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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Force of Nature

American composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was a Force of Nature. I have never met, and may never encounter again, anyone quite like him. His close friends, colleagues, and students have already published numerous eloquent online tributes since his passing on January 29th. I feel inclined to contribute something too, if for no other reason than to make an attempt at personal closure.

I have been a great admirer of his work, and will continue to be going forward. I wish everyone could share my enthusiasm about this man and his music. But how does one begin to describe a person who was truly amazing on so many levels? I find that it’s not easy to summarize my impressions about Milton Byron Babbitt since he was enigmatic in many regards. Babbitt had a multi-dimensional personality, and his music and theoretical writings were as equally complex and diverse.

To set the record straight, I can in no way lay claim to have been an official student of Milton Babbitt. While I took every opportunity to attend his frequent lectures and public presentations and met him socially perhaps a dozen times, I never formally studied with him. But over the years we did grow to know each other on a first name basis and shared many mutual connections that spanned across the close-knit network of contemporary music. I was not unique in this regard. It seems that just about every American composer had met Milton at one time or another. He treated everyone he met in his wide travels both professionally and with respect.

Babbitt’s academic career began at Princeton in 1938 where he taught hundreds of composers, musicians, and theorists bridging several generations across the many decades of his long university tenure. Along with Princeton colleagues in other fields such as Albert Einstein and John F. Nash, Babbitt earned a reputation as the quintessential Princeton professor by elevating the university’s music department to comparable levels of academic distinction.

His reputation was in part that of a teacher. It seemed as if all of my college professors in the 1970s and 80s had studied with him. Princeton was the place they had chosen to study – largely because of Babbitt’s presence (his teacher Roger Sessions was on the faculty as well). My teachers had nothing but praise, respect, and plenty of fascinating stories to tell. One such composer, Donald Martino, was among the list of Babbitt's better-known students. Martino eventually became my teacher at New England Conservatory and Brandeis. It’s probably my connection to Don that enabled my relationship to his former teacher and mentor.

For composers of my generation, "Uncle” Milton’s legendary reputation preceded him like a steam locomotive barreling down the tracks. In my youth his electronic music was widely available on LP, his articles were published in Perspectives of New Music, and his notoriety as a new and experimental composer was already very well established. I first learned of Babbitt in high school where his name often appeared in print side-by-side with John Cage. In the late 60s I’d trek from the suburbs to uptown in NY to hear performances by the Group for Contemporary Music of Babbitt’s work by pianist Robert Miller, cellist Fred Sherry, and flutist Harvey Sollberger. These performances made a notable impression on me as a teenager. The music was unlike anything I had ever heard, and it was strangely addictive.

Many of Babbitt’s innovative and infectious ideas concerning musical structure and pitch organization were methodically passed down in academia by well-schooled Princeton graduates. If American Serialism could ever be labeled a historic trend, aesthetic movement, school, or ism, then Babbitt fell into the role of de facto leader and public representative - not out of self-motivation or ambition, but simply because he happened to be present at the historic moment and was the best spokesperson for the job.

As we all know, times change. Starting the late 1970s and up until his recent death, what might be considered a cultural backlash against serial (or “maximal”) music and everything it represents has progressively gained strength in the broader world of contemporary music. Undeterred, perhaps even spurred on by the stiff opposition and challenge, Babbitt continued his work throughout this period of rising negative criticism, contentious debate, and never-ending negative commentary in the press. As an objective realist he acknowledged that his music was not going to win any popularity contests, even within the small and highly-resilient, self-sustaining subculture of contemporary music.

Babbitt was perceptive enough to see that general interest in his unique vision of music had been rapidly waning in recent years. Yet he persisted in forging new and ever-more complex pieces written quite expressly for what came to be a very select pool of dedicated supporters and performers. Reluctantly he had to abandon composing electronic music on the RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center for reasons related to hardware failure and technological obsolescence, and began to write exclusively for the new breed of extraordinary instrumentalists and singers who committed themselves to push the boundaries of what is musically possible. They took on the formative challenge of performing his increasingly complex work on traditional instruments. It’s interesting to note that Babbitt’s acoustically generated music takes full advantage of discoveries regarding sound, modern acoustics, and the psychology of musical perception that he acquired during years of hands-on research with the RCA Synthesizer. His early experimentation and creative output in analog electronic music clearly informed his technique for later compositions written for acoustic instruments and orchestra.

