I intended it to be played.
Your own music?
My own music; because there were all these performers who got so nervous they couldn't get through it and it took a long time before the music sounded the way I hoped it would; and when I was very young I used to change the music so as to try to accommodate the situation and then in the end I always changed it back to the way it was in the first place because it was a matter of getting the performers, not merely play the notes but to understand what the notes meant and that's sometimes not so easy. Now since I've written so much music and there's a large number of performers that know my music, this doesn't happen so often. My music gets played practically at once the way I intended it to be.
But by no stretch of the imagination is it easy music. Do you recognise this question of the complexity of your music - that your music, let's say, it requires a lot of attention. It is difficult?
Complexity is a very difficult thing to describe or to mention in music. I mean there are very very complex music pieces of Bach, for instance, the opening of the B Minor Mass is just about as complicated as anything I've ever written. But, it doesn't sound that complicated to the audience in one level and that is, A, there are rhythmic patterns that are consistent throughout that are recognisable, and, B, there are vertical harmonies, traditional harmonies, very often ornamented to such a point you can hardly tell what they are but still the audience catches on to this. When I write something the harmonies - the vertical harmonic system - is not the traditional one but it is something eventually people will hear if they bother to pay attention to it; and similarly there are different ways of dealing with rhythm, as I was talking about, poly-rhythm which is something people wake up to shortly. what is it, that enormous Canon of Talis for instance that is in one sense very complex but when you hear it you don't know that it's even a Canon because, I don't know how many voices are all going together by the time you hear it. You don't hear any voice at all. You just hear the total sound; and you could call that very complex and in another way it's very simple. From my point of view, and of course I'm prejudiced, my music is very simple from the point of view of understanding what the character of the music is; and there are also there is a sense of what confusion means. That there is a sense of disastrous confusion in moments of my music. I feel this is a way of expressing what I feel about things. It doesn't happen very often but I'm not trying to present chaos in the way that Haydn did in the Creation but there is something of that element in it.
That's your particular response to the world going on all around you?
Just as far as performances are concerned, presumably in the 1960s orchestras, maybe they didn't have the rehearsal time, but they didn't play your works at all well, which must have been very very frustrating?
Yes, well, I wrote...I wrote a piece at the very end of the Second War, Holiday Overture, which had its first performance actually in Germany when the American troops arrived there. It was not played very much. It's now still played occasionally and it was one of the transitional works between the neo-classics and the old Americanising style, and the new Americanising style, if you want to put it that way, and I've always had trouble having my music played but now I have the enormous luck of the Chicago Symphony with Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez play every year. They even play my old piano concerto, which was always a nightmare. These pieces get played now and then but contemporary music, not merely mine, but music of my admired elders like Bartok and certainly Schonberg is hardly ever played in America except for the Guraleider or something that's not really representative.
Are you an American composer? An American-European composer? An
international composer or in the sense of these categories...
I'm just a composer. I'm Elliot Carter, the composer. I mean, let me say, when I was young, after I studied with Nadia Boulanger and came back, and one of my best friends for almost all of my ... of Aaron Copland's life was Aaron and he was very concerned about being an American composer. ... and for a while I wrote a number of pieces that - sort of Americanising pieces. Actually the problem here is that I met Sir William Glock very early on. I met him and William got a hold of that early Americanising first symphony of mine and it got played many times on the BBC and I said, William I don't want that played any more. I want you to play what I write now [laughter].
Yes, because that was putting you in a category and in any case a category that you didn't want.
I left that category more and more from 1945. 1948, my cello sonata and then finally the first string quartet was the change to an entirely different direction and I didn't want that first symphony to represent me. It's not a bad piece, as a matter of fact, as I look at it now. It's okay for what it was. It has jazz in it and things.
Yes, but do Americans regard you as an American composer in the sense that the music you produce, they say, these are American sounds. These sort of nationalistic gestures matter.
I don't know what they say. What I say is that I am producing the American sound. I'm making a new sound, it's an American sound. I mean otherwise I can't think about it. Nationality, as I see it, is something that's being produced by all of us all of the time. Henry James lived in England and he was an American and he wrote American novels and no English person would have written novels of that type although they were all written there in Rye or wherever he lived and ...even Henry James' novels, many of them are about England and yet they are the view of an American.
Well, I wonder in this whole question of what is an American composer, how you relate to the John Cage type of music?
Well, there are two things. I'm not sure that John Cage would be considered an American composer, after all the Dadaism business was something that was started in Zurich during the First World War with Tristan Tzara and others, and we were actually quite good friends with Marcel Duchamps, also one of the people that supported this kind of thing. Now, what I feel about this west coast thing is this: my particular period of development and interest in music was believing that the musical situation was a static thing that existed. There was a symphony orchestra, there was an opera house, there was a string quartet and these things were given and I was writing pieces for these pieces. I was hoping to take... believing actually that by writing something new and lively we could make the opera house have something that was vivid in a new way and similarly with a symphony orchestra, a string quartet or whatever, pianist. This was my thought and this is what I've always lived in. Now I understand that there are people that feel that the opera house ought to be knocked out and destroyed. That it's an old-fashioned thing that really has no meaning and be the same thing for each of the things that I've mentioned. I can understand that they're maddening in a certain sense but I don't believe I want to do it.
But the Cage type of music of what we now say, I suppose, deconstructing of the musical experience, deconstructing the conventional concert-hall experience.
Well, this is all part of what I was saying. He was deconstructing not merely the concert situation but actually the way music is produced, and I think it's very entertaining and sometimes quite... it's amusing and it has an overtone of Zen Buddhism which fascinates certain people. In my opinion all that kind of thing is again going back to this awful domination of a certain group of people over other people, but in any case this is why don't they do it; it's a bore but it's all right to do it
So its just one of those moments of diversion .
