As the death of American composer Elliott Carter sparks celebrations of a long, creative life, it’s also an opportunity to enjoy again a remarkable interview he gave to James Tarmy last June:
Sitting in his Greenwich Village living room, Elliott Carter sips iced tea and looks pretty chipper for 103.
Over the decades, Carter’s tough music has found an audience while his cheerful longevity has inspired admiration and affection as well.
This Friday Carter will attend the world premiere of his “Two Controversies and a Conversation” at the New York Philharmonic (which co-commissioned the piece with the Aldeburgh Festival and Radio France).
Wearing a button-down shirt, suspenders and khakis, Carter reminisced about his life.
Tarmy: How long have you lived in this apartment?
Carter: Since 1945, right at the end of the war. This part of the city was my favorite. When I was in high school there were speakeasies down here, where we would drink wine in teacups.
It was a real slum. Now the area has been discovered by Wall Street, so while we paid $15,000 for this apartment, it’s now worth $2 million.
Tarmy: What was your favorite restaurant?
Carter: La Cote Basque, now sadly closed. I took Igor Stravinsky and his wife there. We got a table in the middle of the room, speaking French, and a man came in, and said in rather good French, “will the maestro please give me an autograph?” Stravinsky said “Certainly not.”
His wife did a great deal of talking in Russian and finally he agreed, but took forever to write out his name. The man waited and waited and by this point the whole room was watching.
Finally Stravinsky was done and the man thanked him and walked away. We asked Stravinsky if he knew who he was and he said, “Certainly, I see him on television all the time.” The man was Frank Sinatra.
Tarmy: Did you invest over the years?
Carter: God knows if you hold onto a stock you might fall down with it. I can’t say I’ve ever been involved with that kind of problem, except for when my father died and I inherited vast amounts of little pieces of real estate all over the city. There was a garage down by the river, things like that. Finally, I just said to hell with it. I have too many other things that bother me.
Tarmy: Your longevity could have made you a bundle!
Carter: You talk about longevity, but at this point in my life I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in the future.
After World War I, I studied in Munich. I met lots of people and we used to swear that we would never fight in a war again. I go away, and there’s Hitler.
I never would have suspected that those intelligent Germans would have fallen for that -- it would have never occurred to me. So who knows what’s going to happen.
Mitt Romney may even get into office. God knows what would come out of that.
Tarmy: Good question. But in a sense when you write music, you’re writing for the future.
Carter: Musical training leads you to the old-fashioned idea that the composer is writing for the future, and that he’ll be recognized like Brahms was. Well, that’s false. Sometimes I think that somebody will understand my music 10 years from now, but I’m not sure.
Tarmy: What books are you reading?
Carter: I’m reading Balzac’s “La Comedie Humaine” on a Kindle, in French. Oh wait a second, go into the living room, take a letter off the piano, I think you’ll be interested in it.
Tarmy: Oh fantastic. Congratulations -- you’re being awarded the Legion of Honor! When’s the ceremony?
Carter: All I know is in that letter -- it just came yesterday.
Tarmy: You’ve become so prolific as you’ve gotten older.
Carter: I always conceived of composition as an adventure, and each one of my pieces is an adventure in a certain direction. They’re still an adventure.
Tarmy: Can you attribute your longevity to anything?
Carter: I have no idea. I do a little bit of exercise every morning, and now I read in the paper that exercise for older people is bad for the harp -- for the heart, not the harp, I mean. The harp is bad enough.
The New York Philharmonic will perform Carter’s “Two Controversies and a Conversation” on June 8 at 7 p.m. in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview, originally published on June 6, was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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