Composer  Milton  Babbitt

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The compositional and intellectual wisdom of Milton Babbitt has influenced a wide range of contemporary musicians. A broad array of distinguished musical achievements in the dodecaphonic system and important writings on the subject have generated increased understanding and integration of serialist language into the eclectic musical styles of the late 20th century. Babbitt is also renowned for his great talent and instinct for jazz and his astonishing command of American popular music.

Babbitt was born on 10 May 1916 in Philadelphia and studied composition privately with Roger Sessions. He earned degrees from New York and Princeton Universities and has been awarded honorary degrees from Middlebury College, Swarthmore College, New York University, the New England Conservatory, University of Glasgow, and Northwestern University. He taught at Princeton and The Juilliard School.  He died in Princeton, NJ, on 29 January 2011.

An extensive catalogue of works for multiple combinations of instruments and voice along with his pioneering achievements in synthesized sound have made Babbitt one of the most celebrated of 20th-century composers. He is a founder and member of the Committee of Direction for the Electronic Music Center of Columbia-Princeton Universities and a member of the Editorial Board of Perspectives of New Music. The recipient of numerous honors, commissions, and awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize Citation for his "life's work as a distinguished and seminal American composer." Babbitt is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Milton Babbitt was one of those rare people whose music is largely unknown, but at the same time everyone seems to have a true feeling about it.  The general attitude is one of extreme dislike mixed with genuine befuddlement.  If the name is familiar at all, or if one encounters his sounds, the reaction is usually the same
— a grudging respect which comes from knowing it is brilliant, along with the usual revulsion since there is no tune one can hum on the trip home afterword.  It is almost as though he was a mad scientist lurking about, turning out monstrous creations everyone hoped to avoid meeting.

As you can immediately see by glancing at the layout of this webpage, Babbitt thought
— and responded — in large segments which were well thought-out and reasonably argued.  Even if one did not know his background, it was obvious from the start that this was an intellectual genius, a man who could relate his world not just to the environment around him but truly to the entire cosmos.  It was a daunting pleasure to be in his presence for an hour, and I am proud to say that he seemed interested enough in my questions to give them serious thought and appropriate response.  He spoke to me as to a gifted student, never talking down to me, but also making sure I understood and seeing to it that his ideas were complete and clear.

We met when in Chicago in November of 1987.  Babbitt had just come from a conference where composer Ralph Shapey had been speaking — or rather lamentingto fellow McArthur recipients!  He refers to this earlier part of his day several times . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Thank you very much for taking time to speak with me today.

Milton Babbitt:   Oh, Bruce, I’m delighted to do it!

BD:    I have several of your recordings and I’ve enjoyed them very much.

MB:    Good.  I hope you’ve gotten by now the New World Record recording of my Piano Concerto and The Head of the Bed on the other side.  If you don’t, just let me know.

BD:    Yes, I have that.  I’ll send you a little list of the things I have, and if there’s anything else that you wish me to have, we can include them in the programming.

MB:    Delighted.  Hope you don’t mind a hand-written letter.  I’ve run out of secretaries.  Now that I’m emeritus, it’s hard for me to get stuff typed, and I don’t use a word processor yet.  I must confess I have it, but I haven’t had the time to set it up.

babbittBD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  Someone who’s been involved in electronic music for so long???

MB:    No, I tell you, it’s just a matter of time, Bruce.  I’m not going to complain
as Ralph had every reason tobut our lives are hell!

BD:    [Shocked]  Really???

MB:    Yes, they really are.  It is preposterous!  I don’t want to sound either paranoid or patronizing about it, but we are treated abominably!  Because I’m with a McArthur group I can say this, but that’s not the point.  I’m talking about any kind of reasonably serious American composer. 
I dislike the word serious, as most people do, but the fact of the matter is that we are treated abominably!  Ralph is talking about how we’re treated by orchestras, how we’re treated by conductors, how we’re treated by publishers.  The only way people respond is, “Why the hell should we listen to your music?” and in that case, my only answer can possibly be, “Let’s take our scores out, and please show us wherein our own worthlessness resides!”

BD:    [Laughs]

MB:    They won’t.  We have every reason to assume that with the wonderful performers we have, the marvelous orchestras we have, the state of our musical culture
— and in some sense the state of our musical educational culture, which is far beyond anything else in the worldthat we have a right to write music which we have every right to feel is the best music we can write.  Be it a self-indulgence or not, it’s one we’d rather indulge, after all, and that music could be played at least as well as it’s played in Europe.  It’s not because of the kinds of conditions that Ralph is talking about that I’ve encountered with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Everything militates against the performance, the reasonable performance, the adequate performance, and therefore the adequate composition of what we have to call difficult, intricate music.  We don’t revel in the fact that our music is difficult or intricate.  After all, our performances are usually not revels.  But the truth of the matter is that the kind of music that can be written in this country now is being legislated almost as rigorously, almost as completely, as if we had a bureaucrat telling us what kind of music we’re permitted to write.  First of all, it begins with the many unremunerated hours of writing it.  Then there are the problems of copying, which we become so angry that people in our universities don’t understand.  To prepare these materials, if the work is at all complex, the price skyrockets.  There is the proof-reading.  You know, copyists charge to proofread their own errors!  We just asked someone downstairs, “How much do you think it costs to copy the parts of a twenty-five minute piano concerto, not including the piano solo part?”  Ten thousand dollars.

BD:    For all the orchestral parts?

MB:    For the orchestral parts.  Not reproduced, just copied. 

BD:    And the full score, too?

MB:    Oh, no, not the score!  The score is in my handwriting.  If you hand that score to a European conductor, he will say, “The piece itself is difficult enough.  Why should I have to conduct it from your handwritten score?”  I have a pretty good handwriting.  Some people have better ones, and some people have much worse ones — Ralph, for example
— but the fact of the matter is that they can get these beautifully printed scores if they happen to be a Polish composer because it’s published by the Polish government.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m not propagandizing for communist governments, believe me!  But the fact of the matter is one has to face these things.  I was in Russia in June for the first time in my lifeand probably it will be the only time in my lifeand here are these copyists copying out these gorgeous scores!  And don’t let people tell you that it’s only one kind of music and it’s only socially realistic music.  It’s just not true!  We don’t see much of it because paper is a problem and they don’t print many copies, but you can buy them and they’re there.  This is not the issue of Russia and the United States.  It’s much more an issue of where music stands.

BD:    Why doesn’t Russia, then, send over one copy of every new score, and say, “Use the Xerox machine?”

MB:    As a matter of fact, Russia does send them over.  They have even a magazine called Music in the USSR which is published in many languages including English.  Every two months it points out every single book and every piece of music that is published. We do get it.  We do see it!  I have lots and lots of scores.  They’re willing to give them to you because they cost so little, anyhow.  If you’re a guest, they give you any score you want.  Now it’s true, obviously, there must be politics involved in this that I couldn’t possibly know as a visitor who doesn’t speak Russian, and again, this is not the issue for me.  What is the issue for me, and for all of us in this respect, is the fact that we write music that presumably is not going to be performed adequately.  It’s not going to be published.  After all, what is published and what is recorded, therefore, determines what is heard and therefore what is composed.  So basically, what can be composed in this country is being legislated certainly by the people who write about it, because music is talked about before it’s listened to and while it’s listened to, instead of being listened to.  However, I don’t want to get into the matter of the critics, though one should.  I don’t want to get into the matter except for the fact that this music is being written, that we have the best performers in the world, that a few of them sacrifice by playing in small chamber groups.  They do not influence the orchestras, so many of my young colleagues say, “The hell with it.  I’ll write for computer.”  That’s a very special kind of feeling, to walk into that electronic studio with that piece in your head, and walk out with a finished tape of a performance of your own where you have fused the roles of composer and creator and performer all in one.  When you walk out with that tape under your arm, that’s very, very, very special.  If I were young, certainly I would turn to the computer, but not exclusively!  None of us wants to exclude any area of music.  It’s marvelous to write a piece and collaborate with some wonderful young performers.  I wrote a piece, and I can say this because it’s on records, the most difficult piece I’ve ever written.  I would never write it again.  I’m not boasting about the difficulty.  I wanted to do something very special.  I wanted to see if I could produce a piece that could be played, which would convey the kind of differentiations
particularly in the temporal domain, rhythmicallythat I knew could be heard, could be perceived, could be differentiated by a listener when I created it in the electronic domain.  The piece is terribly difficult, but it’s also difficult because of the notation.  The notational problem is really where many difficulties reside these days.  Many people would argue about how to notate these things; there’s no absolute.  But no matter how you view it, it’s a terribly difficult piece.  But I knew I was writing it for a group of young performers, conducted by a young conductor who would work out every single note, who would perform it and who had the money to record it.  The piece exists.  It’s called Paraphrases.  It’s been done twice by the group that commissioned it, and recorded by a group of students at Julliard, under a conductor who knew how to teach it to them.  I’ll never write another piece like that.  I did it once.  I wanted to hear if it could be done, and it could be done.  I’m very, very gratified by the result.  Oh no, I’m sorry!  I just said something that was untrue.  I’ve lied!  It was just done by a group of students at Boston University.  I didn’t hear it.  I’m told it was a very good performance.  I heard the other performances, of course.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the other performances you’ve heard of orchestral, chamber, solo works?

