This year arts organizations are celebrating the venerated American composer Elliott Carter, who will turn 100 years old on December 11. This month, from October 30 to November 1, the New York Philharmonic will mark the occasion with a Hear & Now program constructed around Of Rewaking, a song cycle he composed in 2002, which will be sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and conducted by David Robertson. In preparing to host these concerts, I had the pleasure of chatting with the master composer and found him to be as charming, as witty, as lively as ever.
Carter is best known for instrumental music, but, in fact, he has been involved with the voice ever since his Harvard days where, he said, "I sang in the Glee Club. I wasn't a very good singer, but I enjoyed it, and then after I came back from Europe I wrote quite a few choral pieces in the 1930s and early '40s." When I asked why he stopped writing for the voice for 30 years, he explained: "Those early choral and vocal pieces sounded perfectly dreadful. They told me the music was difficult, nobody could sing it properly. I wondered if maybe I was at fault. But really, we just needed better singers. These days I think my vocal music sounds quite good : finally."
For the texts of his vocal works, this American maverick is drawn to poems by 20th-century American modernists, such as John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. "That goes all the way back to Harvard, too," he recalls. "There was a little bookshop, sort of a secret place, really, but they had all the modern writers. I remember, I bought Williams's poems very early, and I was very, very interested. I read his famous poem 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' and I thought, 'This is real, this is American; no classical meters or philosophical ideas about wheelbarrows, but the genuine experience itself.'" When, in 1945, Carter moved into the Greenwich Village apartment that is still his home, his neighbors included e.e. cummings and Marianne Moore. "Naturally I was interested in the modernist poets," he notes, "just as by the same token I wanted to make modernist music."
The three movements that comprise Of Rewaking seem to create a larger form: the first movement is the shortest and simplest, then things become more dramatic and more complex, until the third song, "Shadows," acts as a kind of finale, one that is as long as the first two songs together. The work's overall shape is so beautiful that it seems it must have been designed that way, but "No," the composer insists, "I just write the music from beginning to end, just as I am talking to you now, whatever there is in my head that I want to say."
This year it hasn't been difficult to hear what he has had to say; last summer, Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music included in their programming 47 of his works : together lasting 20 hours : for which he wrote a new setting of John Ashbery texts which Carter has described as madrigals, called Mad Regales. "Most of the performers were students, so excellent you can hardly believe it," he remembers. "My music really sounds much better when it's well played! That's been a big change in my lifetime, the level of the players, but also the idea that modern music deserves to be played just as well as Mozart or Brahms."
In fact, this standard-bearer of the new often mentions Mozart, so I asked him why. "The thing about Mozart is how brilliantly he can move from one idea to another," Carter replied. "If you are listening to Don Giovanni, you hear one emotion one moment and then suddenly a quite different emotion the next. That kind of complexity in Mozart is like the reality of human life, because our thoughts change from moment to moment. That's my ideal in music, too, that kind of reality."
Indeed, this juxtaposition of moods can often be found in the Williams poem "Shadows," which Carter uses in Of Rewaking. "I like to hold more than one thought in my mind at once," the composer explained. "Williams is contrasting soft shadows at night with sharper, more dramatic ones in sunlight, and so my music is sometimes tranquil, sometimes very energetic. I don't like things to be too simple."
Composer Steven Stucky, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Music, has been resident composer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1988 and has hosted the New York Philharmonic's Hear & Now series since the 2005 _06 season.