The quartet is considerably influenced by the music of European avant-garde composers who were gaining celebrity at this time, particularly Pierre Boulez's Le marteau sans maître. This is a much more fragmentary piece than his earlier quartet (1951): the four instruments play very individual roles and unpredictably bounce off one another. Indeed, Carter instructs the players to sit as far apart as possible so that they appear to be playing different pieces simultaneously.
Carter, Elliot. “Shop Talk by an American Composer.” In Collected Essays and Lecture, 1937-1995, ed. Jonathan Bernard, 214-224. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997; reprinted from Musical Quarterly 46, no. 2 (April 1960): 189-201.
Carter, Elliot. “String Quartets Nos. 1, 1951, and 2, 1959.” In Collected Essays and Lecture, 1937-1995, ed. Jonathan Bernard, 231-235. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997. Reprinted from sleeve notes from Composers String Quartet, Nonesuch Records H-71249 (1970).
Schiff, David. The Music of Elliott Carter. Second edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998 (1983).