MB:    I’ve never had a good orchestral performance in my life!

BD:    Not even the ones on the record?

MB:    You mean the Concerto?  No.  Let’s be candid about this!  The concerto on the record is as good a performance as one could hope for under the circumstances, but the circumstances were terrible!  It was written for pianist Alan Feinberg and for the American Composers Orchestra.  That work, which lasts twenty-five minutes, had about three hours of rehearsal in a tiny studio
not the hall in which the orchestra was going to play.  It was a tiny studio in which the piano the soloist had to play had no pedals.  Then they went into Carnegie Hall, where it was going to be performed, and had about thirty minutes on the stage, where, of course, everything sounded different.  They then had a so-called four-hour recording session.  I know the normal recording session is three, but they knew they could use four.  But in that four-hour recording session, out of every hour, twenty minutes is extracted for R&R.  So therefore these performers actually performed for only a hundred and sixty minutes, less than three hours to do a work that is twenty-five minutes long, that has no repetitions, which they could hardly feel that they’d known.  It’s an extraordinary performance considering, but it’s a long, long way from a perfect performance.  It’s the best performance of my music on records.  Most of our performances on records are not the best performances we’ve had because recording is expensive!  There’s just simply not enough time.  It’s always time; it’s always money, and that’s what Ralph was just complaining about.  My colleague was just speaking downstairs to a group of other McArthur Fellows, a very tiny group — the interest in music was very slight, apparently — about exactly these problems.  He can speak as a conductor; I can’t.  He can speak a great deal about Mitropoulos, and I can also.  Mitropoulos had the notion back in 1950 or so, to have an orchestra of young performers with young conductors, which would prepare one program a month of maybe four or five works.  They would learn the pieces well, give it thirty hours of rehearsal time or so that is customary on the BBC for a new work, and take that program around the countryor at least in the eastand simply play that program to relieve the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra of even the very slight moral responsibility to perform such music.  The Rockefeller Foundation turned down the project, which was backed by many eminent composers and others.

BD:    That would take it out of the hands of the orchestras completely!

MB:    Yes.  The Rockefeller Foundation said there’d be absolutely no public for this, without even considering the possibility that even if this were true, there might be the possibility of educating the public.  I hate the idea that music is education!  I am an educator, but music is not necessarily always education, unless you take very seriously Nelson Goodman’s notion that you acquire knowledge when you hear a piece of music.  Of course you do.  You acquire a very complex set of kinds of knowledge, but the fact is that what they really were saying was, “You take music so seriously!  After all, if this music can’t be done, write some simpler music!
  It’s the same old story.  Why not write simple music that’s easy for the orchestra, that creates no problems for the conductor, no problems for the public, and will get you a lot of publicity and a lot of attention, and will be popular?  That’s basically what everybody is saying, all the foundations.

BD:    And that comes down to the word

MB:    It certainly does.  It’s not that we are not able to write simple music that the orchestras can sight read.  One of our best young American composers, David Del Tredici, told me he would never write an orchestral work that couldn’t be sight read.  The result is that he is one of the few American composers who has been recorded by the Chicago Symphony.  He was a student of mine.  He said, “I will never write a work for orchestra that can’t be sight read, because I know that otherwise I’ll get a disastrous performance.”  [See my Interview with David Del Tredici.]

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What should be the purpose of music in society?

MB:    There are so many different purposes in so many different societies.  I always hate to talk about music; I even hate to talk about kinds of music.  To talk about kinds of music, people say, “Do you like this kind of music, or that kind?”  I don’t like to think in terms of kinds of music.  To do that, you usually talk about music in terms of its communality, its commonplaces, instead of looking at a piece of music as an individual piece of music, not as a statistical sample of the musical population, but as an individual, individuated piece of music.  Now, of course, when you do that you begin considering its relation to other pieces of the tradition which it presumes to come from, and which it presumes to extend.  I would say that music can mean so many different things, and that’s one of the wonders of music!  You may not know this about me
or maybe you do because you seem to know a great deal about all of this — I’ve lived in popular music a large part of my life.  I’ve played it, I wrote it, I arranged it.  I know now more popular music between, let’s say, 1926 and 1940, that any of my colleagues after 1950.  But the fact is that I grew up with this.  I had to grow up with this!  I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi.  This was the music that I played in all of its formsjazz, popular, bands.  This is, after all, an American boy who’s talking about these things.  When I discovered Schoenberg, it just so happened that I was lucky because I had an uncle who discovered this music for me when I was very, very young.  But by the age of seventeen, I was no longer very much interested in popular music.  I was just bored with it.  Some of it I still know very well, and I can stand about twenty minutes of it, but the fact is that the music that happens to interest me is new music and is undoubtedly difficult.  That is not an evaluative statement.  It’s certainly difficult to play, and yet I get solo performances and I get chamber music performances.  Then we get back to the orchestra.  Who could expect the orchestra to play these pieces well?  I have just had a piece cancelled by the Philadelphia Orchestra that they commissioned for their bi-centennial.  The conductor came in, gave it one hour’s slow reading of about the first third of the piece and said, “I need four rehearsals and a dress to play this piece, and I have only four hours, including a dress.  I can’t do it in that time.”  You might ask why he didn’t decide that before he came in and wasted an hour, but whatever the reason...

BD:    [Always the optimist]  I would look at it the other way, that he was giving it one last shot in hopes that he could get it done.

MB:    Okay, fair enough.  Four rehearsals means ten hours plus a dress, which is still very little time.  The Europeans would laugh at them to think they could do a piece of that kind.  For example, my Violin Concerto
which unfortunately was unfinished, so it’s not anyone else’s faultwas scheduled for the Holland Festival this summer.  The conductor, Ernest Boura very famous conductor of contemporary musicwanted to give it ten full rehearsals.  I think we’ve belabored that subject enough, but on the other hand, Bruce, you know the problem is so great that young composers feel there’s no reason to write for the orchestra unless they’re willing to write an occasional piece or a five- or six-minute piece.  So you’re discouraging these young composersand us old composers, toofrom writing for this remarkable, remarkable instrument!  It is so remarkable, and it still interests us tremendously.  We’d love to write for this orchestra and do some of the things that we’ve done with our chamber music.  So if we’re going to be denied it, why shouldn’t we feel a little bit resentful about it?

babbittBD:    What advice do you have, then, for the young composers coming along?

