|An interview with Elliot Carter
Listen to the interview (67:59s)
ALAN BAKER: What music and sounds were around you as a child? What do you remember hearing when you were young?
ELLIOTT CARTER: Well when I was young, when I was very young, when I was a little boy I don't remember the music I heard, but there was an article in the Brooklyn Daily written by my Aunt about how I could choose phonograph records. I could tell what was on the phonograph records and express interest in them, which was very unusual at that time. Phonographs were just beginning to come in and I would say that was probably 1911 or something like that. I was born in 1908. That was considered a remarkable thing for a little kid like that, but then I was given piano lessons, which I hated, then in high school when I was about 16 I had a teacher that was very interested in contemporary music and took his classes to contemporary concerts. So we heard at that time music of Varèse and then there was over here on 3rd Ave. a woman named Katherine Hamon who played many of the Scriabin sonatas. She played Ravel, Debussy, and played some of the Schönberg pieces and also parts of the Ives's Concord Sonata. I've known those pieces ever since I was about 16 or 17; I also at that time was taken to meet Charles Ives whom I got to know fairly well. He was the one who wrote a recommendation for me to get into college. He encouraged me to be a composer. I started writing some rather lousy songs and he thought they showed some talent. When I see them now I can't see how he guessed that. In any case, Ives encouraged me to go into music even though he himself had such a hard time being a composer.
The earliest pieces that interested me were the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, the Die Glückliche Hand of Schönberg and Wozzeck by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokovski. At the Metropolitan Opera I went to hear that, I think around 1927, I don't remember exactly when, but I went assiduously to all concerts of modern music and I disliked old music at that time. It seemed to me stuffy and old-fashioned. Sometimes I still feel that way. My musical life started with hearing and being fascinated by contemporary music. It was only later on that I became more interested in older music.
My entire life has really revolved around music that was written about the time that I was born, 1908, to just before the First World War and shortly after it. This music I've always known, and it is that music that's most important to me.
What was the scene like when you were going to those concerts? Was it an unusual event for modern music?
It was not as unusual as it became for a simple reason. The people who supported this kind of music were at that time very wealthy people. I remember very distinctly that one of the people that supported the performance of Wozzeck at the Metropolitan was Mrs. Thomas Edison and there were many other people of this sort who started the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was before the Depression and before the development of the income tax so that these people had a great deal more money to dispose of than was possible at later times. These wealthy people were very interested in contemporary music. They wanted to help diffuse it and get it to be known to other people.
[Serge] Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony would come down to the one of the concert halls here and play a whole evening of contemporary music. I remember hearing an [Arthur] Honnegger oratorio. I've forgotten which one, and several pieces of the earliest Aaron Copland music. This was well attended. Then, when the Depression came, all of this changed completely. Since that time, the entire public is of a very different sort and there was not so much support for contemporary music in a direct way. After all we have to remember, when I was a student at Boston, even then, people used to say that the exit signs meant, "This way in case of Brahms". This was around 1926 when I was a freshman in college. Mr. Higgenson who had supported the Boston Symphony for many years insisted that they play Brahms and Wagner until the audience liked it. He could afford to do that and have an empty house, which is a very different way of thinking about things than it is now.
Do you think that approach, to be able to play music until people caught on to it was..?
Yes, I think so. I'm sure that this is true because we've had a very clear example of that in Europe. The BBC was run by a man for many years called William Glock who insisted on playing contemporary music all the time. They commissioned pieces and he encouraged all almost all the young English composers. They were played over the radio until the pubic… I mean the public likes it more in Europe than they do here because the state supported organizations have felt that playing contemporary music was part of the education of the public. That's a very different attitude than we have here. Talking about a materialistic thing, I get about 13 times more royalties from Europe than I do from America. It's largely because my records get played on the radio - which they never do here. Maybe at four o'clock in the morning by some small station that doesn't pay.
Do you get reports on that?
Yes, I get a report from BMI about the frequency of performances, and it is very surprising. They played one of my most advanced pieces, and one of my most unusual ones on the radio. Things that would scare the audience off here I suppose.
