Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

6. On People’s Attachments to Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Why are those old songs appealing to you?

MILTON BABBITT: Obviously, there’s the old Proustian association—I’m not being pretentious or literary about this—but I mean, the temporal connotation, I mean, the temporal collocation. First of all, I grew up playing them all. I knew all of these songs. Look, if you want to be personal about all of this, it’s very funny, I mean, this is a very funny association. I began playing the violin at about the age of four and indeed I now have a picture of me playing the violin at the age of six, which turned up when they were cleaning out our apartment which we had had for 50 years. I brought it with me today because I wanted to show it to Paul Zukofsky because I wanted to know what kind of a bow position this was that I had. And he could tell me. I held the bow in a very strange way, turned out to be the German way, the way I was instructed in Jackson. And I played the violin and from the very beginning I knew that kind of music and then I went to the clarinet because it was socially more acceptable and to saxophone because it got me further and then I went back to the violin again, the only instrument I never played was that [indicates piano] and these are associated with every aspect of my life, these songs, and they were as associated with my life as the Brooklyn Dodgers would be for someone from that part of the world. For me it was the Jackson Senators, the Yankee farm club in Jackson. Obviously we were children growing up with this music and it was the music we knew, the music we played and I mean, we never had any category mistakes here. I mean, when I went home to practice the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I never confused that with “Never Swat a Fly.” Don’t ask me why not.

Milton Babbitt, Age 6
Photo courtesy Milton Babbitt

FRANK J. OTERI: But by the same token, there are people who have that same sort of sentimental association with standard repertoire classical music; most of your subscribers to concerts.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, well, so do I. So do I.

FRANK J. OTERI: But I get into these arguments with people who are not fans of new music and they say, “Nobody has that association with new music; new music doesn’t do that for people. No matter what kind of new music it is, whether it’s twelve-tone new music or if it’s minimalist new music or if it’s indeterminate new music, it doesn’t do that.” And they say to me, “Well, why not?” So I’m going to say to you, why not?

Milton Babbitt and the “more socially acceptable clarinet”
Photo courtesy Milton Babbitt

MILTON BABBITT: You tell me, why not?

FRANK J. OTERI: I don’t know the answer to this. It does it for me. Every time I listen to Stockhausen‘s Gesang der Junglinge, I remember being a Columbia freshman.

MILTON BABBITT: Yup, I have associations with pieces of that type: the Schoenberg Orchestral Variations, the Violin Concerto certainly has that kind of association, but look, let us not engage in category mistakes. These are different animals. You have to learn eight bars of a tune with lyrics and sometimes they’re clever and that’s a very different kind of musical undertaking from listening even to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I say even because that’s what most of us as violinists grew up with and I think it’s a terrific piece. Um, you were a Columbia freshman, what year?


Milton Babbitt’s first band
Photo courtesy Milton Babbitt

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, that’s after the Group for Contemporary Music. In the 1960s, you could go up to the McMillan Theater and you’d find 1200 people there for a concert of the Group—these marvelously performed things that Charles and Harvey put on, beautifully rehearsed, marvelous programs. We have nothing comparable today. Nothing. And you’d have 1200 mainly Columbia students there, general students. I’ll tell you very honestly and all in modesty, when Speculum decided to put on an all-Babbitt concert for my 60th birthday or the year before, I was really sure that there was not going to be anyone there and the place was packed.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, there are still new music events that can draw large crowds.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, but you know, this…but the quality was so remarkable, the quality of the performance, so there is new music today that can draw large crowds, no doubt, but the whole atmosphere of the Group for Contemporary Music, I should say, was so remarkable that we don’t have anything comparable like that around Columbia, even at Miller Theater or anywhere else these days. And even there were so many other groups, there was Parnassus…oh, we don’t have to go through this, you know about this.

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