MB:    I don’t think they need my advice.  I know what most of them are doing
— they’re turning more and more and more to electronics.  I don’t say this necessarily approvingly.  I hope you realize this.  Now you will see the old fogey in me.  I have come to young composers who have a tremendous amount of sophisticated computer knowledge, and I have dared ask if they know the key of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony.  Not if they know the Beethoven Eighth Symphony, but if they even know the key.  I may be showing both my age and a generation gap, but I feel very strongly that if you don’t know what music has been, you can very easily delude yourself into thinking that you’re writing remarkable musicuntil you realize how remarkable the Brahms Third Symphony is.  Therefore, my answer to them is that I don’t have an answer.  If they want to write for the orchestra and they want to write a certain kind of difficult music, or complex music, or intricate music, they’re probably going to be in trouble.  But we’re forgetting one thing.  We do have schools.  The Juilliard Orchestra can play this music.  They can rehearse it from week to week if you can just establish a principle that it does something for the performer.  The performers have to consider that they’re going out into a world where the number of jobs is so small that they have to know repertory.  So they have to acquire this repertory, and they say, “Why should we waste our time on this stuff?”  Of course the teachers reinforce this saying, “Why waste your time learning some work by a young composer you’ll never have an opportunity to play again?  Learn all of these wonderful Paganini etudes.  You can plan them as concert pieces for the rest of your life.”

BD:    Wouldn
’t learning a few of these new pieces help them to understand the style or the way these pieces can and should sound in general?

MB:    Of course obviously.  You’ve reminded me of something...  I teach at Juilliard now, which worries me very, very much.  We talk about the fragmentation of musical activity.  It’s true fragmentation unto the most extreme factionalization.  We talk about the pluralism, which I happen to find very exciting, but nevertheless it does create an atmosphere of the confused and the confusing.  But the greatest of these fragmentations is between the young performer and the young composer.  Between what the young performer is led to study and perform and what the young composer chooses to study and compose is a gap, a disjunction of enormous proportions!  I say this because it’s a fact.  It may seem indiscreet, but it’s nevertheless a fact that young students at Juilliard are paid to perform the works of their fellow student composers.

BD:    Cash money?

MB:    Cash money because they simply otherwise will not come.  This is New York, this is Lincoln Center, so I speak only for that.  They will be scheduled to play a piece on Friday, and perhaps they’ve rehearsed it a few times Thursday night or Friday morning.  They’ll say, “I’m sorry.  We just got a gig and we’re going to get a lot of money.  Sorry, I can’t be at the concert.”  This doesn’t happen once; it happens constantly.  So they have to be paid, and why shouldn’t they be paid?  Nobody makes any money out of it.  I complain about copyists, but they don’t make much money.  If they take my twelve thousand dollars for a piece, that twelve thousand dollars has probably taken them many months!  So too with the young performers.  I speak again as an American boy.  I hate for this to be misinterpreted, but we have to fact the fact that music in this country simply doesn’t play that central a role in our education.  People are simply not interested.  At the universities, which have been obliged to become the patrons of the havens for serious musical activity in every respect, I almost never see faculty members of other departments come into the best concerts of contemporary music that you can have in the world.  For musicians from New York who gave the best performance of the Schoenberg Serenade I’ve ever heard in my life, there were fifty people in the audience and nobody from another department.  There’s just no interest!  Now I know what happens.  When I confront my physicist friends with this, they say, “We don’t have time.  We have to work in our own field.”  Some of my best friends are scientists.  Let me tell you about a famous Chinese physicist named Lee, who won the Nobel Prize and was teaching at Columbia.  When I asked him if he could listen to some of my music, he complained about the fact that he didn’t really have a chance to listen to any music because his own field made such demands and his teaching demands were so great.  I asked, “How much do you teach?”  He said, “Some terms I don’t have to teach, but when I have to teach, I have to teach as much as three hours a week.”  I said, “My musical colleagues at Columbia have to teach twelve and fifteen hours a week every term.”  He said, “Ah, it must mean it’s much harder to find music teachers than physics teachers.”  [Both laugh]  That was his Oriental interpretation.  So of course we feel put upon.  Of course we say we’re second class citizens in the university.

BD:    Wiping away all of the financial considerations for a moment, would it be better to have an orchestra — perhaps one like Mitropoulos suggestedthat would just play the contemporary concerts, or should we have a contemporary piece on every concert, or every other concert by the Boston Symphony or the Chicago Symphony?

MB:    Bruce, I hope you won’t think that I’m being patronizing when I say I find that very, very good because it is a difficult question.  I do not like all-contemporary-music-concerts, and I don’t think most of us do.  The idea of having to go in and listen to five or six new pieces on a program?  I’ve done it thousands of times in my life because that’s the only way you get contemporary music played, usually.

BD:    I assume that Milton Babbitt wants his music to stand next to Brahms and next to Bach and next to Schoenberg.

MB:    It doesn’t happen very often, but it happened to me a few weeks ago.  The Juilliard Quartet did my Fourth Quartet, a very tough piece which was written for them.  It was a commission to the Coolidge Foundation and Library.  They were getting ready to record it, so they wanted to play it a number of times.

BD:    Good!

MB:    They somehow managed to convince the man who runs the programming at Lincoln Center to put it on the first Great Performers series.  Preceding it they had Haydn Opus 33, Number 1, and following it they had Beethoven Opus 59, Number 1.  I was in the middle.  They had a very, very different audience than I am used to. 
When I go to a concert, I expect everybody to be backstage afterward.  This audience there didn’t go backstage to see the Juilliard Quartet.  We were the only ones.  The few friends of mine who could get in to the concert (because it was sold-out — which is also unusual for anything I’m involved with) — were amazed by the fact that the people didn’t cough any more through my piece than they did through the Beethoven.  They applauded extremely politely, and I simply hope that some of them really found it interesting.  I’m going to use the word interesting.  That’s enough for me at the moment.  Anybody who had any relation to music knows perfectly well that I was delighted by such an occasion, far more so than if I went with six of my colleagues, whom I love dearly, and we all had to sit through listening to each other’s works, because we know that the demands are too great upon our concentration.  But getting back to your question, the only reason that Mitropoulos suggested this is because he knew the problems of trying to get a major symphony orchestra to play a work adequatelythe lack of adequate rehearsal time, the lack of attitude, and the lack of preparation.  When these men finally get one of those very rare orchestral jobs, they feel they’ve got it made.  They think, Now, don’t bother us anymore!  We’ve done it.  We’ve done our apprenticeship.  We’ve learned our business.  Please don’t bother us with pieces in which we have to do special fingerings, for example..”  Paul Zukofsky, whose name I have to mention, has conducted my Paraphrases and my Correspondence for Strings and Tape, all done by Juilliard Students.  He will mark fingerings and bowings in the parts of standard pieces as well as my piece.  He marks the parts in such a way that when the performer first sees it, he says, “What kind of crazy fingering is this?  This has nothing to do with what I’ve been taught.”  But they discover that if they follow that fingering, it virtually induces the rhythms and the articulations and the dynamics that the composer wants.  You’re not going to find that at the Philadelphia Orchestra.

BD:    Can’t you put those kinds of markings into the parts that are used in a professional orchestra?

MB:    No, you can’t.  Oh, no, you’re not permitted to!  Again, it’s a good question, though, because it gives me the opportunity to say no, it’s usually done by the concertmaster, who doesn’t want to spend much time on it.  Maybe he gets somebody else to do it, I don’t know.

BD:    Maybe you should publish a one-page Anhang for each of these scores, and send it with the set of parts!

MB:    Unfortunately, the Anhang is not published, but the Anhang is there in practice. 
I’ll tell you a story since you’ve asked for this.  It is about a colleague of mine and a widely-played piece of his for cello and piano.  He is a man a few years senior.  I heard the very first performance of the piece... in fact, I heard the pre-first performance of the piece!  I’ve known the piece a great part of my life, and I had to make a speech about this composer at a benefit at someone’s house.  I found myself with the only seat in the house, which was right next to the cellist, who was also a very dear friend of mine, Fred Sherry, and Ursula Oppens, who was playing the piano.  [See my Interview with Ursula Oppens.]  This was Mishpucha [family], if you wish to use that word.  May I use that word here in Chicago?

BD:    Of course.

MB:    I found myself sitting there watching this man play
watching more than listening, because I had never seen such fingering of this very familiar piece in my life.  When it was over I said, “Fred, what were you doing?  What were you really doing?  What was that fingering?”  He said, and this is apropos of what you were saying, “The piece is published with this very conventional fingering which was put on by a very conventional cellist.  If you tried to play the piece with that fingering, it becomes impossibly difficult.  I simply use a completely different fingering which makes the piece much easier.”  So there you are.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there really, or should there be, any limits to music or the ideas that can go into music?