Almost every one of my various zero numbered birthdays has had a big concert in London and often in Paris. The Royal Festival Hall, I don't know whether it was 80 or 70, gave a whole festival of my music there with orchestra and everything. String quartets. They weren't that well attended to tell you the truth, but they were attended and I'm always glad to have somebody listen to my music of course.
Let's flash back to when you were a student hearing Ives and Varèse for the first time. Were you writing music then?
Well I tried to, but I could never write anything that I liked or was worthwhile. I threw it all out and realized that I had to make a serious study- that my tastes were far more advanced than my abilities. In order to fill this in I had to make a serious study of conventional things that people learned at that time. That was one of the big problems when I was at Harvard studying music. We had to write choral pieces in the style of Brahms or Mendelssohn, which was distressing because in the end you realized how good Brahms is, and how bad you are. Try to write fugues in the style of Bach, which is really hard going, but still you try to do it and learn a great deal from making the effort. When I studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger I had to go through up to eight parts of counterpoint. I learned all about how to do that. That sticks in your head and it has an effect on the way I think about music still although I don't write anything like that now. The idea of counterpoint for instance is something that has invaded my music and very few people to date can write counterpoint. Maybe they don't want to write it, I don't know, but when they do it's a mess. Mine is not so bad.
Anyhow, the whole temperature of things has changed. Now let me say that since you're asking about this, there has been of course ever since the beginning of the modern movement, ever since I've been involved with it, there has always been quite a strong feeling against a certain group of people who didn't want to hear that kind of thing. Sometimes the newspapers were very much against it, and sometimes they were all for it. This has always persisted. Sometimes the people who disliked modern music had the upper hand and there was a whole period when I was a student in Paris in the mid/early '30s when the whole field of music that I had been interested in, Schönberg, Bartok, Ives, was considered old fashioned and nobody wanted to write that. We had people like [Francis] Poulenc and a whole bunch of other composers who wrote rather conservative music of one kind or another, and then use pop music a little bit in there.
There has been a constant change from one thing to another. Even I wrote it when I first started to compose after I left Paris. I wrote pieces that were comparatively accessible and easy to understand. They are played much less frequently than my more difficult pieces. Yet, I noticed now Orpheus is going to play my first symphony this year, but it doesn't get played often. It used to be with that piece that only Doctor's office orchestras would play because it was easy to play it and easy to understand. For years I never heard a good performance of it. It's also played by WPA orchestra around the corner here at Cooper Union, and Duke Ellington was in the audience and he came up to me and shook my hand and said, "I think you're beginning to understand something about jazz."
As I say, I got interested in all this contemporary music and one of the reasons why I went up to Boston to Harvard is because at that time, Koussevitzky was the conductor of the Boston Symphony and he played a great deal of contemporary music. He played every piece by Stravinsky the year after it was written usually, so we knew everything as it came out. Then he played a lot of Honegger, he didn't like any of the Viennese composers, but he played a lot of contemporary music. That was what interested me about going to Boston was to be able to hear that. I went to the Boston Symphony concerts I think for the entire six years I was at Harvard, both at undergraduate and graduate. I think to every concert that they gave. I was fascinated. I also heard a lot of music I began to like after a while. Beethoven and Schumann.
After Harvard Walter Piston was then a young man teaching at Harvard, had studied with Nadia Boulanger and he advised that I should go study with her because she at that particular time, which is 1932, there were very few teachers that could stand modern music. They didn't want students, that was true of all the other members of the Harvard department except Piston and they had gotten him in to freshen things up a little. They also had Gustav Holst there for a half a year. Nadia Boulanger and Schönberg were really the only two people that really knew the music very well and understood how to give good advice about it.
