Milton Babbitt, Princeton’s Composer


Nassau Weekly Article (2/20/86)

By Randy Schoenberg

On Saturday, February 22 the Alumni Association will honor composer Milton Babbitt with the James Madison Medal, which recognizes distinguished alumni of the Graduate School. Babbitt received his MFA degree from Princeton in 1942 and is currently William Shubael Conant Professor of Music, Emeritus. News Editor Randy Schoenberg is the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. Babbitt has used Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition for almost all of his works.

When Milton Babbitt was ten years old, he visited an uncle in Philadelphia who was studying with the radical Russian composer, Leo Orenstein, at the Curtis Institute. “He played for me—just to see what the reaction would be of someone who was very much involved in music, but who obviously not only was a child, but had no musical sophistication—a number of contemporary works.”   Among those works were pieces by Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, the two most important and influential composers of this century. Babbitt had another uncle, a music critic who later brought back for him some contemporary scores. But his first exposure remains the most memorable. “The fact of the matter is that I never forgot the Schoenberg,” he says.

Although he was born on May 10, 1916, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Babbitt grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. His early musical life was sheltered from the serious classical music which was to become the direction of his later life. “When I was a little boy in Jackson, playing clarinet, playing violin, playing in bands,” he recalls, “it was mainly popular music. I wrote it, I arranged it, I listened to it, and the only so-called ‘serious’ music that I knew was the music that I played in the orchestra, and that was usually repertory—music that was sub-standard at that time even. So really I didn’t have a chance to hear any serious contemporary music.”

At the age of fifteen, five years after first experiencing modern music, Babbitt suppressed his desire to study music, and instead obeyed the wishes of his mother and enrolled in the traditional school of his mother’s family, the University of Pennsylvania. Babbitt now calls this move “a great mistake.” Although Penn had his uncle and his cousin, it didn’t have a music department. “I hated Penn,” he says. “For two years I did not officially study music. There was no music department.” He did, however go many times to hear Leopold Stokowsky conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra.

At last he decided to transfer to NYU. “I did what my father thought I should have done in the first place—I forgot everything else and studied music,” he says. He went to NYU primarily because of Marion Bauer, who had just written a book called Twentieth Century Music with examples from Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and others. “It was so exciting to see someone who obviously cared about this music enough to have musical examples in a book, when in those days you couldn’t see musical example and you hadn’t seen many of the scores, that I went to Washington Square College at NYU, and had a perfectly marvelous time.”

Babbitt’s music is serial, or twelve-tone. Paul Griffith, author for the text book for Music 208—Twentieth Century Music, describes serialism: “[T]he twelve notes of the chromatic scale are arranged in a fixed order, the series, which are used to generate melodies and harmonies, and which remains binding for a whole work.” The music is atonal, lacking any direct reference to a key. To the uninitiated, it sounds harsh and irrational; but to composers such as Babbitt it is the musical language of the twentieth century. Babbitt’s major contribution to serialism is the extension of the method from the twelve tones to other aspects of composition, including rhythm and volume.

“[Schoenberg] was the singly most important compositional influence in my life,” Babbitt says. “I could never have written the music I have written, for better or for worse, if I hadn’t known the music of Schoenberg.” He describes how he would go to study scores at the 50th Street Library, and remembers hearing the first performance of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet by the Kolisch Quartet at the 42nd Street Library. “If there were a hundred people there, there were a lot.” Even now, Babbitt says, he discovers things in that piece that amaze him, and states flatly, “I keep reminding myself of, or rediscovering, or discovering things that I still find absolutely unparalleled in the history of music…..I don’t think any piece has ever had the influence on me that [Schoenberg’s] Fourth String Quartet has had.”

Babbitt came to teach at Princeton in 1938—before there was even a music department. “We did not have offices. We lived under very Spartan conditions.” When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, Babbitt was working toward one of the first graduate degrees offered in music at Princeton. During the second semester of that year, he taught music and math (mostly elementary calculus). “Everybody suddenly began taking math courses that semester after Pearl Harbor. I was teaching on Saturdays.” The music section disappeared as everyone was either drafted or preparing for technical jobs in the army. Babbitt was sent by the Army to Washington, but soon was sent back to teach, because mathematicians were considered top priority. Babbitt stayed with the math department until the end of the war, when he made the not-so-difficult decision to return to music.