MB:    No.  Of course, you know my answer’s going to be no.  The only limits I can think of are the limits of what you do with those ideas and how those things manifest themselves.  People somehow think that we, as composers, want to go and hear music that is like our own; that we want to give prizes to students who write the way we do.  We don’t want clones!  Nothing interests us less than people who write music the way we do.  In fact, we’re likely to be much more critical of that than of music that is different.  We’re hoping that when we go to hear a piece that we will suddenly realize that music can do and be what we have never known music to do or be before in our lives.  We mean that very seriously.  Why are we in this ridiculous racket?  It is a ridiculous racket, especially if we didn’t simply feel that somehow, every time we went to a concert something is going to happen to us that has never happened before.  If we’re totally and utterly and completely selfish about it, it gives us an idea for our next piece, or suggests something that we never thought could have suggested itself to us.  It still keeps happening, even at my age.  You’ll have a student who’ll come up with some apparently crazy idea which you may think is of no musical value whatsoever, and in that form it may be of no musical value to you but will suggest totally different things.  It’s very hard for a composer to talk without seeming patronizing or paranoid, because he shares so little experience with so many people who listen to music.  Ralph has been talking about the way the audience reacts to things in the Chicago Symphony.  I don’t want to speak about the Chicago Symphony.  I have no right to, but I do very well know that the New York Philharmonic, which I frankly admit to you I’ve attended very, very, very seldom in the last few years, behaves abominably.  They behave arrogantly and abominably and presumptuously.  Their manners are just bad!  I know that if I’m going to go hear a new work at the New York Philharmonic, I’ll probably end up by being so angry that I won’t be able to concentrate on the work.  They’ll be noise; there’ll be talk.  The sheer behavior, the arrogance with regard to what a man — and I don’t care who he is, whether he’s a friend of mine or not — has spent a great deal of time and energy and thought on it.  Why is he doing it?  To make money?  To become famous?  If we’re celebrities at all, we’re bush league celebrities.  We know we’re not real celebrities!  We have many of the disadvantages of celebrity.  You have to write a lot of letters.  We have to write a lot of references and recommendations, and talk to people on the telephone and to the press, but we don’t have any, or at least very, very, very few of the compensations of real celebrity!  We’re not treated like celebrities.  We don’t eat like celebrities.  We don’t travel like celebrities, and we don’t have the protection of real celebrities.  There is ambiguity in our lives.  For example, today I’m with a number of poets who are here as McArthur Fellows.  They used to say, “Our position is like yours.  We have to be in the university to eat, whether we like it or not.”  I’m retired now, but I happen to have liked being in a university because it’s a milieu in which I feel very much at home.  No one has to tell me about universities and the politics of universities.  I’ve lived through many, many phases of university activity and university atmospheres and milieus.  But I do happen to like the academic.  I’m rather proudly, and certainly, admittedly, an academic composer in the sense that for me, the academic signifies, as it does in so many other fields, the most responsibly advanced, the most informedly problematical work, and most of it can be done only in the academy.  The academy affords protection, if not encouragement.  But we know we’re not treated like other members of the academy.  The poet, after all, still gets published.  Music cannot be published anymore to any real extent.

BD:    Which is more important
the published score or the recording?

babbittMB:    I would say both.  It would be very hard to discriminate because people who are really going to get deeply involved in your piece want to see it, and they want to see whether that recording really represents the piece, and how much is not on that recording.  I have to tell you something else that I hope won’t disappoint you.  For all electronic composer that I have been, and perhaps may be again
though that’s a purely practical matter — for all of my involvement allegedly in technology and, God be with us, mathematics, which of course is totally, totally misunderstood, I don’t like recordings that much!  There’s no substitute for a really good live performance.  Just the dimensionality of it; just the separation; just the possibility of being able to differentiate and hear things that simply cannot be conveyed by even the best recording.  Nevertheless, that’s not the important issue.  Of course one wants recordings, but one has to have the publication.  How can one sit down and look at a piece, think about a piece, talk about a piece with a student, if you don’t have publication?  But publication has become almost an impracticality.  It’s just about disappeared.  People say, “What about computers for the printing of music?”  First of all, it’s not a matter of just the printing of music.  If you sell one copy, everybody Xeroxes every other copy.  You still have to punch the stuff in for a computer, and that’s expensive.  From the standpoint of printing parts, computers are still not acceptable to many performers.  You can criticize them about that, but the fact remains that there’s a reaction to it, and it’s going to have an effect on the piece.  So we have the problem of just communicating with our colleagues.  People say to me, “Why don’t you reach out to the masses with your music?”  Beyond the fact that I question the morality that it’s a greater virtue to stoop to attempt to conquer the masses rather than set a standard to which they might aspire, I tell them I can’t reach out to my colleagues.  I can’t send them my music and they can’t send me theirs.  I don’t know what they’re doing.  I don’t know what a friend of mine at Berkeley is writing these days.  I don’t dare ask him for a score!  If he sends me a copy of his manuscript, it’ll still cost him a hundred and fifty dollars to reproduce it, and if I get it, I probably will find it very hard to read because it’s in his handwriting.  The poet, after all, can sit with his word processoror if he still uses a typewriter or even long handand communicate with his fellows.  And there are still publishers who will publish poetry as a matter of principal.  Not that there aren’t music publishers who wouldn’t publish it as a matter of principal, but principal is not enough.  They don’t have any money.  They can’t sell the music of the past anymore.  They can’t sell the music of the past, which used to make the money for them.  Then obviously, they have no money to spend on the music of the present.

BD:    Does that mean we’ll have no music in the future?

MB:    No!  That’s not the reason.  You’ll have the music of the past.  Take, for example, my publisher and Beethoven’s publisher, C.F. Peters.   They used to make enormous amounts of money with individual scores of Beethoven symphonies.  A teacher today doesn’t say to his class, “Go out and buy the Eroica Symphony of Beethoven score.”  They go to Dover and buy all the symphonies of Beethoven for seven-fifty, or whatever it is in a Dover edition.  It’s public domain.  Dover has taken somebody else’s plates and you can be sure that Dover’s not going to pour any of that profit into contemporary music.  It is the same for the Norton Anthology, a very distinguished publishing house, but they don’t seem to realize that they, too, are cutting the throats of the publishers who used to quite uniformly, and what is more principally, spend money on contemporary music because of what they made on the music of the past.

BD:    In other words, they’ll publish all the Mozart symphonies, and then they’ll plow the profits back into publishing all the Salieri symphonies?

MB:    Absolutely!  That’s what Dover does.  Absolutely!  By the way, they don’t have to dig many profits back into that, either.  They go home with a lot of the profits and eat very well with it.  It’s a very serious matter, and I don’t have to tell you about the Xeroxing question.  They published a piece of mine for violin and piano and charge forty dollars for it, when it should be five dollars or ten dollars.  Then the library gets it and every kid goes to the Xerox machine who’s interested in it.  I do see this.  People will come with your own pieces and show it to you and ask you questions about it, and you realize they’re using a Xerox.  On the other hand, you can’t expect them to buy it for those outrageous amounts of money.

BD:    So is there any hope?

MB:    I hate to be in this position of predicting.  After all, I don’t know what’s happened to Wall Street in the past two weeks.  But let me say that first of all, obviously, one of the great hopes is the computer.  There’s no question!  I don’t want to talk about a commercial firm.  This is not appropriate, but it is remarkable what a certain Japanese firm is doing these days with regard to electronic equipment.  They have just made a present to Juilliard of about a half million dollars worth of electronic equipment that they’re manufacturing, so they have work stations and so forth.   At Juilliard, of all strange places!  Now, this is remarkable stuff for far, far less money than you have to spend on a saxophone these days.  It is remarkable.  Now, it doesn’t happen to interest me, not only because of my age at this point, but because it is still real time stuff.  It doesn’t give me what I got on the RCA synthesizer.  But with the computer, yes, and very, very soon you’ll be able to do it with PCs.  Do you know the most expensive aspect of one’s equipment these days?  A good tape machine.  They’re not being made anymore.  You should know that.  It’s only cassettes now.

BD:    Sure.