I went to Nadia because since I came from a family where I was taught French as a child because it was part of my father's business, I was attracted to that. I had been as a child after the First World War, I had seen all of the destruction of the First World War and I admired German things but I was not very enthusiastic about Germany in itself. When I got to Paris, Hitler took over the Reichstag and I was very glad that I hadn't gone to Germany. On the other hand, Schönberg came to the United States and if I had stayed here another year, I probably would have studied with him, but in any case I went to Nadia. She was wonderful. She didn't like the kind of dissonant music that I wanted to write, but she was extremely helpful. She would tell me all kinds of things. Point out and improvise things. Something you'd write and she would improvise something like that and show you how it would sound this way, and how it would sound better maybe if you did it this way, but you could do it another way… It was unbelievable, and also a little domineering which was a little trying.
When I was in Paris, all of the German refugees began to flow in and it was a very sad time. All the poor refugees on the streets in Paris who had no money and didn't have any place to go, and the French government to keep them off the streets would put them in hospitals and mad houses. Any place they could get them out of the way. It was a very unpleasant time in terms of the social life. After I left in 1935 I thought I would never want to go back to Paris, it was so sad. I began to change my mind after a while.
You've been back since?
Lots of times. Since I'm allergic to various things, the army wouldn't accept me during the war, and I got into the Office of War Information, which sent music to Europe. One of our big things was recording the Schönberg piano concerto that we sent to Germany. It was broadcast in Germany. It wasn't a very good performance I must say, I've heard better ones since, but that was the first performance. We did lots of things like that. I think there was Roy Harris and Henry Cowell and Sam Barber and I were involved with this particular thing.
While I was a student in Paris the choreographer George Balanchine had two weeks of Balanchine ballets in the Champs Élysée. A man I'd known in college, Lincoln Kerstein was very much impressed by this and it was he that got George Balanchine to come over to the United States and start the New York City Ballet. In the early days, I was a musical advisor to that for a while. I was commissioned actually to write one ballet for them, which was done in 1939 on the subject of Pocahontas. I went on writing these sort of neo-classical American pieces. The end of that came when I had retired from the Office of War Information just before D-Day when we knew that was going to happen. I wrote that Holiday Overture which was supposed to be the rejoicing of Paris over the liberation, and while I was writing that Aaron Copland came and was writing Appalachian Spring on our dining room table.
Incidentally, Aaron was a very good friend from way back. When I first heard him play his piano concerto with the Boston Symphony I went back, I was the only person I think who liked it, and I got to know him somewhat then, but later when I moved to New York he got me a job of being a critic on one of the music magazines that was run.
One of the other composers that I knew very well was Varèse and I had known Varèse's music even when I was very young. I always admired it very much. As I say I was a friend with Charles Ives, and Henry Cowell, and I knew Aaron right up to the very end of his life.
What kind of a man was Aaron Copland?
Aaron Copland was a man that had a very specific point of view about what music should be which was that, he felt that new music should have…the composer should show a personality in his music. He was against many American composers that, from his point of view, did not have any personality while somebody like Roy Harris for instance does have personality. I must say if you're living today, you find hardly anybody with any personality, but that's another matter.
He was very fussy about that, and he didn't like my music very much. I think he liked me because I liked his music and I used to write about it a lot. I liked him, and we got along very well, and then later in the end of his life, he wrote a very wonderful thing about myself and he changed his mind about my music. When he looked at Holiday Overture he says, "Another hard piece by Carter!"
You developed your own system for composing.
Well I don't have a system. I gradually developed over the years. Right at the end of the war I wrote a piano sonata, which was written at a time when Sam Barber used to come down here and we used to have lunch together in a very nice old hotel that's now not there. Sam and I discussed writing for piano, and we both felt we ought to use the whole piano and make a great big sound out of it. He wrote his kind of piano sonata, and I wrote my kind. Mine was very hard to play, and the first performance was a disaster, but now it gets to be played quite a lot. It was a piece that was the beginning of a new trend in my music which was I should say, the gradual elimination of a definite scheme of tonality. In the piano sonata it wavers between two keys a semi-tone apart, and you never can tell which key it's going to end up in, or where it goes. That was around 1945 or 6. I went much further with that kind of idea, and then with various rhythmic things. My cello sonata in 1948 was also a disaster in terms of…everybody hated it. I couldn't get it published. Now it's taught in most universities and it's played all the time. When it first got going it was considered too modern and too hard to understand.