Initially, I spied Babbitt as an outside observer during the period when he joined the faculty at the Juilliard School of Music in 1973. I heard his Correspondences for string orchestra and synthesized tape (1967) when it was conducted in 1976 by Pierre Boulez at a Festival of Contemporary Music and other works. Babbitt was a frequent participant on various composer panel discussions at Juilliard and elsewhere in NYC, and he always tended to standout with his lucid commentary and articulate discourse on a wide-array of topics during these diverse formal and informal talks. He seemed to be at every significant new music concert throughout the city.

After I moved to Boston in ‘73, Babbitt visited us frequently as guest lecturer and composer, partly because his daughter lived in the area. He accepted visiting professor stints at most of the area’s conservatories and universities and was often invited by the local new music ensembles to be a featured composer, including Collage New Music, Alea III, Fromm Players at Harvard, Boston Music Viva, and Dinosaur Annex. At these events I noticed that he always seemed to wear the same suit, and was usually long overdue for a haircut on the sides of his head. His large-frame plastic glasses were an icon, and some of the local grad-students would consciously or unconsciously emulate his 70’s fashion statement. (It is said that the majority of composers in the Music Department at Princeton during the1950s took after Babbitt and became chain smokers).

In the summer of 1981 I decided to travel to Indiana to attend a one-week lecture-seminar and composition forum where Babbitt would be the featured Composer in Residence. His wife Sylvia had driven them the long distance from New Jersey (Babbitt did not drive, and Silvia did not fly). On the Monday morning of the seminar I strategically positioned myself front-row center for his lecture in full anticipation of what others had forewarned would be an exciting intellectual roller-coaster ride.

There were perhaps a hundred people in the large room, largely composers and theorists from all around the country. Babbitt was introduced by the Dean of the music department, who I later had heard made his reputation in the Mid-west as a leader of marching bands. The Dean wore a bright yellow polyester blazer that may have later found its way to the wardrobe department for David Lynch’s 1986 cult movie mystery “Blue Velvet.” The Dean’s flowery recitation of Babbitt’s bio during his introduction included the statement, “Dr. Babbitt’s music is performed by major orchestras all over the world.”

After the Dean’s introductory remarks, Milton began to speak. He thanked the Dean for his comments, but corrected him with a smile, “With all due respect, my music is NOT performed by major orchestras all over the world. I wish it were.” And then, without batting an eye, Babbitt began scribbling tiny note heads on the chalk board. First one and then two. Step-by-step he methodically laid out a neat and concise view of a Musical Universe – full of order and logic – like I had never seen or heard before.

His lectures that week were scintillating, full of high energy, and mind-bending. I had intended to take notes, but failed to keep up with the rapid-fire flow of information and personal antidote. In some ways it seemed that he was improvising, like the saxophonist he had been in his youth. He lectured for hours on end, and didn’t need to refer to notes. Everything was done from memory. Yet the lecture was well organized, very specific, detailed, and interesting. Years later I discovered some of the same subject matter in the book Words About Music: The Madison Lectures where two of Babbitt’s former students at Princeton were finally able to transcribe and capture the content and essence of his famously endowed pontification.

It’s no secret that Babbitt could really talk. He’d take a deep breath, and sentences would flow out like steam blowing from a pressure cooker. But the dialogue always made perfect sense, both syntactically and contextually. His streaming prose was elegantly constructed and a joy to listen to, even if you didn’t comprehend at first the deep meaning, intricacies, and context of the content. His unusually fast pace of speech made it possible for the listener to connect longer strings of ideas and associate them on a much broader scale than we are ordinarily accustomed to. His words were, on some level, punctuated like music itself.

The week-long event in Indiana was also an occasion to hear his new work, Ars Combinatoria for small orchestra (1981). Babbitt had just completed the piece, and one of the reasons he was invited out to the Mid-west was to attend the world premiere.

