Friday, May 6, 2016

An interview with Milton Babbitt By Gabrielle Zuckerman, First Part

Milton Byron Babbitt (May 10, 1916 – January 29, 2011) was an American composer, music theorist, and teacher. He is particularly noted for his serial and electronic music.

Babbitt was born in Philadelphia to Albert E. Babbitt and Sarah Potamkin. He was raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and began studying the violin when he was four but soon switched to clarinet and saxophone. Early in his life he was attracted to jazz and theater music. He was making his own arrangements of popular songs at seven, and when he was thirteen, he won a local songwriting contest.

Bülent Arel, Alice Shields, Otto Luehning, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Pril Smiley.

Babbitt's father was a mathematician, and it was mathematics that Babbitt intended to study when he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1931. However, he soon left and went to New York University instead, where he studied music with Philip James and Marion Bauer. There he became interested in the music of the composers of the Second Viennese School and went on to write a number of articles on twelve tone music, including the first description of combinatoriality and a serial "time-point" technique. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree from New York University College of Arts and Science in 1935 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, he studied under Roger Sessions, first privately and then later at Princeton University. At the university, he joined the music faculty in 1938 and received one of Princeton's first Master of Fine Arts degrees in 1942. During the Second World War, Babbitt divided his time between mathematical research in Washington, D.C., and Princeton, where he became a member of the mathematics faculty from 1943 to 1945.

 Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, and Vladimir Ussachevsky with the RCA Mark II Synthesizer

In 1948, Babbitt returned to Princeton University's music faculty and in 1973 became a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School in New York. Among his more notable former students are music theorists David Lewin and John Rahn, composers Michael Dellaira, Kenneth Fuchs, Laura Karpman, Paul Lansky, Donald Martino, John Melby, Kenneth Lampl, Tobias Picker, and J. K. Randall, the theatre composer Stephen Sondheim, composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, and the jazz guitarist and composer Stanley Jordan.

In 1958, Babbitt achieved unsought notoriety through an article in the popular magazine High Fidelity. Babbitt said his own title for the article was "The Composer as Specialist" (as it was later published several times, including in Babbitt 2003, 48–54, but that "The editor, without my knowledge and—therefore—my consent or assent, replaced my title by the more 'provocative' one: 'Who Cares if You Listen?' a title which reflects little of the letter and nothing of the spirit of the article". [This article will be Soon in PREPARED GUITAR]

More than 30 years later, he commented: "For all that the true source of that offensively vulgar title has been revealed many times, in many ways, even—eventually—by the offending journal itself, I still am far more likely to be known as the author of 'Who Cares if You Listen?' than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen".

Babbitt later became interested in electronic music. He was hired by RCA as consultant composer to work with their RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (known since 1996 as the Columbia University Computer Music Center), and in 1961 produced his Composition for Synthesizer. Babbitt was less interested in producing new timbres than in the rhythmic precision he could achieve using the Mark II synthesizer, a degree of precision previously unobtainable in live performances.

Although he would eventually shift his focus away from electronic music, the genre that first gained for him public notice,by the 1980s, Babbitt wrote both electronic music and music for conventional musical instruments, often combining the two. Philomel (1964), for example, was written for soprano and a synthesized accompaniment (including the recorded and manipulated voice of Bethany Beardslee, for whom the piece was composed) stored on magnetic tape.

From 1985 until his death he served as the Chairman of the BMI Student Composer Awards, the international competition for young classical composers. Milton Babbitt died in Princeton, New Jersey on January 29, 2011 at the age of 94.

GABRIELLE ZUCKERMAN: Tell me about your early musical influences.

MILTON BABBITT: My early musical influences began in Jackson, Mississippi. Here I grew up, of course, and my first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom I went to study at the age of 4. She gave me a violin, and as I practiced, I thought, this is exactly what I'd like to be doing in music—don't ask me how or where—although I wasn't really all that excited about the practicing. Frankly, I didn't like practicing. I faked it most of the time, and my mother and father didn't know the difference. They didn't really care whether I practiced or not. My father was a very realistic and sophisticated man, and he would have been just as happy if I didn't take it any farther. The point of the matter is, though, that I did play the violin, and I took it very seriously.

