Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

1. Conservatories, New Music, and that term “Classical Music”

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve taught here at Juilliard for many, many years…

MILTON BABBITT: I’ve been here a relatively short time compared with my stay at Princeton.

FRANK J. OTERI: But I figured since we’re at Juilliard, I thought I’d begin talking about Juilliard. You’ve said a number of times over the years that we’re forced to use the expression “classical music” to describe the music that we’re creating now, which really doesn’t fit and really kind of hurts our purpose in a way because it’s an inaccurate term.

MILTON BABBITT: You know why. I don’t have to tell you, I don’t have to tell anyone why it’s an inaccurate term; it’s an historical term. It describes a certain chronological period at the end of the eighteenth century and so it defines something. Well, after that it becomes normative; it becomes a kind of music; it becomes qualitative, quantitative, and it’s misleading. I rather like Wiley Hitchcock‘s term. It sounds elitist, so I won’t offer it to you yet. I’ll tell you my anecdote about this. Many, many years ago at the Smithsonian in September, there was a huge, huge, huge congregation on the subject of American music. We were there for three or four days (I’ve forgotten now) and the Smithsonian decided to recognize every kind of music. There was ethnic music; there was non-ethnic music; there was music from every little corner of every little forest in North Dakota and I’m not exaggerating. Little groups who had their own kind of music, which they invented on their own kinds of instruments were all there. And something they called classical music was assigned to a tiny corner. The three people involved were a historian, a music critic, and I was the composer. And then there were people in the audience and Wiley Hitchcock was one of those, I tell you, I mentioned him for a reason. So we were there, talking and immediately the historian, who was Richard Crawford from Michigan, said “Look, I can’t stand this being classical, we have to do something with the word. It just offends me as an historian.” I said, “Fine. It offends me for other reasons. What are we going to use?” So then the discussion began—you can imagine what the discussion consisted of. It consisted of, first of all, the assumption that we were calling ourselves serious musicians. But then other musicians would say, “We’re just as serious as you are.” And of course, I don’t take a composer seriously just because he takes himself seriously, but there was nothing I could do about this, so we can’t call it serious. And then there were people that would call it concert music, which is what the Performance Rights Societies were calling it and then saying, “Well, we can’t call it a concert because every little rock group now gives concerts and they get 50,000 people and we’re lucky to get 50. So who are we to use the term concert?” So it went on like that quite literally and tiresomely for a long time, then finally one of Hitchcock’s terms, I said, “I don’t mind one of Hitchcock’s terms, which is cultivated music.” Well, you can imagine what that induced: the scream of elitism and we just gave up. But the best example of that is a magazine that likes to consider itself (I hope I’m not offending everybody), likes to call itself sophisticated, The New Yorker, just did an issue on music, did you see it?

FRANK J. OTERI: I heard about it; I still need to get a copy.

MILTON BABBITT: It was called the music issue of The New Yorker, which takes itself very seriously. It had not even the lip service of a sentence to what we call our music, be it classical, be it serious, be it elitist. Not a word. It was rock and it was hip-hop and it was—not a word! So we’re apparently not music anymore. The music issue of The New Yorker, which never would’ve done that with literature or with poetry, had not a single reference to not even serious contemporary music, but any, what I would call, serious music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the expression “classical music” does seem to make sense here at Juilliard. After all, the performers who study here in the music department are primarily concerned with older music.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah. That’s certainly true.

FRANK J. OTERI: So-called classical music in the historical sense.

MILTON BABBITT: No doubt about it. They are so concerned with it almost to the exclusion of anything else and so are their teachers.

FRANK J. OTERI: So then the question becomes, how does a composer of living music…

MILTON BABBITT: If it’s still alive!

FRANK J. OTERI: …and of music of a progressive nature, exist in this environment here?

MILTON BABBITT: You know, that’s a very good question and if we went into it in detail, it would be an unpleasant answer. The truth of the matter is that just today, a young composer came in with his piece; he’s a student of mine, he’s a new student, he’s here for the first year and he found that when he wrote a new piece and tried to show it to some of his colleagues, who were already become friends because they live in the dormitory together, they all said, “Look we’re not interested in doing this music. We’re just not interested.” They said that. “We’re not interested. It’s too difficult but we’re just not interested in this kind of music.” And he got that response from everyone who happened to play and the instrument happened to be the harp, so you can imagine. He wrote it very knowingly. He knows the instrument; there was no question her of incompetence of any kind. And that is typical because most of these players here are not here to study music; they’re here to pursue careers. They’re not interested in music; they’re interested in careers in music. And therefore, how do they find a career in music. Well, first of all, most of their teachers (there are the exceptions, obviously, the members of the Juilliard Quartet who teach people of that kind, are not going to behave this way), but most of the teachers will say, “Look dear, I mean, you just have to be realistic about this. When you go out in the world, if you learn one of these new modern pieces maybe you’ll have the chance to play it once. But if you learn all of the Paganini Etudes, you’ll be able to play those on every recital and you’ll be able to play them for the rest of your life.” The only thing that’s not quite true about that anymore is that nobody has very much of a career anymore of that type. Where do you have recitals in New York?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s the irony. You know, once upon a time, they would say, “Well, if you want to sell tickets to the concert, the general public knows the name Mozart, they might not know the name Andrew Imbrie.”

MILTON BABBITT: How did you come up with Andrew?

FRANK J. OTERI: I tossed the name out of my head.

