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Remembering Milton Babbitt

Monday, January 31, 2011 - 01:19 PM

I encountered Milton Babbitt’s music before I ever met the man.  Given the uncompromising intellectual rigor of his music (a nice way of saying that it made my brain hurt), I expected Mr. Babbitt to be some kind of monster.  Instead, the first time I met him, he looked at me and determined, correctly, that I had a cold, and said, “hello, would you like some Vitamin C?”  Now, I didn’t particularly believe that a Vitamin C pill would do much for me,  but I took one, mostly out of relief that Babbitt hadn’t yelled at me (I’d already published some things which championed the emerging “downtown” composers who were pushing back at the academic nature of Babbitt’s music).

It seems everyone who met Milton Babbitt had a similar reaction – this giant of High Modernism was the small, bespectacled, funny old uncle that most of us never had.  His sense of humor was as relentless as the challenges of his music, and the man apparently never met a pun he didn’t like.  If you read his infamous article, “Who Cares If You Listen?” – published by High Fidelity magazine in 1958 with that title added without Babbitt’s knowledge – you can find one or two sentences that are quite funny once you’ve reread them enough to decipher what he’s actually saying.  

Babbitt felt that music should be accorded the same respect and the same ability to experiment that we find in advanced physics or higher mathematics.  If it doesn’t “speak” to you, well, it’s not supposed to – any more than quantum physics is intelligible to people who are not quantum physicists.  I’m not sure I ever bought into this idea, but I did come to appreciate his keen ear for sound.  Just listen to his early electronic piece, “Philomel,” for example.  This 1964 piece still sounds startling almost half a century later. 

In 1994, I had the chance to commission Milton Babbitt to write a short work for the 50th anniversary of WNYC FM.  The ensemble consisted of some of New York’s best players – cellist Fred Sherry put the team together – but the score was typical Babbitt: a challenge for everyone involved.  At one point, Fred called me and said, “I think we’re gonna need a conductor.”  So we hired the young Brad Lubman (now leader of the new music group Signal) to conduct a quintet that included a soprano.  It looked a little weird to have a conductor for such a small ensemble, but it worked; the performance was crystalline, glittering, completely convincing.  It was one of a dozen such works that we presented onstage at Alice Tully Hall, with the pieces preceded by interviews with the composers, and Milton was in rare form.  “Oh my god,” said my wife afterwards.  “That Milton Babbitt – I just wanted to put him in my pocket and take him home.”

Milton Babbitt loved jazz, and theater music.  He loved a good joke, and an intellectual challenge.  (Hear his description of how he chose to set John Ashbery’s text in the work we commissioned.)  I have no doubt he will remain a controversial composer, possibly for as long as there are people listening to his music.  But that will probably, hopefully, be a very long time.

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