What A Life: The Day I Met Elliott Carter

In 2008, NPR's Tom Cole was assigned to profile Elliott Carter for the composer's centennial. Cole was terrified. He needn't have been. To mark Carter's passing this past Monday at the age of 103, Cole has a remembrance of what it was like to meet the storied composer.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elliott Carter died this week, a month shy of his 104th birthday. He had a huge influence on modern classical music. So in 2008, when Elliott Carter was celebrating his centennial, NPR's Tom Cole went to New York City to interview him. And he has this remembrance of what it was like to meet the storied composer.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: I was terrified. I mean, this was a man who had lived history; a composer who'd won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his Second and Third String Quartets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: A man whose cello sonata is considered one of the great works for that instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Elliott Carter composed in his West 12th Street apartment. When my engineer and I arrived, our first task was to figure out how to turn off the steam radiator hissing in his living room - a sonic intrusion he was well aware of, despite his failing hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLIOTT CARTER: Oh, that's a problem. That'll give you some background.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Gee, I'll been glad to have it turned off. The whole thing's too hot, anyhow.

COLE: We got it turned off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: Oh, good.

COLE: And Mr. Carter proceeded to tell us that he'd wanted to be involved with music ever since he was a kid growing up in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: My family were not musical, and they were not interested in music - although my mother did have one of those player pianos that had a paper roll. And later, I bought piano rolls that Stravinsky had made. That drove my parents crazy. And then, I finally got out a paper roll, and punched some holes in it myself; to see how it would sound. (LAUGHTER)

COLE: And how did it sound?

CARTER: Awful. (LAUGHTER)

COLE: When he was in high school, he wrote a letter to composer Charles Ives, who encouraged him to study music at Harvard.

CARTER: My parents wanted me to study at Harvard because they thought I'd meet a lot of people that would be helpful in business. I met a lot of people, but they were helpful in modern art.

COLE: His classmates included Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the New York City Ballet; and writer James Agee. What a time. What a life. And what a sweet man. Elliott Carter spent more than an hour with us, talking excitedly about wanting to create something new with his music, from the beginning; laughing about the sometimes-negative early reactions, and his eventual acceptance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: Young composers are always coming up to me and saying - what you would advise a young composer to do. And I say, you'd better do what you love to do. And then I say, you know, I have had students that loved to be successful - and other ones liked music too much. (LAUGHTER)

COLE: In a life that lasted more than a century, Elliott Carter did both. Tom Cole, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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