A Conversation on Elliott Carter

by Talia Amar

To understand Elliott Carter's music more in depth I had a chat with John Heiss, Christopher Oldfather, and Tony Arnold. John Heiss, a composer, flutist, and educator knew Carter personally and had many interesting stories to tell about him. Pianist Christopher Oldfather and soprano Tony Arnold are tremendous musicians who will be performing some of Carter’s works at the Collage March 13, 2016 8pm concert at Longy School of Music (the piano sonata and Tempo e Tempi). They had some illuminating insights to share about the challenges and rewards of performing Carter’s music.

Talia Amar: John, would you tell us a little bit about Carter’s changing musical styles?

John Heiss: Carter had five creative periods: the first is tonal in which he wrote until about 1948. Then came his neo-classical period, which was very popular at the time. He started with it in 1939 when he went to Harvard, and he studied with Boulanger during that time.

Later on he became somewhat negative about his tonal pieces. They didn’t interest him anymore. I told him once: “Elliott we love your tonal music, what do you think about that?” He looked at me, smiled and said: “John, how would you answer a question like that if I asked you?” To me in his earlier works the music feels much more connected. Part of their urgency is counterpoint and multiple voices and multiple activities simultaneously.

Around 1950 something changed and his writing became more chromatic. In the middle of that change he wrote a very significant piece, Eight Etudes And A Fantasy For Woodwind Quartet (1950), in which the chromatic language is coming through. It’s not atonal exactly, but it’s certainly not tonal. The decision of which one to do (which was a hot issue at that time), is eradicated. It’s neither tonal nor atonal.

Then something more lyrical was coming in, and something more emotional. That is called The Late Carter. Around the 1990’s, there is an absolute serenity, and ease and poise, something more relaxed than his earlier music.

The last period is called Late-Late Carter. That is a distinct period with many more short pieces with a technical virtuosity. These Late-Late pieces are highly accessible, and the audiences just love them.

Talia: What are the difficulties in performing Carter’s music?

John: He had tonal mastery and rhythmic mastery. That set the standard for how to write, and how to invent a rhythmic language and get instruments to be more virtuosic than ever before. There are works that have not been performed well yet, too complex and too hard to know where to go.

In every single piece, there’s always a challenge, in the beginning, for the performer. Many of his pieces have significant technical challenges. It’s a way of stimulating musicians to rise and meet the challenge. Was this part of his philosophy? I think so, but I’m not sure he would have put it that way. He would have said, “I didn’t choose a philosophy, so much as I always did the work I wanted to do”. He’s a musicians’ composer, they always loved to play his music.

In 2008, when Carter was 100 and he came here [to Boston], Frank Epstein [percussionist and founder of Collage New Music] commissioned him to write his first percussion ensemble piece, which he did at the age of 99, a fantastic work called Tintinnabulation (2008). I set next to him during the performance and he was laughing and laughing. So after the performance I asked him “why are you laughing?” and he said: “John, it works!“

Christopher Oldfather: Elliott's music is hard for many reasons. He is a synthesis, which is a polite way of saying that he steals from everybody, all styles, all periods.

The solo piano sonata [Piano Sonata (1945-6)] bubbles with tiny little angular jazzy riffs, bouncing along inside a Beethoven-Brahms-Wagner-ian structure. There is always tons of stuff going on on many levels. It is constant Information overload, and hard to control. Ice skating in a raging torrent. The harmonies are basically tonal, so there is no serial combinatory stuff to worry about, but inversions and short mirrors pop up all the time to divert the ear, and distract the player.

To say nothing of the second movement. The second movement is a very large, wild fugue, which is framed by an operatic aria that plays like Verdi. So one must contend with mad polyphony and a dying diva.

Tony Arnold: There are technical difficulties in all music; Carter’s is not exceptional in this way. But he must be met on his own terms — which means that rhythm is king. Expressive problems in Carter must first be solved by mastery of the rhythmic element. Only when the interlocking rhythms are in their “groove” do the textures begin to sparkle, and the gestures begin to fly.

Carter’s sense of time when setting text is quite protracted, and the challenge for a singer is to keep a thread of intelligibility spinning through the very long and wide-stepping phrases. In the case of Tempo e Tempi (1998-9), the Italian language adds another layer of complexity when it comes to communicating clearly with the audience. But the colorful instrumental lines are so skillfully written that they do provide (albeit in a non-traditional way) quite a bit of text painting.

Talia: What would you say is most special about Carter, both in terms of his music and personality?

Tony: I love the energy of Carter's contrapuntal instrumental writing — it provides a varied canvas for me to experiment with a wide range of vocal timbres. The clarity of complex textures in Carter’s music is like a high-definition relief map: exhaustive in its craggy detail close-up, but zoom out and the listener is traversing a majestic landscape. It is exhilarating to perform.

Christopher: Carter was an elegant cultured gentleman, and his music is that too. Always very well dressed, nothing out of place, unlike, say, Barber's near-sentimentality, or Bartok's gut-wrenching rawness. But there is something beyond elegance here, something very deeply felt, as well as intellectually understood. I must show both, and I never know how it will work.

It is rather intimidating actually. This is a man who wrote a piece setting a poem in Greek and English simultaneously, what would I add to that?

One of the great joys of my art is the ability to perform effectively I piece I will never "understand". All you have to do is look at the cover of your Well Tempered Clavier book to realize that there is more on each page than you will ever, ahem, get. You just have to keep playing and see what happens!

John: Like Bach and Beethoven his music is serious music, rich complexity, very appealing and engaging. It was never music that aimed low or dug itself down to be accessible. He held a very high standard, and a lot of creative integrity.

He always said that he “loves improvisation… because I end up doing all my hard work in composing, trying to compose the improvisation”. That’s why his rhythms sometimes are seemingly wrong metrically, which was groundbreaking for 1972.

On his birthday we had him here. We had 5 or 6 of his pieces at the main concert. We had some other concerts too, which he was not able to attend. He was very fragile at the end, but his mind was alive until the end of his life. Elliott was also warm as a person and was extremely smart. He spoke many languages, and knew a lot of poetry.

The audiences are much better for him now than when he was much younger. I sat next to Elliott at one of his concerts, and a woman came up and said “oh Mr. Carter, I’m so in love with your music!”. So Carter gave a small laugh and said “Well! I hope you recover soon!”. He didn’t take himself too seriously.