As a devoted purveyor of chords I felt my heart beat wildly when in 2005, after some searching, I found a copy of Elliott Carter’s Harmony Book in the Lincoln Center Music shop. I thought as I opened it, as I’d thought starting all the books on Harmony I’d devoured since I was 9 years old, that I would be given the keys to some magic universe, beyond Harry Potter’s wizardry, where music could be made understandable, legal, accessible, physical and transparent, even modern, wondrous, and above all composable. No book on Harmony, excepting Elliott’s, has ever done this. His Harmony book is the Rosetta Stone of the Music of our Time – as perfectly decipherable as it is indecipherable. Perfectly chiseled in an ancient mysterious script, it is in reality a meticulous systematic catalogue of every possible combination of tones in the almighty equal tempered West; and brilliantly, shockingly, lacking any “instructions for use.” His music, following his obsessive skill in codifying intervallic relations (and their sonic potential), is a realization of their finite combinatorial possibilities. But unlike the rigid and impersonal relations long touted by 12-tone theorist-composers, the tonal and temporal intervals of Elliott’s “mind music” are meant to translate “subito” into meaningful sounds, gestures, structures, parables, and even emotions – akin to the analytic foundations which lie under much of Xenakis’s, Ligeti’s, Stockhausen’s, Tom Johnson’s, and even Cage’s music. Elliott’s Harmony Book is in effect the “inner sanctum” of his composing world, though just short of telling you how he puts it all together it leaves the reader to make those imaginary leaps of faith, as do Cage’s late number pieces. It is as close to a composer’s confession of how (with what) he composes as one can get.
I can well remember the imposing smell of mold (composted music?) in Yale’s old Stoeckel Hall in New Haven where, on a warm September Friday in 1960, I met Elliott for the first time. In a small room on the top floor were Tom Johnson, Joel Chadabe, David Barron, me, and two other students whose names I’ve forgotten. We sat in awe, awaiting God knows what – to burst into composerly flames maybe – but all we got was a mild mannered gentleman in a tweed jacket, blue striped shirt, and tie. Elliott was as new at “teaching composition” as we were at studying it as a life’s career. He was aware that we were all hot to learn the secrets of “metric modulation” and the rest of those journalistic buzz words that kept ordinary concert-goers wondering why anyone would want to write music like that… not just like Elliott’s but the whole Princeton Columbia world’s, not to mention the music of heretics like Partch, Lou Harrison, Nancarrow, and Cage.
Elliott forewarned us against trying to imitate his music – which in those early days - before the “new complexity” thing - was an understandable concern. None of us did, back then it was inimitable! At the same time he let us know clearly that he could field anything, any music in any modernist language, as long as it had no octaves. Octaves were not admissible in that room, or as far as Elliott was concerned anywhere beyond the 19th century (with special dispensation for Stravinsky). In the two years that I met with Elliott every Friday of the school calendar, I felt I was somehow becoming a composer – a dream that had been begging for some time to become reality. I cannot say how this happened, but I feel that Elliott’s generous caring toward us and his unquestioned commitment to the “profession” were precious lessons in themselves, along with the dogged attention to detail that he gave equally to all his students: he urged us to find refined ways of questioning everything and even more refined ways of reshaping linear contours, of molding the flow and density of sonic mass, of avoiding banal literal repetition when a subtle variant could be created, of scrutinizing register, orchestration, and overall intention. Elliott, I realized long after I graduated, had simply treated us, his first students, like young professionals – without our knowing it he had admitted us to the inner circle where the pros sat, ate lunch, drank, and talked shop.
I quickly devoured all of Elliott’s available music, finding special inspirational affinity with the Piano Sonata (1948). While that work and the related Cello and Piano work did presage the “real” Elliott Carter that followed – the Carter of pure structure as pure sound, as in the First String Quartet – those later pieces demanded I revise my ideas about all music (few as they were then) and that was hard, almost impossible.
On the other hand, we had the privilege of working with Elliott at a moment when his own career was taking off in a big way. The Second String Quartet, a model of ordered madness – the players confined to polyphonic temporal isolation rooms – which for the life of me I could never quite grasp, was in the works (today it’s a lovable piece of cake). So was the Double Concerto for Piano Harpsichord and Percussion – an inspired work of sonic problem solving, which even under the alcohol-dipped baton of the great Bruno Maderna became a wonder to hear, as I did in Berlin in 1964. Both of these pieces incidentally are founded on simple and effective ideas of spatialization which became one of my own prominent compositional themes. Unlike so many dedicated academic teachers in American universities, Elliott was actually a composer in the real world, and this made an enormous impression on me and my colleagues – Elliott was already there, “out there.”
After Yale Graduate School I was well on my composerly path, and I turned down a Fulbright that would have let me study with Berio, in order to accompany Elliott when he invited me to Berlin in 1964, along with Joel Chadabe and Frederic Rzewski, to be a “young composer” in the first year of the DAAD program – then under the auspices of the Ford Foundation. In addition to other joys of those times, which I have written about often, I became a friend of Helen and Elliott’s which has been for me a lifelong blessing. Those who know my music and its maverick character will know it has little to do with the world that Elliott would have liked me to be a part of. At the same time, there is not a thing I write that I do not put under some kind of Carteresque scrutiny…. even the Octaves, even the triads, even the clusters – even the sampled loons on my Powerbook.
Once Elliott’s music abandoned its early roots in the populist American tradition, it became and has remained a shining model of what one might call gentlemanly experimentalism, music which questioned everything except the major institutions for which it was destined – its relentless sound as disconcerting as the Partches’ and the Cages’ and the Musica Elettronica Vivas’ in its endless research into new musical realms. A big difference lay in its regal demands for the very best performers, the best rehearsal schedules, the best halls and the best of a curious and informed public. There are no detectable concessions to anything or anyone in Elliott’s work, and this makes him a maverick of a very special kind, one for whom the modernist utopia of societal education and transformation and art for art remains forever a viable goal despite the wobbly economics of today’s symphony orchestras and the philosophy of do-it-yourself mayhem espoused by many of us born after him.
While I do not myself compose with a narrative sensibility (relying neither on the Greeks nor the moderns for cues) I do feel that my dogged music of old fashioned instinct is in some way related to the tradition of great composing and the refined experimentalism whose essence is Elliott. Our mutual respect and friendship has only grown over the years, and now with Elliott in his 100th year I am happy to write these words, wishing only that Helen were here to read them too.
- Alvin Curran, Rome
from Elliott Carter: A Centennial Celebration, ed. Marc Ponthus and Susan Tang, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, NY, 2008, pp. 41-46