He soon began composing again, writing a film score, and a musical comedy, published only recently. These pieces were in the traditional Broadway style, show tunes of the sort Babbitt had grown up with. He says people accuse him of knowing all the songs written between 1925 and 1935. “You can’t know them all,” he admits, “but I know most of them: words and music. That is why when I came to Princeton and discovered that I had colleagues in music who didn’t know ‘Melancholy Baby’ from ‘Embraceable You,’ I was surprised. Now I’m not surprised, because I don’t know any pop music that’s been written since 1955. I don’t know a note of any of it. So I know how one can be cut off from popular culture.”

Babbitt didn’t like show business, and quickly returned to academia. “I could not abide show business in any of its manifestations. I couldn’t stand the people; I couldn’t stand the milieu. I realized that, though I was interested in film music, I could never do it physically. I can’t work that fast. I liked doing it, but I could never do it again. I’m just not the type.” So after his brief career with Broadway and the movies, Babbitt returned to Princeton. “I realized that, whatever its deficiencies, whatever its limitations, the academic was for me.”

When Babbitt returned to Princeton, he became part of the newly-formed Music Department led by Roger Sessions, whom Babbitt calls, “personally, the most influential composer in my life.” Then, he began moving towards, historically, his most important musical achievement: work with the synthesizer.

“I had always been interested in the electronic production of sound,” he says. In the thirties, Babbitt had convinced RCA to investigate the handwritten soundtrack, but in the fifties he began working with them on their second synthesizer (the first could only play one record). RCA moved this synthesizer to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where Babbitt and others began experimenting with it. “We discovered things about the machine of which they were unaware, because they were unaware of music,” Babbitt explains. “For them it was something arrangers could use. It was The Thing for me, where I could specify every aspect of my musical ideas to this machine.”

The synthesizer is not a computer; every note must be dictated by the composer. Babbitt has often been characterized as a mathematical, calculating composer because of his use of the synthesizer, but the synthesizer actually makes the involvement of the composer greater. Every sound is produced by specifying not only the pitch, but the volume, attack, duration, and timbre. “The machine composed nothing,” Babbitt attests. “It composed less than nothing. I had to instruct it in every conceivable way. It was not a computer in the sense of the word. It had not memory for which it was probably grateful.”

Babbitt wanted the synthesizer to be in Princeton but Princeton wanted nothing to do with it. “So we had to put it on West 125th Street in the Columbia Research Building, and that has made my life the mess that it is. It means I have had to maintain a residence in New York. It means that I have hardly done any electronic work in the last few years, because West 125th Street is not a very happy place in which to work at night.” Unlike many composers, who turned to synthesizers and now computers in order to produce new sounds, Babbitt used it merely as a way of hearing his music, and controlling it. “The notion that we turned to these instruments to find new sounds is preposterous. Actually a great deal of it came out of the desire to be able to fix our notions of musical time with the kind of both flexibility and precision that we knew we could hear, that performers found it at least difficult if not impossible to produce. Basically it was a concern for time.” Babbitt sees temporal control as an outgrowth of Schoenberg’s serialism, the twelve notes being ordered only in time.

Babbitt has several unfinished works that he would like to complete on the synthesizer.   The synthesizer gives him not only control over the temporal aspects of composition, but the ability to leave the studio with a finished tape of his composition. Instead of waiting years for the first performance and enduring an unsatisfactory number of rehearsals (not to mention the cost of printing scores and parts), he can hear his composition as soon as he enters it into his synthesizer. “The practical aspect is a serious one, and that is why many of my colleagues are turning to a computer medium,” he says.

Babbitt views the university as essential to the survival of modern composers. “[The University] is the last hope,” he says. “And therefore, it’s the best hope. There’s no other way a serious composer can survive. I know of no composer of my milieu who doesn’t teach at a university.” Babbitt notes that in continental Europe composers are turning to the major universities for their support. The university has already had a great effect on American music of this century, leading to the academicizing of the music and the legitimization of the field of music theory. “The whole intellectual orientation of American music is a result of that fact that the university plays the role in a composer’s life that they do,” Babbitt asserts.