If you want an anecdote, I'll tell you one. My teacher was a lovely and sophisticated woman who had studied with Leopold Auer. I know you Yankees think that if you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, you went around in bare feet, but we lived in a very cultivated crowd. Our public school was very sophisticated, and we were taught how to speak English in a very special way, because we were told that we were the last bastions of high culture. It was a little bit of that that brushed into everything. Anyway, my teacher, Ms. Hutchison, said one day to me, "Well, if you're really interested in playing the violin, why don't you see if this is the kind of music you might play?"

And she gave me the violin part of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, which I took home. Now this was a violin concerto that I had never heard performed; we didn't have an orchestra, and remember records were very far and few between, so we didn't have a record of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto either. And I thought that if this was all that a violin concerto was, why couldn't I write one of my own? So I started writing something I called "Violin Concerto for a Single Violin." I could've been very chic; I could've called it "Violin Concerto for Solo Violin," but I wasn't that mature yet.

The truth of the matter is, after my experience with the violin concerto, I suddenly realized that the violin didn't get you very far socially. Nobody really wanted you to play this damn solo violin. So I went to the local band director, the man who ran every band in town, the lovely, lovely Italian who didn't speak very much English, but who had a very good musical background. Let me tell you, this is America, so I might as well tell you how he got there. He got to Jackson, Mississippi, from one of the smaller towns in Italy by virtue of a beautiful Mississippi girl who went to Italy to study voice—what else?

That's very American. She brought him back to Jackson where she thought he could be a big important person. Well, he was, relatively speaking. So I went to him, and I said I wanted to study the trumpet. And he said, "Why do you want to study the trumpet?" I named all these jazz people of whom he had never heard who played trumpet or cornet. He said, "Look, you're obviously interested in music. Play the clarinet because when you play band arrangements they have the violin parts, and you'll learn a great deal about music, and you'll learn a great deal more music that way." So I agreed and I took up the clarinet. That became my primary instrument. I played the clarinet and eventually saxophone. All throughout high school I played in every kind of band, everything from an imitation Guy Lombardo to an imitation Ben Pollock, which means, you know, the range from what would then be called popular music to jazz.

When I went off to college I played in the band, and that's when I thought I would probably continue as a musician. That's when my father said to me—as a father who had been around a bit—"Why don't you go to a music school? You spend all of your time in music. You spend all of your time practicing and writing music." I told him that I wasn't interested, because I had been around Philadelphia relatives long enough to know what Curtis was like and to know what happened to those poor people—there's no future in that. I don't know if he thought I was going to play clarinet in an orchestra, even if it was the Philadelphia Orchestra, but at any rate, I said, "no, thank you!" So I went to college and forgot about music for two years—I just studied—no music.

Then—you know this is relevant because it's going to have a lot to do with other things that are going to happen to me later—I ran into a book called 20th Century Music by Marion Bauer, who was at Washington Square College, NYU. That was a book that had musical examples which were unheard of in those days. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and American composers like Roy Harris and Richard Donovan were in that book. Have you ever heard of Richard Donovan? Of course not, he's been forgotten, but that's too bad. Anyway, after reading 20th Century Music, I decided that this was where I wanted to go, so I transferred to Washington Square College and that's where my real life in music began with Marion Bauer, a dear lady, and I'm not being patronizing. Her course involved reading from her own book, which consisted mainly of newspaper clippings, but there were musical examples as well.

At school I met some people like Martin Bernstein and Phillip James, and then my life really began. I began really hearing music. You know, the WPA was wonderful for music. The Depression was marvelous for musicians. Things were cheap. You could hear a great many free concerts. I graduated from NYU when I was very young (I was 19) I went to Roger Sessions (thanks to Marion Bauer, she introduced me to him and I knew I wanted to go study with him) and that was it. Three years later I joined him as his assistant at Princeton and that's where my life was for a few years until there was something called World War II. Then my life changed again. And there you have my early influences.