MB:    You can’t do this stuff on cassette.  So, to get a good reel to reel, they’re professional models and they cost a fortune.  There’s nobody left anymore.  Suppose you had to buy new machines?  They cost a fortune and you can’t go out and get them.  Sony doesn’t make a little home machine anymore, which used to be a very good little home machine.  So it’s a major problem!  Even if you do have your PC, you have to convert from digital to analog, and when you get that analog tape, what are you going to play it on — a cassette???

BD:    That’s why they’re coming out with digital tape.

MB:    Digital cassette, yes.  Well, we shall see.

BD:    They’re trying to throw some kind of anti-copying device into that.

babbittMB:    I know.  See that’s what concerns them!  What concerns us is let ‘em copy!  I think that more and more students are going to have to turn to them.  Somebody says, “Why do you have to turn these people into technicians?”  Well, why did you have to turn them into pianists at one time?  Why did you have to turn them into instrumentalists?  We all grew up as instrumentalists.  This is their instrument, and I think most of them are going to feel that way.  Those who want to play the piano and those who want to play the violin will continue to do so.  We’re not interested in supplanting any performers.  We’re interested in supplementing the resources of music.

BD:    Expanding the whole thing?

MB:    Of course, but, of course.

BD:    Where does the expansion get to be too much for any individual to absorb in a lifetime?

MB:    I think it is already or probably is already.  I wonder...  I think one of the reasons why composers have decided to shrink into a little part of this incredible spectrum of musical possibilities is just because of that.  It’s rather overwhelming.  It leads to this marvelous paradox — paradox is not the right word, but dilemma at least.  Why is it that almost nobody wants to hear our music and almost everybody wants to compose it?  Now you know I’m exaggerating, but still, if all of the young people who apply to our graduate schools, be it in the conservatory or university, ever went to a concert, we’d have that population.  We’d have that audience that we’re alleged not to have.  At Juilliard and certainly at Princeton and at many, many other schools, we have to turn down about 90% of the people who apply to do graduate work in composition.  Composers, composers, everywhere.  People in my age and generation like to talk about the fact that back in New York in the thirties, there were about a dozen young composers, that is composers who obviously were determined to compose for the rest of their lives.  Now in New York there must be thousands!  Over the country I think there are thirty-five thousand composers registered with the American Music Center.  It is probably more by now.  That was a couple of years ago.  Many of them are teaching in universities; perhaps most of them are.  After all, one of the most characteristic aspects of the intellectual orientation of music in this country is universities, and most composers are university trained and university teachers.  I don’t want to say that they must be; I’m simply reporting the fact of our musical population.  But I must tell you that the jobs have run out.  Music is shrinking in the universities, not expanding.  It’s the same old budgetary question.  Also the new generation, as I’m sure you’ve been told and I’m sure as you’ve observed yourself, the young people in college now are vocation-oriented and career-oriented.  The truth of the matter is that music courses don’t attract the way they used to, and technical music courses particularly.  Elementary textbooks on music don’t sell the way elementary textbooks on economics do, or literature, and therefore publishers are not particularly interested in publishing them.  So it’s, again, it’s a cumulatively decreasing process.

BD:    Maybe we should find some kind of a stooge in the musical community who can convince the economics community that music is absolutely necessary to be a good yuppie, and re-channel it.

MB:    But they do have their music.  When people say, “What about this music of yours?  Where does it fit in?” I know why they ask.  Try the FM dials.  We live in Princeton most of the time where we have access to the radio stations of New York, Philadelphia, and everything in between.  The dial is loaded!  There are, at most, four stations which play any serious contemporary music at all, but we can get every kind of country music, rock, and as they call it
good music, which is usually Muzak or beautiful music.  I have no objection to any of these, either in principle or in practice, but obviously we’re being smothered; we’re being drowned by this music.  We’re not denying anybody their music.  I think the yuppies do have their music.  Go to all these yuppie places in New York, and you have the stuff emanating from the speakers.  Frankly, I don’t know what it is now.  Is it still disco, or is it something else by now?

BD:    I think disco is gone.  There used to be a whole bunch of disco stations around the country.  It came and it went.

MB:    What is it now?

BD:    Soft rock, perhaps?

MB:    Neither of us are playing affectation here.  We just don’t know.  I’ve just simply lost track of all of that.  I do notice, for example, that when I play a not-celebrated band from the middle thirties (the beginning of the big band era), I see young musicians at Juilliard and Princeton
but above all Juilliard, because these are performerswho can’t believe that people once could play like this.  The trumpet players can play like this, and their name is not Louis Armstrong or Harry James, but the first trumpet player with Glen Gray and His Casa Loma Orchestra, a man named Sonny Dunham, playing Memories of You, or the Glen Gray Orchestra simply playing Sleepytime Gal with trombone players.  Nobody can play the trombone like this anymore!  David Starobin, that remarkable guitarist, says he doesn’t think anybody will ever be able to play the guitar like Charlie Christian ever again.  But Charlie Christian was a star!  These are not stars.  This is Glen Gray’s sax section or trombone section, playing with intonation, with the kind of ensemble playing that these kids can’t imagine how they achieved.

BD:    But if today they spent the time on that they spend on other things, they could achieve that.

MB:    Oh, no doubt, but I don’t know who’s going to teach it to them.  I don’t know a trombone teacher who can play the trombone the way Tommy Dorsey did or the way Jack Cheney did, or Urbie Green, who was a legend among trombone players!  He’s still around.  He’s had some teeth trouble and doesn’t play the way he used to.  He would walk into a studio, pick up a trombone and play a perfect high C.  But it wasn’t trick playing.  It was this marvelous legato, and this wonderful control of phrasing on his instrument.  This man does it, and he was just simply the first trombonist with Glen Gray.  It was a very successful orchestra, but it didn’t have any great prestige or glamor associated with it.  They played in nightclubs and casinos, and that was it.  I mean casino not in the gambling sense, but what used to be called a casino — Van Martin’s Riviera kind of place.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In music, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

babbittMB:    One of the things that’s concerned me the most is our position in the university community and therefore our position in the community at large is why music, virtually alone, has been subjected to such arrogant, cavalier presumption on the part of people in other fields? 
I have a quotation here.  I don’t usually quote people positively; I usually quote them negatively.  I’ve collected these over the years, but for a positive one, here’s this by Nelson Goodman apropos of the question of music as amusement.  He says, “My argument, that the arts must be taken not less seriously and no less seriously than the sciences, is not that the arts enrich us or contribute something warmer or more human, but that the sciences, as distinguished from technology, and the arts, as distinguished from fun, have as their common function the advancement of understanding.”  That’s how we mean understanding.  Understanding of what?  Certainly not some understanding about some banal mundanities or understanding of some human emotions, no.  What I think he means about understanding music is what music can be, what musical relationships can do, and that, certainly, is a form of amusement.  It is!  I think one could also say they’re categories.  Let’s not confuse categories.  To confuse categories is immediately to inhibit serious discussion, to vitiate any kind of real understanding of the problems of the states of our art at this time.  I would hope that people would be seriously amused, seriously entertained by the wonderful stuff that music can be, by the rich ramifications of musical relationships.  It’s hard to describe, because after all, what is one hearing in the Brahms Third Symphony?  For some of us, one is hearing the most extraordinary use of musical materials that one can possibly imagine.  I sing a lot about the Brahms Third only because it might seem to many people by now a war horse, and to some of us will never be a war horse because that horse keeps running and running and running.  But it’s certainly a problem.  What you’re really asking is even a more difficult problem to answer, and that is where does my music and the music of some of my colleagues fit into all of this?  Obviously there is a music which is an entertainment, a music which is in the elevators.  I’m not belittling any of this.  It doesn’t interest me to say this is trivial pop music.  There is sort of simplistic, so-called serious music, which derives from pop.  They’re all music, and what happens to interest me is not the only music that I would suggest should be interesting because lots of music interests me.  However, it’s ridiculous for us to be unrealistic about this, and not recognize the fact that for most people, our music doesn’t mean a thing!  They don’t buy the records.  They don’t go to hear it.  We have these small audiences that are interested in our music.  They’re mainly fellow professionals.  That doesn’t concern me that they’re fellow professionals, but it’s ridiculous not to face the fact that music has changed, and changed in fundamental ways that should not be minimized by those who would invoke their superior historical conception, their historical sense of what has happened to music.  I’ll invoke my age at this point.  I’m going to be realistic about this.  About fifty years ago or maybe even a little more, we were constantly being told by our elders and sometimes not even by our elders, “You’re dramatizing yourself.”  Music hasn’t really changed this much.  We were told about the Schoenberg Orchestral Variations, which at that time was perhaps just a decade old, to just wait and see.  It will either become standard repertory and be part of every orchestra’s repertory, or it will just disappear.  Neither has happened.  It is not standard repertory.  The Chicago Symphony once played it under Martinon, and I have not heard it in New York more than once or twice in the past fifteen years.  However, here is a work which every young composer would take for granted belongs to the tradition of music.  It might even belong to the past for him.  It’s one of those classics that you turn to, that you study in school as certainly as you study the Eroica Symphony.  That is the beginning of what was once a dichotomy and now a multi-chotomy.  We have to face the fact that music has changed in fundamental ways that we cannot minimize!  Ralph Shapey has just called the orchestra a musical museum.  Okay.  That’s fair.  After all, one does not depreciate museums.  We go to museums; we enjoy them; they have a very well defined function, educationally, societally.  Once music leaves the museums, once it leaves these citadels of show biz, the public salons, and moves to the university it’s for this reason.  There’s no other place it can be accommodated.  After all, Ralph has a performance group here that does contemporary music at the University of Chicago.  In New York, even when the groups are not officially associated with the university, as the Speculum is with Columbia, we have others that are.  They are basically people who themselves have university associations, but it’s true that the groups are diminishing in there.  They’re having more and more and more trouble because the support isn’t there.  If one wants to talk about nitty-gritty, the Ford Foundation, which once subsidized recording and publication is out of the business.  The Rockefeller, which once did that very crucial, but from a publicity point of view, not very rewarding task of paying for extra rehearsal time for orchestras, is out of the business.  The Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, which once paid for subsidized recordings and also work by music historians has closed shop.