I had written this cello sonata in 48 and I got my second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950 and I went with my family out to Tucson Arizona deciding that I would return to the kind of music I had been very interested in when I was young. I felt somehow that in order to learn how to write it, I had to go through all the things I'd been going through to write pieces that were simpler, more tonal, more melodic and all that stuff. So I decided I'd write a string quartet that did the kind of things that I was hoping I'd do when I was very much younger. It was like the modern style of the early times. I had had all of these ideas in my head for a long time, but finally I began to make them all into a shape.
The first thing that struck me about contemporary music in general had been that there was not much interest in rhythm. Stravinsky was maybe the only one that experimented, and only in certain works like the Rite of Spring. Also, Schönberg had looked at it in that he wanted to make music sound like talking. It had the irregular rhythms like the way we talk. I felt that I would like to find a way of making music that developed the rhythmic side more than these people had done. I really tried to do that, and also at that time began to find various chords that interested me. My First String Quartet uses one of these chords very frequently. Finally I wrote this piece that had all kinds of rhythmic innovations in it. It had a last movement in which every theme gets faster each time it comes in. There is a counterpoint of themes, some of them are getting faster at one rate, and some are getting faster at another rate. It was a very interesting kind of thing to figure out how to do that. I think it worked quite well to my surprise.
The piece got played when I was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome at a festival in Rome, and it made me into a famous person in Italy, and then later in France. William Bolc on the BBC heard it, and from then on he played all my works on the BBC. I had it played here over at that concert hall in Columbia University; it was then called MacMillan Theater. A number of people in the audience got up and rather loudly said, "This never would have been played if he hadn't been a teacher here".
So the rhythm innovation that you're working on, for a listener who's never heard your music, tell them what you're hearing. We'll be able to put this right next to the music.
Well the rhythmic things I developed in that were more extreme actually, than almost any work I've written since. I think I'm a little more relaxed about it after that. In that one, the idea was to have various layers of rhythms going on at the same time, at different speeds, and then move from one system to another. That involved what some people called later metric modulation or tempo modulation which involved, lets say, if an instrument is playing 5 notes to every beat, and then these 5 notes are in groups of three, you then produce a new rhythm. The whole piece is built on this system of constantly switching from one speed to another, not suddenly, but like shifting gears in a car. You don't know you've gotten into a new speed until something defines it more clearly, but at the transitional moment, you don't know that it's changing.
This is your First String Quartet?
That's the First String Quartet. I was then commissioned to write a second one. I was slow to finish the second one, so I decided to make it much shorter, and then I began to think about the idea in the second string quartet of individualizing the players. So that each player had his own part that was different from the other parts. That's the only part that was different from the 1st quartet. Naturally this thought evolved because of this polyrhythmic thing. Finally this was a way to make it into something dramatized. I gave each player a certain repertoire of intervals, a certain repertoire of speeds, and then they play all together in different ways. This eventually produced a new kind of musical form because what I wanted to do was to present each one of the facets of each one of these players in one way or another, so that each movement is dominated by one of the players, and there are interludes between them in which the rest of the players don't play anything like what the main one plays, then other times they try to cooperate, but only in their own way and on their own terms.
The Third Quartet I made the instruments in pairs - Two different pairs - Violin and viola, and violin and cello. They played very different things from each other all through the whole piece. I can't tell you why this interested me so much, but it did and does still.
How did the public react to those players taking on different roles?
It's very hard to say how the public reacts to anything, but let me say that I have had a very lucky situation in this particular respect that the Juilliard Quartet itself, and Robert Mann was then the leader of it, and Klaus Adam who lived in this apartment house downstairs played the cello, were all very enthusiastic about my quartets from the First Quartet on. They always wanted to play them; in fact they played my Fifth Quartet in Tanglewood a few days ago. They have been very helpful in playing my work, but then other quartets have. Now there is a quartet at the University of Chicago called the Pacifica Quartet that just won a prize in Italy, and somebody wrote me a postcard and said that they were going to play all five of my quartets here in November in New York.