MILTON BABBITT: Andrew is an old student of mine and a friend of mine.

FRANK J. OTERI: They may not know his music, but chances are a lot of the general public may not be aware of the music of Mozart anymore.

MILTON BABBITT: Well, they saw the movie probably and they thought that Salieri was a terrible guy when he really was a very distinguished musician.

FRANK J. OTERI: Maybe Mozart’s a bad example; maybe I should say Brahms.

MILTON BABBITT: No, no, of course, look, you’re absolutely right. Look, I hate to play the old man, but why shouldn’t I play the old man since I am the old man? When I came to New York as someone from the Deep South, the very Deep South – you can’t get much deeper – there was every night five or six recitals from which to choose. Where are the solo piano recitals, the solo vocal recitals, the solo violin recitals? I decided that I had to hear all of this music that I hadn’t had a chance to hear in Mississippi and I became a critic, God forgive me, for no money at all, for just the tickets. No, I say “God forgive me” because it was totally cynical: I wanted the tickets to the concerts. And sometimes I’d go to two or three concerts a night and review two or three concerts a night and review two or three concerts every night; and not dishonestly! You’d say I went only to the first half of the concert and so forth, for a magazine you’ve never even heard of called A Musical Leader or Musical America, it was something that came out of Chicago and that was the covering of New York concerts. I mean, one could hear the whole repertory in a year, easily. Now, where do you go?

FRANK J. OTERI: Actually, you’re becoming a critic to go to concerts is very laudable because there are a lot of critics that hate going to concerts!

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, of course, but I was young. I was all of nineteen years old and I hadn’t had the opportunity to hear most of this music. I played a lot of it, but I really hadn’t had the chance to hear it except on records and there weren’t that many records in my day. Of course, one can say that it’s because of recordings that there are no concerts anymore, but that’s not true because people aren’t buying the records anymore either. I think we have to face the fact that a paper that likes to think of itself as the national paper (I prefer not to mention it), said that, “Serious music is now a subculture.” I quote.

FRANK J. OTERI: I remember that.

MILTON BABBITT: You remember that? A subculture! Well, I would think of it more as a super-culture, but it obviously is a subculture. There’s no sense in kidding ourselves and no sense engaging in any kind false hopes in regard to it, so what do we do? It’s true. This is the most artificial institution imaginable and the people in charge know it. I mean, they don’t know what they’re training. They’re training for the one or two clarinet jobs there may be open next year. These kids don’t know what to do. Most of them go into computers. (laughs)

FRANK J. OTERI: So, what role then does a composer have in a conservatory where the environment is really not about new music?

MILTON BABBITT: That is particularly interesting because mainly we are segregated here and we are self-segregated. We have our little meetings, the whole composing staff: usually a guest composer, student composers. We meet every other week. We have a guest as I said, and that’s when we get together. Other than that they take their courses, which are not at a very high academic level, and they’re here. They’re here to be with each other and to hear what music—most of it you want to be honest about it and I think one can be honest about it—they’re here to hear what music they can. These are people from out of New York. They go to the opera; they go to whatever they can find. There are still concerts around New York. They’re very disappointed too to find out that there’s no place where they can go and hear someone do a lieder recital. Where do you hear a lieder recital these days? I don’t know. Sometimes they’re very disappointed about what they can get here. But many of them have come out of conservatories where they’ve heard a great deal of that music and they want to hear contemporary music and they’re surprised to find that there is no longer a Group for Contemporary Music, there’s no longer a Speculum that’s really functioning or no longer any of the other groups that played highly rehearsed contemporary music, but that’s what they do. They’re very isolated here as a group. They find a few friends here who are willing to play their music. I’ll say very frankly, there are two pianists in this place now—one of them is no longer a student but he stays around and he is already playing with a professional group who are only playing demanding contemporary music. I asked today, I said is there anybody else beyond these two? I know these two very well. No, there aren’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, of course, what Joel Sachs does with the New Juilliard Ensemble and what he does with the Focus! Concerts. Apparently everybody has to play some of this music.

MILTON BABBITT: That’s right. That’s right. Joel manages to do this and Joel manages to get them to play this music but they do it under duress. Not all of them. Well, when we get to the instrumentalists, it’s a little different than the pianists. There are some clarinetists who want to play and there are some others who do, but it’s a very limited group. Well, it’s a limited group anywhere.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, you can make this argument that they don’t want to do it because it’s not going to help their careers, which is what their teachers are saying, but is it because they don’t like the music and if they don’t like the music, why don’t they like the music?

MILTON BABBITT: I don’t know that they would say that they don’t like the music. Some of them no doubt would. They would never say it to me, so I wouldn’t really know first hand. Some of them say it’s too difficult. Some of them say that they’re not prepared for it. Well, now look, there are clarinetists here, there are a few violinists here who will play it and do play it. I say clarinetists because we have a clarinet teacher here who sees to it that they do and who himself plays in a number of groups. I’m trying to think of other instruments…not many others. I’m not going to go farther than that at the moment because I can’t base it on first hand information. Most of them have very little knowledge of contemporary music; don’t know the contemporary literature at all (and by contemporary, I’m not willing to go back a century).

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Well, of course, for some instruments, your only option is to play contemporary music. If you’re a percussionist…

MILTON BABBITT: The percussionists are the ones who always have their parts, you know, who have always practiced their parts. The percussionists first and then the brass and then the winds and last the strings. Yes, of course, the percussionists don’t have a Tchaikovsky concerto. Absolutely.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.