Tempo e tempi

The composer in Cambridge: Carter looks back. Interviewing Elliott Carter.
Boston Globe, December 5, 2008.

I ended up with way more material than I could fit into a Globe article. Some of the more off-topic or esoteric excerpts:

It’s interesting how much of Carter’s early musical experiences revolved around folk music—not just his contact with Ives and Gilbert:

EC:I also studied Greek with Milman Parry, who invited me—Milman Parry caused a revolution in Greek, in the study of the Greek language, he decided to go to some mountains in Albania where there were still people singing like Homer, who sang big epic poems at night. And he wanted me to go with him—I didn’t go, I think I was a little foolish not to, but I’ve forgotten why I didn’t go. But he came back with a lot of recordings of all this, and decided, he had a whole new idea of how Homer had written the Odyssey and the Iliad because of that. There’s still people fighting about it.

MG: One interesting thing: you spent a summer in Tunisia?
EC: Indeed I did.
MG: How did that come about?
EC: Well, I knew a woman who sang Arabic music, Laura Williams…. And Laura Williams had been asked by the Baron d’Elanger, who had a big palace in the northern part of Tunisia, who was very interested in capturing what the original Arabic music of that place was, because radio was playing all kinds of jazz and everything, and everyone was forgetting all about it. So he wanted to make a big effort to have everything down. And I notated a lot of these—we used to set up, it was so hot, we slept all day and worked all night. And it was a lot of fun.

Carter arrived at Harvard in 1926, after Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell had controversially resegregated student housing with regards to Jewish and African-American students. Carter didn’t remember that being a big deal among the student population, but he did recall the outcry over Lowell’s institution of the Harvard house system:

EC: [T]he other thing I remember very vividly, when we learned that they were going to put up all these dormitories—you know, a lot of students didn’t live in dormitories at Harvard. I rented a room from some old lady on a little street that doesn’t exist anymore. And then later, I rented rooms in a building on Mount Auburn Street. But when we heard that Harvard was going to build all these new dormitories, a great many of us went to President Lowell and said that this was going to destroy the campus. And Lowell said, “You can’t turn down three million dollars easily.”

Carter also got a little lesson in labor relations from BSO players:

EC: My main memory of Boston—the people in the Boston Symphony, it was largely a group of Frenchmen who were not unionized, it was not a unionized thing. So that they were all caught in this situation—if they were fired, they’d have to go back to France, they couldn’t get a job in America. So there was a kind of funny business—in any case, I was brought up to speak French as a child, and they used to run a boardinghouse, and I used to go there and have meals.

Later, in the 1930s, Carter would start his own union:

EC: [T]he thing that we all had going on, was the fact that there were not many American composers, and that the American composer was not paid for his performances—in fact, he was supposed to pay for his performances. And so, in the old-fashioned way, we made a union, and wouldn’t allow any music to be played until we were paid. Well, we finally got it, and the American Composers Alliance worked quite well, and Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland, and the rest of us, we were very active in establishing that….
And now: 20,000 composers in this country.
MG: Too many.
EC: It’s all a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it. [laughs]

I asked Carter about this photo, which shows the Harvard Glee Club visiting Herbert Hoover at the White House in the spring of 1929.

EC: I certainly do not remember anything like this.
MG: There’s one person who kind of looks like you, but I don’t know.
EC: [laughs] Where was this? At Harvard?
MG: No, it was actually at the White House.
EC: Oh, then no.
I was only at the White House twice. There was once with Kennedy, with some other composers. And the second time, Ronald Reagan, he invited me, and he gave me a medal [the National Medal of Arts, in 1985].
God, he was stupid. I had lunch with him, and—well, maybe he wasn’t stupid, but he certainly acted stupidly that day. There were very funny things about it. That famous black opera singer, a beautiful woman, [Leontyne Price]—she sat between me and the president, it was a round table. And she looked at me very angrily and she said, [clenches teeth] “We’re here to have a good time.” [laughs] It was all sort of in that mood. And I sat next to Carter Brown, who I knew, who was head of the big museum down there, the Mellon Museum [the National Gallery of Art], and we talked. And Mr. Reagan tried to get in on some conversation, because we were all talking about things he didn’t know much about. Finally, he said, “I just love the sculpture of [Frederic] Remington,” you know, the cowboy guy.
Finally, he had to take the lead, and he decided to tell his stories, and the stories were unbelievable. I don’t know if you want to hear them.
MG: Sure.
EC: OK. Well, there was one story—he said, there were two psychoanalysts, they had offices in the same building, and they’d go up together in the elevator in the morning. And in the evening, one of them was all disheveled, and the other one looked perfect. And the disheveled one said to the other, “How can you go through all that, hear all those terrible things, and still look like that?” And he says, “Who listens?”
Now, this is the president saying that.
MG: We do know how to pick our presidents.
EC: Well, yes, we finally did! I didn’t think [Obama would] ever get in.


  1. Wonderful! Matthew, I liked your article a lot. It pulled up information and stories that haven’t come out elsewhere. In many other interviews, Mr Carter seems to be saying the same things over and over, which is what you would expect from a hundred-year-old man who who’s been answering the same questions for years. Your Globe piece is much more revealing. Well done.And it’s heartening to know Mr. Carter feels the same way about Reagan and Obama that I do. Hilarious.

  2. This stuff is GOLD, Matthew. Wonderful published interview; as the previous commenter pointed out, it reveals sides of his character that one doesn’t usually see in his interviews – especially true if you include the bonus material here. Any more? Thanks for posting this.

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