The Quartets have been a major part of my work. You know you talk about these things, and it's very hard to verbalize about them because what I am talking about is really not what it's all about. I was thinking about that the other day when I was talking to Charles Rosen about Mozart. That is, Mozart took all the ideas from other people, but then when he wrote it, it was Mozart's music and it was very much more interesting than anything else. Although you could see that this theme came from Salieri or whatever. I only hope I can do that.
When you were changing the way players approached a piece, did you find that the performance practice lagged behind what you wanted to achieve?
You mean the performers themselves. Yes. As time has gone on, especially after the second war, there have been more and more performers devoted to contemporary music, and many of them learned how to play this. They were not fazed by the kinds of things that people had been fazed with twenty-thirty years before that when it was very hard for them to get through anything that was unusual. They had a different point of view.
I had a piece played for instance by the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of the players came up to me and said, "You know your music doesn't make any sense unless you play what's marked soft, softly and what's marked loud loudly. That's partly true, because in counterpoint you don't want everybody to be shrieking the whole time. Then it's a big muddle! This is absolutely true.
Why write for the orchestra?
Why write for the orchestra? For one thing it's a very challenging problem. I've loved so much orchestra music, and that's one of the reasons why I like to write for the orchestra. Of course, the orchestra has a built in repertoire of sounds that are very hard to avoid. One of the interesting challenges is how to write a piece for the orchestra that doesn't sound like Mahler or like Strauss or whatever. That's been one of the things that have interested me about writing for the orchestra. Writing something that has a sort of big, strong sound, a loud sound, and then soft and delicate, in a way that you can't really ever have with chamber music.
The expressiveness of the orchestra is in the fact that there are so many instruments. Some times you only have one instrument playing, and sometimes you have a hundred. That's nice in a way, that's an interesting kind of problem. I just finished a piece for the Boston Symphony that I think deals with the orchestra in a way that's unusual. I have this gigantic 45-minute symphony that was played and recorded beautifully by Oliver Nelson in England. Now that piece was given by a pick up orchestra up in Harvard by some man who made a tremendous effort. It got very good reviews. It's very dissonant and very unmelodic in many ways, and yet many people were very struck by it. Who knows, maybe it was just those few pals of mine who went and got together.
How do you define a maverick composer?
I don't know maverick means, but maverick assumes that there is a consistent group from which one person is breaking - one horse breaking. It's a horse story. In a sense to be a composer to be such as I have been in America is to be a maverick from our society because you don't make any money at it. Maybe you do finally when you get to be my age. I must say that I've been reading the life of Stravinsky and he made almost no money. He had to conduct in order to live. Bartok was starved. These are mavericks in our society! Most people are not that crazy, they want to make some money and start to live properly. In my profession almost everybody teaches in order to make ends meet.
Composition itself doesn't pay. In very recent times there have been some of my students who don't teach at all and who do make a living out of their compositions and with commissions all over the place, but they write the kind of music that the orchestras want to play and it's the kind of music that doesn't interest me to do, but it interests them so why shouldn't they do it.
Are you writing the music that you're writing because you've had no other…?
Yeah, yeah. I write the music that interests me and seems to be valuable to me and I assume that my education made me understand those things. I think that ones education is what conditions the way you look at everything. My education consisted of feeling that an artist had to find his own personality and write the music that meant most to him, and hoping it would mean a lot to other people. Assuming that it would. We've been trained to write the kind of music that we assumed would be interesting.
The general public is not as educated as it was at one time for very obvious reasons. They don't have that much money and time to spend practicing the piano, I mean even in Mahler's time, people played the Mahler symphonies four-hands at the piano. Amateurs did, so they knew the pieces. On the other hand, we have records which make everything easy to hear and easy not to hear to.
Do you think there is an American music? Is there such a thing?
Yeah, do you identify as being an American composer?