In the afternoon while most of the composers and theorists would retreat back to the dorms to avoid a sweltering Indiana summer heat wave, I’d walk across the sprawling campus to hear the student orchestra rehearse his new work. At the first rehearsal Milton sat with his former student John Eaton. I was surprised when the conductor greeted the orchestra and told them that Babbitt’s Ars Combinatoria was a “set of variations.” He then proceeded to point out the bar numbers that mark each variation. I learned later from Babbitt that this was the conductor’s ploy to make the music more accessible to the orchestra. The composer had reluctantly gone along with it – at least for the rehearsals.

As you might expect with a summer student pickup orchestra, the rehearsals did not go well. At the second rehearsal, I sat near Milton in the center of the concert hall. He appeared to be more and more disappointed with how the rehearsal of his new work was going. At one point the first violin section fell completely apart while playing what I recall was the following rhythm…

Milton looked up from his score, looked over at me, and quietly uttered in his trademark bass voice, “Now don’t tell me that’s hard!”

He confided in me his suspicion that a few unruly members of the orchestra had intentionally conspired to sabotage the performance, particularly the clarinetist. Whatever the motivations, it is clear that the work needed more rehearsal time than had been allocated. Yet it seemed to me that most of the rehearsal time was dedicated to music on the second half of the program - Sheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Undaunted by the shaky rehearsals, Babbitt’s daily morning lectures continued with the same intensity throughout the rest of the week. All of the participants in the lecture hall were simply dazzled by his brilliance, vast knowledge about music, and experience.

As part of the Indiana Composers’ Forum, I was to have a work sight-read by the student contemporary music ensemble. Babbitt and my fellow students would be there to observe. Although I had greatly anticipated this opportunity, it turned out to be a little different than I had hoped: the pianist never showed up, the rest of chamber orchestra sight-read miserably. Everyone was out of sync, and the dynamics and pitches were way off. As a result I had a minor-meltdown.

After the musicians packed up and left, Babbitt - who had followed my score and knew exactly what I was going through emotionally - calmly said, “Now Jim, tell us about your piece.” I caught my breath, and began to discuss what I had intended to achieve musically. From there Babbitt led an interesting dialogue with me and my fellow students about the craft of musical composition, and about ways in which a piece can be put together and organized. One thing that surprised me at the time was how he focused more on the parameters of rhythm and instrumental tone color than on pitch. For example he thought I had over-used the vibraphone in the piece (having gotten his full dose of the instrument from overuse in 1930’s pop music). In retrospect, he was exactly right. Fortunately I had a recording of the same work performed by a different ensemble, and when my short private lesson with Babbitt occurred later as part of the Composers Forum, we listened to a much better performance on cassette tape.

The performance of Babbitt’s Ars Combinatoria occurred on Friday evening. While some of the details of the work may have blurred in my mind and been obscured from the passage of time, the rich sonorities of the music still stick in my memory after all of these years. From what I recall, the piece is chock-full of interesting chords, all uniquely spaced, orchestrated, and voiced. Like much of his music from this period, it’s rather dense in texture. The orchestra in his hands sounds organ-like, or perhaps similar to the RCA Mark II Synthesizer in some regards. Hearing the piece performed live, even in a questionable performance, was exciting.

There was an interesting interaction between a member of the audience and Babbitt at intermission just after his work was premiered. It was an encounter that I will never forget. An Indiana farmer wearing a cowboy hat ventured into the university concert hall directly from the adjacent corn fields. He still had his soiled coveralls on, and I imagined that he drove to the concert in a red pickup with bales of hay loaded on the back of his truck. The farmer approached Milton Babbitt and asked a very direct and honest question, “Dr. Babbitt, what is the story of your piece?” (Remember, Sheherazade was the next work on the program).

All week Milton had skillfully danced around answering any specific technical questions regarding his own music. These probing questions generally emanated from a select group of intellectually prying music theorists. But, in this case, this night, and after this premiere, Milton replied very directly to the farmer’s question… “The story of my piece is the piece itself.”

The farmer took Babbitt’s reply as a matter-of-fact answer, and he even appeared to comprehend the self-referential philosophical concept that Babbitt was alluding to. There was no need to supply a footnote to Nelson Goodman’s obscure book “The Structure of Appearance” or reference the detailed row charts that underlay the galaxy of serialized combinatorial structures embedded within Ars Combinatoria. On that hot Indiana night, for farmers, grad students, and composers alike, it was just music.