It is a diversion. It's fun, but I don't think it can amount to very much. It has an overtone of seriousness because of its relation to each thing and the rest of it, it's not part of our society and we don't... Chinese society is a different kind of thing and to import it in this ridiculous way I find embarrassing.
Well, I think if you want contemplation there are plenty of disciplined
ways of contemplation available within the broad Christian or Jewish tradition so...
Do you have any doubt about taking on an opera when the commission came
because you were in your eighties...
Do you want me to tell the story?
Well, Mr Barenboim commissioned and played my Partita, which finally became the first movement of a big Symphonia which was recorded by Oliver Knussen later, and when he heard that he said to me, I'd like you to write an opera for the Staatsoper which he was conducting at the time and I said, well, really, I've been asked to write operas many times in my life and I never found a libretto that I wanted to write that meant so much to me that... I would write my own music and I know that in America it would never be played or it would be played so badly I wouldn't want to hear it, because the kind of music I write is not the kind of music that people play in opera houses in America and it would take an enormous amount of rehearsals. And he said, well, look, we have all... lots of rehearsals in the Staatsoper so do it. And I kept having great doubts. Meanwhile he called me up every month, and then later I had a nearly fatal case of pneumonia. I was breathing oxygen for 6 weeks in a hospital. Every day I got a telephone call, 'how's that opera going along?' And I thought if anybody keeps that up I'm going to start... [laughter]
You better stay. You better survive!
So when I survived my pneumonia he said, well, what's the subject and so I said well, again sort of humorously, well, I'll set The Bald Soprano of Ionesco then I began to think about it and I didn't want to set the bald one. It's about language. It's an interesting play but it's not for an opera because it's about how you speak languages and I thought that would be dull. And so I just thought about it and saw that movie of Jaques Tati called Traffic, Traffique, which has a comic automobile accident and I thought, that is where we're going to begin an opera.
Then you got Paul Griffiths to write the libretto?
And then I told Paul Griffiths that and he came up with a libretto. All of it. He invented the characters and did all of it, and all the situations and then we went over it a little bit. You see Paul Griffiths knew my music quite well so he was thinking all the time what kind of music... for instance, having these different strands of music the way having quartets was something he wanted. He figured how that could be put into the opera and so he did a very good job of that, writing a libretto that fitted what I wanted to write.
So you more or less set his libretto. There were changes but in this constant wonderful relationship between the composer and the librettist, this sounds a
fairly unusual one?
It was very unusual in the sense that I really didn't intervene in his writing as a libretto hardly at all until we'd got through it, and then there were things that I wanted to change because there were matters of timing, for instance. How long something should go on. There were little details. It was nothing very important.
But the structure of the piece is the structure that Paul Griffiths delivered to you?
There were two things I changed and they were maybe important. One of them was that since this automobile accident happened and there were all these characters dazed by the situation, they all stayed on stage and I didn't in opera people sometimes have to go off the stage because then one person can stay and sing. All operas have an enormous amount of entrances and exits and you don't have anything in this. They're all sitting there like that. So we decided to make... everybody went off the stage in the middle of the opera and they all came back again when he tried to motivate it and he did. That was one idea. So the opera then falls into two pieces rather than one, which is easier to compose as a matter of fact. And the second one was that one of the characters seemed to be a rather flamboyant character, and I said why don't we just make her into a singer and then I said what I'd like to do is to have her sing from beginning to end. She will be the one that pays no attention to anyone else. She just sings and sings and everything else goes on and her music is always in the background of whatever is going on, and then I thought well she's really singing one aria and at the very end of the opera she sings high C and that's it. So that was the way I thought about it. That was what I put onto this and in a way that turned out to be - I don't mean to be praising myself but it turned out to be a very good idea as an opera. One thing is it is very novel. Nobody ever thought of doing that and the second thing was that it held the whole opera together. You have little scenes and everything but here's this lady sort of singing little bits, fragments of coloratura through all the whole thing and that was a kind of thread that made the whole opera into one big core. It's like what I do in my string quartets to tell the truth.
It's said, by outsiders, that you are composing with a new fluency and perhaps not just because of the number of works that you are producing. Is that the case? Are you finding composition easier?
Well yes, let's say that there was a long period of my life in which I was developing a sort of musical vocabulary and finally this vocabulary became something that I didn't have to think about as a thing to be produced so I can now write more quickly simply because the pre-compositional effort of trying to find just what it is which will produce the kind of music that I want, I already know. If I learn German I could finally write letters in German after I knew it better.
Your own language has become entirely integrated in yourself.
Your opera is called, 'What Next'?
So I suppose the only way to close this conversation is to say after 'What Next', what next?
Well, I'm writing a cello concerto for the Chicago - again for the Chicago Symphony and Yo Yo Ma will play it, I hope. He said he would. I don't know. Mr Barenboim wants me to write another opera. This is one half of an evening. He wants me to fill the other half in. I don't know if I'll do that or not. You know at my age, at the age of 91, there are many things that occupy your efforts that you didn't have to think about when you were younger, and it becomes harder and especially with a wife that is not very well it then becomes harder and harder to find time to do this, and, B, it's harder and harder to find energy to do it because you get tired very quickly.
How many hours a day do you find that you can write now?
If there are not many interruptions in the day... I mean, I can work from about 9 in the morning until about 12 or 1, and that's about it, and unfortunately I then have to take my wife out for a walk, I have to answer the telephone, I have to go shopping and all of this is very time-consuming.
Well, let's hope that there are many, many more days when the writing from 9 to 1 goes smoothly. Elliott Carter, thank you very much.
You're very welcome, and thank you very much, Mr Tusa.
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