No. It seems to me that being an American is just plain being. I am an American because I'm a human and been part of our society for all these years. 93 years. That's American. I've voted more or less intelligently…not always… and been educated mostly in this country and read American authors…all that. I don't see any point in saying I'm going to be an American composer. I am an American composer. What I do is making America. We are producing our country day-by-day and year-by-year; sometimes not to well I must say.
An American Spirit or sound?
My music doesn't sound like anybody else's music that I'm aware of. I guess that's American.
Say a little bit about "90+"
When I went to the American academy in Rome in 1953 and 4, as I said before, I had this First String Quartet played at a festival in Rome at that time. The two leading Italian composers Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi came up to me and congratulated me on this piece. Dallapiccola has died, but Petrassi went on and when he became 90 I wrote a piece for his 90th birthday because he has always been a friend. I think he's still alive. He must be nearly 100! He's blind, been blind for a good many years, but he was somebody that I was very fond of. So I wrote actually two pieces for him, this one and another violin piece. He was very helpful to me; he got my music played on Italian radio and did lots of things for me. Getting performances of me in Italy when he was healthier.
Did you reference things from your friendship in the music, does the music reflect?
In this case yes, I was asked, I think there was a festival of his music when he was ninety years old or something like that, and the radio asked me to write something and I did. The piece does have 90 accented notes in the coarse of it. At the end they get faster, that's the plus part.
Tell me a little bit about "Retrouvaille."
"Retrouvaille," that's the third piece I wrote for one of Pierre Boulez's birthdays. The first one was a piece for flute and clarinet. That was for his 60th I guess, and then I wrote another one for his 70th birthday for flute, clarinet, and marimba, and the Royal Festival Hall is giving a festival of his now. I don't know whether this is his 70th or 80th birthday. I've forgotten. They asked me to write a third piece for piano so I wrote a piece that begins with the flute and clarinet piece, one measure of that, and it ends with the other one. Bits in between the other two pieces I'd written. They can all be played as one long piece together - the piano piece either at the beginning or the end.
What about "Two Diversions?
The Two Diversions were an idea of Ursula Oppens. Oppens decided that Carnegie Hall should commission composers to write what they considered easy pieces, and to make an album for piano students, and so I wrote two pieces for this album. I don't think they're as easy as they'd hoped, but there are some people with even harder ones.
We touched on Ives a little bit earlier, could you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with Charles Ives?
Charles Ives, I knew him when I was young, when I was in high school - before 26, 1924 or 25 something like that. I saw a good deal of him, and he used to play me old scratchy records of his music that was performed by various people, but he was a very peculiar man in a certain sense that, when he had pieces played, and he was wealthy enough so that he paid performers to play his pieces, he would never go to the concert. He would only go to the rehearsal. I remember hearing that pieces from the 4th Symphony, and it was in a town hall by a conductor named Eugene Goossens, and he had had the percussion men to his house to teach them how to play the percussion, but he didn't go to the concert. He was a very excitable man, and very likable.
I went to Harvard, and then I wrote music that interested me, but it was Paul Hindemath's music. I wrote some little pieces like that. I took those to Ives. This was just before I went to Paris to study. He didn't like them at all. He thought they were just awful, but he was very polite. I remember he played me part of the Concord Sonata and in the middle of it his wife made him stop, and he held a vein in his neck, and she gave him some milk and said, "Charlie, you better keep quiet now."
They had this house up in Redding Connecticut. My family had owned a summerhouse in Westport Connecticut, so I used to go over to see him. He was not terribly fond of contemporary music because he thought it was too repetitious, he didn't like Stravinsky. He did like Scriabin because he was a very mystical man and he liked the mysticism of Scriabin I think, but all of it seemed to him very primitive. Scriabin always followed that same old chord and so forth. He was very critical of all that, but he did give money to various organizations. For a while after Henry Cowell quit I was running that magazine that printed music, New Music Edition or something like that. Ives continually gave a thousand dollars a year to that forever and ever until it stopped.
You had a very strong reaction to the Concord sonata.