Your early influences…

My early influences, however, I must tell you, were largely in popular music—all kinds of popular music. And you'll be amused to know that while I was in Jackson, Mississippi I never heard a note of country music. The country people are out there, but we're not country people. We didn't hear any country music. We never heard any blues either, though the blues virtually originated in Jackson, but that was not us. It didn't have anything to do with race—by the way, that's a great mistake—it had to do with education. We went to Davis School, which, well, you want me to tell you an anecdote about that? I'll tell you because it involved somebody else who came from Jackson, Eudora Welty, with whom I grew up. Her father was the president of the insurance company of which my father was the actuary and vice president, so we literally grew up together. Eudora Welty … went to the same public grammar school that I did, the Davis School, and you can guess which Davis that was.


Jefferson Davis, of course. So, anyhow, the story was that [Eudora] would go down to the ladies room where the students were in their little stalls, and our English teacher, Ms. Granbury, would come down there, and if she heard a single grammatical mistake in the conversation among these stalls, she would immediately tell them, "Go to my office when you have done what you have to do here." They would be reprimanded and disciplined. We were taught how to speak in a very special way. For example, if we ever said "civil-ah-zation" we'd be reprimanded, maybe even sent home, because civilization has a short "i," and you aren't supposed to turn short "i's" into "ah".

Talk about the influence of Schoenberg on your work.

Oh, well, that again, is a story that begins rather early and, you know, I didn't mention before because it seemed incidental until you brought up the name of Schoenberg. My mother was a Philadelphian, and every two years she would take me to Philadelphia to stay with my grandparents, mainly because we didn't have air—there was no air conditioning yet in Jackson—the summer can get rather warm, like 118 degrees. So she would take me down and stay with my grandmother. I had an uncle, who died only recently, who was already well into music. He was studying at Curtis by that time, but before that, he had studied with various people including a man who is called the "Wild Man in Music." By that time, he…was engaged to be married to a Curtis pianist. Every year she played a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. One year it was [Edvard] Grieg, the next it was [Sergei] Rachmaninoff.

I knew the world of Curtis very well when I was 10 years old. One day my uncle, who rather impressed by the fact that I have what is called "perfect pitch" and he didn't—which is trivial, it's whether one is born with it or not, it doesn't matter—told me that he thought I should go into music, which, of course, I had no intention of doing. He said, "How do you like this?: He played for me…I'm not sure whether it was the Schoenberg Opus 19 or the Schoenberg Opus 11. He just played this for me wondering what effect it would have on a 10-year-old. The effect was that it seemed totally incoherent to me, but I was very impressed by the fact that my uncle could play it, and that he did play it, and that there was imprinted music that I could read. That was when I first began to look at this music and go, "What the hell was going on here?" I didn't figure it out.

Then, you know, any number of events after that contributed to my desire to learn more about Schoenberg. When I went to Philadelphia the next time, which was two years later, I asked to hear some more of this, and I heard Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now I don't think that was when I heard them play the Schoenberg variations—I could always look that up—that must have been later, but I did hear something out at the "Dell"—the Robin Hood Dell, where the Philadelphia Orchestra would play in the summer. They played some contemporary music—I don't remember what at this point. That's when I began to waver and wonder whether I should go into music. So after two years of not being into music, I came to New York and went to Marion Bauer, immediately expressing my interest in Schoenberg.

I would go to the 42nd Street Library and study scores that were not permitted to be taken out. The first was the Schoenberg Orchestral Variations, and then it all really went from that point on. You couldn't hear much Schoenberg around New York, as a matter of fact, but I did hear the first performance of the "Fourth Quartet" in the 42nd Street Library—they wouldn't put it in anymore glamorous surrounding than that, but that was it.

I met Schoenberg for the first time only a year or two later when he came to…he didn't come to New York very often. I saw him very little. I spoke with him on maybe two occasions. I was supposed to have gone again to Philadelphia to hear his violin concerto premiered, and I had arranged to speak with him. He did not come because his child was born, and I never saw him again.

When did you start composing?