Just having the privilege to meet Babbitt in person (both in social and formal settings), hearing his lectures, being exposed to his music, and attempting to comprehend his complex articles made me a better composer. For me, the amazing thing is that out of all the people I've ever met or have come in contact in life, Milton easily stands out as the most brilliant - by a mile. His mind, capacity for logic, and encyclopedic memory about everything from cutting edge mathematics to competitive sports to the best place to get Southern cooking continued to flow out of his large brain like a gushing reservoir of knowledge. Even when he was in his 90s, it was hard to keep pace with his rapidly spewing thoughts, deep contemplation, bawdy humor, wisdom and insight. He thought, spoke, and wrote music that moved in hyper-speed.

Knowing my own limitations, I can safely say that I don't comprehend all the intricacies of his theoretical work. I once privately mused that Milton came from another planet and was dropped onto Earth to share his vast knowledge of a new and advanced ways of looking at things – particularly music. He had ideas that far exceeded what has previously been known in the world, and he shared them freely with anyone who would listen.

And yet, he was down to earth. Milton could be funnier than the best of stand-up comics, and at times engaged as a party animal indulging in boutique beer. He was a scholar, a gentleman, a confidant, a family man, and he networked with tens of thousands of people in the profession of music and music theory all across the world.

Personally I am indebted for Babbitt for his attempts to assist me in my career. In 1985 he very kindly wrote a Fulbright recommendation on my behalf. Later, he wrote another recommendation to the Fromm Foundation at Harvard. In 2001 after I sent him the score to my newly completed (but yet-to-be performed) orchestra piece Tone Poem, he wrote back that he had decided to nominate me for a prestigious award at the American Academy of Arts and Letters - a distinguished organization where he was inducted as a life-time member in 1965.

Babbitt’s support provided a boost to my self-confidence, and I credit him for providing me with courage to continue on in what is often a difficult profession. I was particularly honored that out of all of his students at Princeton and Juilliard, Babbitt decided to nominate me that year for the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. Even though his recommendations and nominations ultimately didn’t pan out in my favor, I can always look back and say that at least Milton Babbitt liked my music.

It seems as if every composer I speak with has a similar story about Babbitt - how he helped them in their career one way or another. He always advocated for younger composers, and would not hesitate to stand up to fight political battles on their behalf if necessary.

In his last years we corresponded by back and forth by letter. I’d keep him abreast of news in Boston, and he’d always reply back. When James Levine commissioned his Concerti for Orchestra (2004) for the Boston Symphony, I saw it as an opportunity to facilitate a meeting between Babbitt and his famous student, Don Martino.

Martino had not been in good health. He was recovering from various surgeries and had difficulty getting around. I offered to be his driver, and with Lora Martino’s assistance, Don was able to get from the curbside at Symphony Hall, up the steps, and inside to his seat. He was clearly in a great deal of pain, but wanted to be present for Babbitt’s important Boston premiere in January of 2005. I had given Milton a heads up that we were coming, but mentioned some of the logistical difficulties.

The Martino’s and Milton met briefly just before the concert, and exchanged greetings. Don seemed surprised that Milton knew he would be there, and that he was aware of some of his recent news. “How did you know that?” Don asked. Milton glanced over in my direction and said, “A little bird told me.”

After Babbitt’s piece was performed and he returned from his bows on the stage, the Martino’s and I caught-up with Milton by chance at the door just before he reentered back into the concert hall seating area. I happened to have a camera and caught the instant they met. I kept my distance as an outside observer, but the moment was truly instilled with at least a half century of history. Regrettably, the moment was all too brief and it would be the last time the two illustrious 12-tone composers would meet face-to-face. Martino died later that year.

I have always been acutely aware that someday the world would lose its most remarkable people, great composers and mentors like Milton Babbitt and Don Martino. I suppose that is one of the things that made me appreciate them so much while they were alive. In my mind they were heroic. What makes the loss even more challenging is the realization that, at least in the world of music composition, people of that level of talent and ability are an increasingly rare breed. It’s really seems like the void they left behind hasn’t been filled by anyone else.