Oh yes, it's wonderful - especially the first and last movements. The thing that bothers me all the time about Ives is, as far as I'm concerned, I don't like his quotations from other kinds of music because from my point of view if you want to express let's say something about America, you don't do it by quoting "Yankee Doodle". You do it by writing by what you feel about it. You don't take somebody else's music and stick it in there. Of coarse we have vast numbers of moving picture scores that do this all the time. This is something that when I was young, we all criticized composers who did this sort of thing, because it was just movie music. Bernard Hermann several times did things like that. He was talented as a composer.
Did you know Varèse?
Varèse used to sit right here in the sofa.
Tell me what he was like as a person.
He was a volcanic man. He was full of…Actually he was like a French peasant who was very full of ideas and angers and fury. Of coarse I knew him during the period when he was never played. You see I knew him from the early times when his music was played by Stokovsky and others, and then when Aaron Copland and the league of composers got started his music was never played again until many years later. They started to play it again a little.
Especially after the second War when a group like Boulez came along and suddenly began to admire him again, and the taste all changed. There was a period…and he was really quite angry with all of that, he thought he was being treated badly and was unhappy.
What drove him to write the kind of music he did, I don't know how to phrase that but…?
I don't know how he got started writing it. I do know in a sense that it's very obvious even in "Amerique" and "Arcana"; the influence of Stravinsky was very strong. There are even things that sound a little like quotations from "Petrushka" and other things, but the conception itself came from, as it must have come from many composers of that period, from looking at paintings and looking at Picasso's cubist pictures. I'm sure that was the beginning for it. Varèse owned quite a number of those pictures actually. That kind of picture, he didn't own Picasso, but he owned other things. It was that sort of cubist abstract painting that got a number of composers into writing that sort of thing. It's mysterious.
The basic problem as far as I can see, one of the aspects of this whole early modern movement was a desire to go back to the beginning of things, to find out what was the most elemental and most elementary of this. I think that the idea of how to make, say a violent noise was an important thing in some composers. Certainly Varèse. Going back to elementary things.
I had that feeling too. I studied Greek in college because I wanted to go to the beginning of our civilization. I think that many people felt that way in those years, and I think that a lot of the modern movement came from that. Also the whole influence of African art was strong at that time because of that. They were breaking away from the fancy Victorian stuff, which is not true, they were just carrying it on in another way, but that's another thing.
You knew Conlon Nancarrow before…?
Well, I knew Conlon that's right, we knew Conlon very well for many years the Sacew Foundation was going to publish all our correspondence, which was very large. I knew Conlon from the time he came back from the Spanish Civil War and he had a little apartment over here on the river. I knew him for a long time. Many of the things that for instance he there's a very long letter that he wrote to me about my First String Quartet, which obviously influenced him a great deal.
People always think that I got my ideas from him, which I don't know. We did visit him during the time I was writing that First String Quartet. We went to Mexico and spent a couple of days with him. It was just when he was just beginning to experiment with piano roll music. Then Aaron and I got busy, and we got Columbia to make a record of his music, which was a flop and I even gave lectures when I was teaching at Juilliard School about his music and the students were not interested. It was all as a result of John Cage and Merce Cunningham picking up his music that he suddenly became well known. Aaron and I tried hard to get him somewhere, but it didn't do any good. We were in a different stream of modernism than John Cage.
What interested you most in Nancarrow's music? What did you hear that you liked?
Well I thought it was interesting. The pieces of his that don't use jazz were much better; the jazzy pieces were really very corny I think. There are some interesting conceptions of music in some of the other piano roll music. I didn't like his music before…it was very thin music before he started writing piano roll music. I thought some of it was good. It's like electronic music in the sense that I like a performance. You have to "feel" those people are there playing that music, and if you just have a machine cranking it out, it's a bore. You've lost one of the largest dimensions of the music and it's hard for me to be very interested in it. It may have some interesting points, but to me it doesn't convey very much.
I've known him personally for many years, and I've had off and on feelings about his music. When he writes short pieces they can be very good and interesting. Mainly interesting because they're so unusual.
|American Mavericks | Archive | About | Contact | Stations | Features | Press | Listening Room | Discussion | Purchase|