BD:    What is going to happen to the Fromm Foundation since his death? 

MB:    That’s a very good question.  I’ve been asking that, too.  You’ll be very amused to know that the Fromm Foundation is, in some sense, at Harvard, though not entirely.  I’m going to be the first Fromm Foundation professor at Harvard next term.  That was one of the promises I made Paul before his death.  We were old friends and he asked me to do it, and I agreed to do it.  So I don’t know.  I do know that he has left an endowment for Ralph’s group at the University of Chicago.  I have that from Ralph’s own lips.  I know that he’s left money at Harvard for the foundation.  How much I don’t know.  I don’t know what’s going to happen to the rest.  There were the things that were, perhaps, less glamorous, like just simply helping to commission works by young composers.

BD:    Is there somebody going to administer this?  He kept his eye on all of this, and he would say do this and do this.

babbittMB:    You know about this very well!  He kept more than an eye on it.  You’re absolutely right and the answer is I don’t know, and I don’t know that anybody else does.  I’ve asked that question as recently as yesterday, and I don’t think the answer is yet clear.  The Fromm Foundation was a remarkable phenomenon.

BD:    I did a nice interview with him, and a big program for his eightieth birthday. 
[See my Interview with Paul Fromm.]

MB:    Well, that’s wonderful.  Did anybody understand him?  It was so difficult to understand Paul speak.  It was difficult in German as well as in English.  I loved him dearly.  He was an extraordinary man; there’s no question about it.  Nobody did as much with so little.  Paul did not have that much money!  Paul lived very modestly and his wife still does here in Chicago.  This is not a fantastically wealthy man.  This is a man who drove a modest car and lived in a modest apartment and lived very modestly.

BD:    Right.  We did the interview at his apartment.

MB:    Well, you know.  It was just a nice place, but scarcely a luxury apartment in any sense of word.

BD:    It was just very nice, very comfortable.

MB:    A very nice, comfortable, upper middle class apartment.  Nevertheless, look at what he did.  Look at what he accomplished for composers
publication, recording, concerts, individual subsidies, the foundation at Harvard, which was mainly concerned with giving concerts until they set up that professorship.  I don’t know yet whether he set it up, or the university set it up in his name.  That was not made clear to me.  Look at what he did at Tanglewood and what he was doing at Aspen.  It’s not a question of whether one agrees with everything he did.  Who wants to agree with everything?  If two people agree completely, one of them’s unnecessary.  [Both laugh]  No, this was an extraordinary accomplishment by a man who was just deeply concerned about composers as human beings, and about contemporary music as an activity.  No one has ever, ever done anything like it before.  I hope somebody does it again, but it seems very unlikely.  I’ll never forget... When I received the McArthur Fellowship, one of the news services here in Chicago called me with the usual interviews, and they asked me how I felt about this.  I said, “This is the kind of thing that one would expect really only from the Fromm Foundation, for music to be recognized at all.  Even at this point [1987] only five composers have received McArthur Fellowships.

BD:    Let me account for them.  Conlon Nancarrow was the first?  [See my Interview with Conlon Nancarrow.]

MB:    Right.  We are getting old, aren’t we?  I knew Conlon back in the thirties, when he was on his way to the Spanish Civil War.  I saw him in Mexico a few years ago.  Then you’ve got Shapey, Wuorinen, Perle and I.  We’re the five.  [See my Interview with Charles Wuorinen.]  [Note: I have also interviewed Shapey and George Perle, and eventually those will also be posted on this website.  Subsequent winners whose interviews are already posted include composers John Harbison, Gunther Schuller, and conductor Marin Alsop.  Other winners whose interviews have yet to be posted include director Peter Sellars, pianist Stephen Hough, composer Bright Sheng, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and violinist Leila Josefowicz.]  The truth is that when they called me, I mentioned the Fromm Foundation because I wanted to be able to say something.  I didn’t want the McArthur to overwhelm all the other possibilities that would reward musicians.  However, the person here had never heard of the Fromm Foundation.  He was not in music; it was one of the usual reporters.  He had never heard of the Fromm Foundation, and had never heard of Paul Fromm.  The same thing would happen in New York.  I thought he should, though, being in Chicago because of the question of locale, but the fact of the matter is that Paul’s contribution is absolutely singular and we miss him very, very much.

BD:    It was very sad to lose him.  Barbara Peterson is a close friend of mine, and she went out to Aspen for the Fromm Music Week that was the first one right after he had died.  Despite the music, it was a sad time.

MB:    Yes, indeed it must have been.  Barbara is a very dear friend of mine, too, and one of the other people whom we have to be very grateful.  She represents concert music at BMI, and BMI has done remarkable things for young composers.  So has ASCAP.  [See the photo of Morton Gould presenting the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Broadcast Award to me in December, 1991, and my Interview with Morton Gould.]  I don’t want to seem to be a partisan in these respects
although my loyalty is to BMIbut Peterson would be the first to tell you what a battle it is.  I’m sure she’s told you that.  I shan’t say anything more about Paul because it needn’t be said, but it was an extraordinary accomplishment, and I hope it continues to be in his name.  Chicago should be very proud of Paul.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In looking over one of the biographical squibs, Nicholas Slonimsky used the word,
speculation in terms of some of the things you had done, some of your written speculations.  Should that word have been in there?  [See my Interview with Nicolas Slonimsky.]

MB:    Well, I suppose they are speculations.  I suppose in the sense of being thought experiments, perhaps so.  I have never felt that when I wrote about music I was ever speculating as to what music might be or could be, certainly not what it should be.  Imperatives do not suit me.  Did he mean that about the music, or about the writings about the music?

BD:    I think he was talking about the music itself.  [Note: Upon re-reading the entry a quarter-century later, I am not certain if Slonimsky was referring to the music or the writings!]

MB:    About the music.  I kind of like that in a very whimsical, capricious way.  When you consider the things that Slonimsky said — the labels that he has applied to music
I think that’s a very modest one indeed!  It’s much less capricious than some others.  Speculative music?  He may have been using it in the medieval sense, perhaps.  I don’t know.  I know Nicholas, of course, very well, but if he thought of this as speculative music, I think he means it’s not mindless, that the mind was involved.  I accept that very happily, of course.  I certainly have never thought about it myself, but we don’t think very much about how we think about music.  It can be rather inhibiting.  It’s just like listening to our music.  One doesn’t believe that we don’t like to listen to records or tapes of our music.  It’s not immodesty.  It’s not that we don’t like our music.  It’s that once having finished a piece, you really don’t want to think about it very much.