Oh, I mean, I can say the usual thing, which happens to be true, but, of course, it's a little silly—I started when I was 4. I began writing my [first little pieces then], and I began writing pop songs by the carload when I was about 6.

Do you still have them? Is there anything that…

No, I don't… Well, I don't want to totally get into this, but World War II destroyed almost all of my records and music that I had at that time and, of course, moving around and so forth. We won't go into my World War II, but, I was teaching at Princeton when it broke out, and I wasn't involved in anything. I was at Washington, in fact, all over the place, so that much of that got lost. But I do remember one or two of those songs, but you're never going to get them out of me.


… It's very funny; one does have a memory of trivial things. I mean, I know popular song lyrics of the period from 1926 to the early 1930's that you wouldn't believe. Just try me sometime.

Do they just once in awhile, do you just start humming them or do you think of them or does something…

Oh, of course. I think of them all the time. And sometimes every once in awhile they revive one, and I'll know every word of every one of them, I promise you. I didn't ever study the words, but I played in the bands where the girl singer was singing them, and I made arrangements right and left. No, that's my native idiom I have to say.

So how did you get…you mean, popular music, you're saying or…

Yeah, but they were both together. I mean, I never confused the categories. Even when I was playing in bands and mainly playing Rossini Overtures, I never confused that with the Silver Brown and Anderson. You don't. You realize you're dealing with something quite different. It's a different category of objects.

But how did you, why did you decide to go one way instead of the other? You didn't want to do…

Oh, that's a very simple answer. One gets very tired from popular music, you know, 15 minutes or 20 minutes is fine; after that no. You know, you've had enough of it.

Did you start to look at [Schoenberg's] work and start composing 12-tone?

No, no, it wasn't 12-tone. Hey, I'm going to tell you I imitated Webern—imitated in a very superficial way. Then when I went to study with Roger Sessions—remember I was only 19 and still not knowing quite which way I was going. I wrote a piece called, Generatrix, which was imitative of [Edgar] Varèse. I had gotten to know Varèse, who lived on Sullivan Street, right down the street from NYU. I talked with him a great deal, and I wrote this imitation piece. When I brought the music that I had written to Roger Sessions, he looked at and he said, "Well, that's kind of an exercise in orchestration isn't it?" That was the end of Generatrix, and I won't tell you the rest of my interview because it really would have to be censored, because he talked about a ____… He asked me what music I would like to have written after studying with him. He asked me, "How long do you think you can study?"

Well, I was very fortunate. My father was very well off and I could afford to stay in New York, which was so cheap I those days. I had the most beautiful apartment in New York, a two-room apartment in the village for $40.00 a month. That's the way the world was, you know, candy bars were three for a dime and they were big candy bars. And you can imagine what the world seems to be now. But, in any case, I went to Roger and —I didn't start calling him Roger for another eight years, but by a southern boy he was "sir" and I would say Mr. Sessions, but I now call him Roger—he asked me what works I would like to have written, after I said I could stay with him for at least three years. (That's what a graduate education would have cost and I was not going to graduate school; there were no graduate schools in composition of any importance at that time.) So I told him that I would like to have written, I didn't say the Schoenberg Percussion Variations, which would've been my first answer—I didn't know how he felt about Schoenberg who was still very problematic—I said I would like to have written the Stravinsky Octet and the Copland Piano Variations. He said, "The Stravinsky Octet you'll be able to write. For the Copland Piano Variations, you don't need that much time." Now, I've been indiscreet, but Aaron is dead and he was passé. Copland and Stravinsky are both dead. Everybody has their own opinions, you know.

Well, Roger Sessions and Copland, as you know were tied up in the Copland-Sessions Concert and so forth, but they were far from close. I don't mind saying these things now, it's all history and true history.

To Be Continued


Pierre Henry Interview (April 22, 2016)
Sound Aesthetics: Xenakis (January 7, 2016)
Pinhas Deleuze Sound language (January 21, 2016)
Angle(s) VI John Cage (April 30, 2015)
Morton Feldman (March 16, 2015)
Morton Feldman and painting (October 3, 2014)