Babbitt welcomes the patronage he has received, but questions the depth of Princeton’s commitment to music. “The University still doesn’t quite realize what it means to be a composer,” he says. “They don’t know what it is for us to go home at night and copy scores, and have parts extracted, and have to go to rehearsals.”

He believes that composers are not treated as equals to their academic counterparts. “They don’t satisfy all of our professional needs—certainly not the way they do physicists and chemists,” he claims. “They don’t provide us with laboratories. The University presses do not publish our music the way they publish our colleagues’ books. They do not make it possible for us to communicate with our colleagues. But they do manage to keep us alive and that’s rather crucial. At least I can go home at night and write music, otherwise I probably would not have a home in which to write music.”

Perhaps one reason that music is not as heavily supported as other fields, is that there is no consensus on what “serious” music is. So many styles and techniques have evolved in the twentieth century, that it is hard to tell which, if any, will emerge as the superior one, respected and listened to by generations to come. Babbitt sees this diversity as an indisputable fact. “It’s a truism to say that music has never been as diverse, as pluralistic, as fragmented. The apparent confusion, complexity, or diversity of the scene is not apparent, it’s genuine,” he says. “There are more young composers than there have ever been in this country. When I was a young composer in New York, you could count the number of young composers on the fingers of your hands. Now if you took the people who want to study composition on a graduate level, if they ever went to a concert, we’d have an audience that we’re alleged not to have. They are almost not interested in anybody else’s music. They’re all composing music.” Babbitt believes that the number of composers, as well as the freedom to choose alternatives to the musical tradition which ended at the turn of the century, has led to the fractionalization of modern music which we now have.

The Alumni Association award will not be the first for Babbitt. He has won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation (1982), a B.M.I. Commendation (1982), a National Music Award (1976), a Brandeis University Gold Medal (1970), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1960-61), an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1959), and two New York Music Critics Circle Citations (1949, 1964), among others.

However, Babbitt is wary of reading too much into the awards he has received, acknowledging the small audience that his music has. “I’m sure that most of these people with whom I’m being honored have never heard of me or my music. I wonder if almost anybody whom I am going to be addressing on Saturday will have ever heard a note of my music.” He remembers his dismay when teaching the Twentieth Century Music course: “When [the students] went back to the dormitories they didn’t listen to this [modern] music. They listened to the same music that the janitors were listening to.”

The gap between the composer and audience has widened ever since the time of Beethoven; Babbitt’s music is only a most recent example of this trend. When will his music be widely heard? “I haven’t the slightest idea, nor do I have any hope.” He cites music of the early part of this century, which has become part of the musical tradition for modern composers, but which has not entered the standard repertory. He hopes that his music will be kept alive by a small group of composers, but remains uncertain despite his numerous accolades. Music has become more like other academic files, such as Physics, Math, and Philosophy. Most people have no concept of what is going on in these fields and never will.

But music is not entirely the same as other academic fields.

“Our life is a very different one from other academic departments,” he says. Music is meant to be performed, and that requires a specific time and place. The cost of performance is great, and most government funds go to music that should not need subsidizing, the so-called “classics” and “popular” music that one would hear at Lincoln Center or on PBS. Babbitt describes other difficulties. “Publishing of music has ceased; Xeroxing has killed it. Recording is at a standstill; there is no place to record an orchestra in all of Manhattan.”

The lack of publishing and recording hinders communication among composers. If music is to become just another academic field, composers must at least be able to communicate musical thoughts, says Babbitt. Unfortunately, as Babbitt sees it, “Music has one foot in the academic and one foot outside in performances and recordings.” The academic side is not completely opened up, and the performance and recording side is closing quickly. The future of “serious” music will depend on the generosity of those who know little about it.

For composers such as Babbitt, near the end of their career and with a good deal of notoriety in their field, the situation is not so dire. Babbitt’s Piano Concerto has just been recorded and his works were recently performed in Carnegie Hall. The recognition that he will receive on Saturday will not be as satisfying as a performance of his music in front of a live audience would be, but it is nonetheless a fitting and well-deserved tribute to a great American composer.

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