BD:    You want to move on to something else?

babbittMB:    You’re thinking to the next piece, yes.  It’s not just a matter of moving on, though of course, you’re right.  It’s rather a matter of thinking I have ideas for another piece.  I don’t want to be influenced by my last piece.  As I sit there imagining this music in my mind, I don’t want to think is this okay because it was once okay?  Is this something that worked in my last piece or something that sounded right?  I don’t care what terms you use, is that why I’m accepting it here?  I want to think within this piece.  That’s another reason why I
and I think most of my colleaguescan only work on only one piece at a time, because that is the one piece in our mind.  We don’t want any other piece to influence it, even another one of our own pieces.  It’s a true fact of contemporary music.  It was true of late Stravinsky [with Babbitt in photo at right] as much as any of our musicand I say this only because one will regard Stravinsky as being in a far grander tradition — that each of our works is really singular.  I’m not using singular in an evaluative, normative sense.  I simply mean that each work is much more self-contained, much more autonomous.  I like to use a word that, unfortunately, sounds too mathematical.  We use the word ‘contextual’ to talk about the fact that the music is self-referential.  Automorphic is a word that I love.  It has nothing to do with mathematics.  I mean automorphic in the sense of creating its own forms.  This is a relative term.  Pieces do not start from nothing, but the lack of communality that Schoenberg thought he was returning to music with the twelve-tone idea, has simply not returned to music.  So as you come to a piece as a composer, you’re really thinking much more about this piece than anything this piece shares with any other piece, be it written by you or by anyone else.  You haven’t internalized such a degree of communality that you know how the piece is going to go.  You’re thinking about it in the large and in the small at the same time.  The local fits into the global.  I know it sounds terribly pretentious, but until you see how the detail is going to fit into that whole or generate the whole, or how the whole is going to accommodate that detail, you’re not satisfied to start that piece, to get it going.  At the same time, you don’t want the previous piece to too strongly suggest, if at all, how you’re going to do it.

BD:    When you’re in the midst of a piece, do you control where it goes, or is it controlling you?

MB:    I wouldn’t know how to answer that.  This is such a complex interaction that of course you think you’re controlling it, but I know exactly what you mean.  In a certain sense, where this piece has been is certainly controlling you.  When I come back to a piece after an hour or two, for example, it is a purely practical matter.  One of the problems about teaching music is that in an appointed hour you have to interrupt yourself.  You have to go face a social situation or an intellectual situation with a certain degree of pressure.  You have to respond to other people, and then you come back and try to get back into that piece.  What I always do, and I think what most of my colleagues have to do, is start the piece, hear it through to the point where you’ve been.  Sometimes you can’t remember what you had in mind as a continuation.  You could say, “Why don’t you jot down some notes?”  Sometimes you do, and some days you don’t have the time.  Sometimes you have to run out of the house.  In that sense, my answer to your question is that my piece is controlling me.  [Both laugh]  The notion that the piece has to do something is one that I would totally and completely reject.  I may think that this is what it has to do today, and tomorrow I’ll think it has to do something which I now find better.  But I don’t like to say that composing now is more difficult than it’s even been before, because you could say by the same token it’s easier because you can do anything.  It is certainly true that in a certain sense you can appear to do anything, but what that
anything does, does not mean that anything goes.  It’s very much more than how to make that anything become something.  I don’t like what I’m saying now, from the standpoint that it sounds awfully cute and coy, but to decide what kind of a context it creates is what makes music very fascinating for me, I must confess.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise scores?

MB:    I am not a reviser.  I have no objection in principle to revising, but I think I’ve answered that question, at least indirectly, in the preceding.  That would necessitate my going back to a piece after I’ve heard it, and by the time a piece of mine has been performed — not that I often have to wait very long — I’m in another piece.  When I go back to that piece, I go back almost as if I were not the composer.  I’ve now had my role changed from that of the creator to that of the auditor or of the listener, and in such a case what I’m really thinking is this is,
This is not my piece!  I don’t want to say it’s not my piece; that’s preposterous.  That’s an exaggeration.  But what I’m really thinking at that moment is that this is the way the piece was.  Am I dissatisfied with things?  If I am, let them affect the way I’ll think about my next piece.  No, the answer is I don’t revise.  I’ve never revised anything.  I’ve certainly never re-written a piece nor have a later version of a piece.

BD:    My immediate reaction, of course, is hooray! 

MB:    Yes, but I know people who go back and incessantly revise.  That is, of course, the extreme case.  I know others who say, “I’d like to do some things about this piece; I think the piece can be made better.”  I don’t object to that.  It’s just that I would rather say, “That’s what I wrote then, and now I have ideas of things that I should improve.”  I must say to you that when I hear an early piece of mine, and I’m much more likely to hear an earlier piece than later pieces, I say,
“What dissatisfactions do I have with this piece?  Not that I had then, but what I have now?  That does help me a tremendous amount with a piece I’m working on.  Absolutely!  I would like to achieve this, I didn’t achieve that, and let me see if I can achieve it in the new piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now you’re retiring from teaching?

MB:    I’ve retired from Princeton.  This is my third year of retirement from Princeton teaching.  I’m an Emeritus, but I still teach privately at Juilliard, and I’ll be doing that Fromm Professorship at Harvard in the second term.  That will be just a seminar.  I don’t know what we’re going to do.  I hope nobody knows what we’re going to do.  [Both laugh]  It’s  going to be free-wheeling.  It’s a very funny situation because I don’t know the Harvard graduate students — I’ll be doing only graduate students — but I know the faculty very well, because it consists of many of my students.  It’s a very funny feeling to go to a place where Donald Martino and David Lewin and Peter Lieberson and Lewis Lockwood are — except for Lieberson — the senior members of the faculty.  These were all, in one sense or another, students of mine.  [See my Interview with Donald Martino.]  So that’s it, but it’ll have to stop soon.  It’s not that I dislike teaching.  It’s just that it does do exactly what we were talking about.  It does interrupt you.  On the other hand, I hate to sound Pollyanna-ish about it, but the stimulation of students is still there.  Of course a lot of the time you wish that you weren’t there, but every once in a while someone will suggest something indirectly, unknowingly, in their own music or in something they say, or in something they say about your music or someone else’s music, which comes to mean a great deal to you.

babbittBD:    Have you been really pleased with some of the recent students you’ve had?

MB:    Oh, sure.  There are all kinds of students.  Juilliard is as much a cross-section as almost any other school, perhaps more in a way because they come from various countries.  For example, last year at Juilliard I had students who were by birth and by training Turkish, Japanese, Russian, South American, and Israeli.  Oh, yes, I have a Malaysian!  A lovely young lady from Malay, a remarkable young lady!  I hate to point out to you that she went to Bennington as an undergraduate, but she is indeed a remarkable, remarkable student.  I lost my Russian student, who graduated, who was a great joy.  He’s been only in this country only a few years.  He’s real Moscow on the Hudson, he looks like and he behaves like that and he’s absolutely wonderful!

BD:    Is he staying here or is he going back?

MB:    Oh no, he’ll never go back!  He’s become American citizen, and the Turkish student, I think, is going to stay here, too.  They have a way of marrying American wives and preferring it here.  It’s a remarkable group of students with very, very different backgrounds and very, very different attitudes.  They take the most out of you because you have to deal with each one singularly, individually, and without virtually any point of contact with others.

BD:    Is the teaching of composition different now than it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago?

MB:    It probably is.  I grew up in my generation — and probably this wasn’t true of all the teachers — being told how to write music.  That is,
This is what you must learn if you’re going to be a composer.  Some of the craft was taught with a great deal of intelligence as to its implications, and not really to its being an explicit repetition of something that had been done in music.  I went through the usual things, of course, but no one would teach, for example, tonal harmony the way it was taught to methe Foot and Spalding figured bass, watch out for the parallel fifths and parallel octaveswhich was easy enough to do when you never really had to hear what you were doing.  Nobody today, for example, would teach a harmony course without paying at least lip service to Schenker, and though you might think that lip service to Schenker is worse than no service to Schenker, I’m not so sure that’s true.  It’s made people at least aware of  something with regard to musical progression, and the movement of music, and the relation of the vertical, the horizontal, and all the other things that we do hear when we hear a piece of music.  I would say the level of musical sophistication and teaching in this country is unequalled.  Fifteen years ago it would have been impossible to publish an article on analytical theory in this country.  There was no place to go!  There were no magazines.  There were no periodicals.  We have developed, by now, two academic generations of the brightest thinkers about music in the world.  So much so that if someone came along who wanted to read an analytical article in Music Theory Spectrum, or in Theory Only, or in Perspectives, these are very different magazines.  There is now even a British magazine which has been influenced by all of this called Music Analysis.  If they had not read anything in this field for the past fifteen years, they wouldn’t be able to read any of these articles.  These articles have developed such sophistication which is not inbred.  I don’t mean feeding upon themselves, but so much can now be taken for granted about what we know about these pieces, about different ways of looking at these pieces.  This is not to say that they’re dogmatic or that they represent only one point of view.  On the contrary, they represent so many different ways of viewing a work, of construing a work.  Thinking about music is bound to affect thinking in music.  It affects our composers and it affects our thinkers about music.  I must tell you that one of my gripesand it’s a very serious one, not a personal one in that it doesn’t affect my ego — is that these young men, who have the greatest concern and responsibility looking at pieces are finding out all they can.  They’re not interested in dismissing a piece for what it isn’t, but in trying to find out all they can make of it and regarding it for what it is.  My gripe is that these young men are never on the boards of gift commissions.  They are never on the boards that decide what music can be recorded, what music can be published, what music should be commissioned.

BD:    They’re on the outside of everything?

MB:    They’re on the outside.  They all have academic positions, but these are the people who should be looking at what music should be — what composers should be rewarded or be encouraged to compose music far more than other composers or performers, at least by virtue of their ability to compose or perform, because these are people whose primary concern is to think about these pieces.  I must say that they are a remarkable group of people, and I’m terribly grateful for them.

BD:    In composing, where is the balance between thinking and feeling?

MB:    Thinking about and thinking in and all of that, I wouldn’t presume to say.  It sounds so utterly unsatisfactory when someone says, “How do you know when you’ve got what you want?”  I don’t know.  You sit that think about these pieces.  You do it in the shower, by which I mean disassociate.  I can do it walking down the streets of New York much more easily than the streets of Princeton, because the telephone’s not going to ring and you’re not going to run into anybody you know.  You think about this piece and suddenly this does it somehow.  If you try to force it, you know you’re forcing it.  In all of this, when I see that dichotomy between thinking and feeling, I can’t make because you feel about something because you’ve thought about it.  You feel about something because you understand it.  I just can’t accept that dichotomy at all between heart and mind, or the sentient and the cognitive, between the intellectual and the emotional.  It’s all one complex human being that’s involved.  You’re doing all of these things in the most intricate kind of interrelationship.  That’s the best answer I can give you, Bruce.

BD:    That’s actually quite revelatory.  One last question.  Is composing fun?

MB:    The answer to that is yes, eventually it is.  The actual composing is one of the most exciting, wonderful things, and I’ll certainly call it fun in the deepest, most profound sense.  What isn’t fun is what you have to do after that.  The copying of the score is not fun, but the composing is.  There can be virtually no other reason to do it.  If someone would say, “That’s just pure self-indulgence,” then you can only answer, “There’s no one I’d rather indulge.”

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

MB:    That you very much, Bruce, for having me here.  It’s been a delightful, delightful occasion, and I do mean it.

Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt, who has died aged 94, was one of the most impenetrable, inaccessible and influential of American composers and theorists; an article he wrote in 1958 headlined "Who cares if you listen" set the tone, reinforcing the view that contemporary music was for an elite cognoscenti.

Orchestras rejected his output, critics sneered at its complexity and academics rejected his doctoral thesis. Myths surrounding his wartime background in secret intelligence work did him no favours, with the cultural commentator Alex Ross describing him as an "emblematic Cold War composer" producing music "so Byzantine in construction that one practically needed a security clearance to understand it".

Yet Babbitt the serialist composer had his champions, Stephen Sondheim among them, while in the 1960s and 1970s his 12-tone theories, cerebral though they may have been, took root on university campuses, if not in concert halls, across the United States. His supporters, and there were many, argued that his complex music simply required greater involvement and commitment from the listener than had hitherto been the case.

In 1951 RCA invited him to be the first composer to work on their Mark II synthesizer at Columbia-Princeton University, exploring new sound worlds in works such as Composition for Synthesizer (1961), Vision and Prayer, for soprano and synthesizer (1961) and Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964). He revelled in distorting musical sounds, seeing how far he could push the boundaries. The resultant tapes would then be used in the concert hall, either alone or with live instrumentalists or singers.

Much of his output was for small-scale forces (partly out of necessity, as few orchestras could stomach his works either musically or financially). However, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra did give the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra in January 2005. Despite the severity of his music, Babbitt had a mischievous sense of humour, as titles such as Sheer Pluck (1984, for solo guitar) would suggest.

While he opened up many fascinating ideas, critics said that Babbitt – who described himself as a maximalist to differentiate from the minimalists – found himself in a musical cul-de-sac. As John Adams wrote: "Atonality, rather than being the promised land, proved to be nothing of the kind. After a heady first planting, the terrain [its] composers discovered was unable to reproduce its initial harvest."

Milton Byron Babbitt was born in Philadelphia on May 10 1916, the son of a wealthy actuary who demonstrated to his son the deep pleasure of mathematics. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the Deep South ("You can't get much deeper, he once noted") where he knew the future author Eudora Welty.

At the age of four he was given a violin but, wanting a better social life, turned to clarinet and, later, saxophone as well as writing his own pop songs. He recalled being shown Schönberg's Three Piano Pieces (Op 11) at the age of ten and being fascinated with this "absolutely different world".

He read Maths at the University of Pennsylvania, but abandoned that to study Music at New York University with Marion Bauer, seizing any opportunity to experience the music of Schoenberg, and meeting the composer on a couple of occasions. He also studied privately with Roger Sessions, a central figure for supporters of the anti-populism ideal in American music, and later followed Sessions to Princeton.

During the early years of the Second World War he was involved in secret military intelligence in Washington before returning to Princeton to teach mathematics. There his PhD, entitled The Function of the Said Structure in the 12-Tone System, was rejected in 1946; it was finally awarded in 1992 with the university uneasily explaining that his work had been "too far ahead of its time".

The headline on his infamous 1958 paper (published in High Fidelity magazine) haunted him for the rest of his life. It was, he insisted, not of his choosing. Nevertheless, it bore a true resemblance to its contents and Adams suspects that it was always Babbitt's "puckish intention" to offend the larger classical music community.

Enthusiasts of Serialism in Europe championed his cause and British critics turned out to see what all the noise was about. Yet even Stanley Sadie, who advocated the creation of a national electronic studio, considered Ensembles for Synthesizer, performed at the Festival Hall in 1969, to be a "busy, garrulous piece [which] seemed unshapely, unclearly organised and its ending duly unpredictable".  [See Bruce Duffie's Interview with Stanley Sadie.]

Recently the musicologist Harold Rosenbaum arranged for the publication and performance of a Mass that Babbitt had written many years ago. When the parts arrived he found the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, but no Credo. Fearing it lost he telephoned the composer in embarrassment, only to be told: "My boy, I don't believe in Credos. I didn't write one." Among many US honours, Babbitt received a Pulitzer citation in 1982.

Despite his prowess in electronic music, Babbitt shied away from later technology. "I don't have email; I'm not online in any respect. I am totally offline," he told an interviewer in 2001.

His wife Sylvia, whom he married before the war, predeceased him in 2005. He is survived by a daughter.

--The Telegraph  Feb 1, 2011 

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 6, 1987.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1991 and 1996.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.