As Ever, Milton

name
Milton Babbitt in 2000
Photo © by Jeffrey Herman

Milton Babbitt died Saturday morning, three and a half months shy of his 95th birthday. The news was devastating. He was a great teacher, a great mentor, and a friend. It is a terrible loss.

I expect that a lot of tributes to Milton will be appearing in the coming weeks. They will bring up his iconic stature in the field, his groundbreaking work in electronic music, his contributions to the field of music theory, his embracing of the complex in music, his devotion to his students, his extravagant wit and wordplay, his love of baseball and beer, and the warmth of his personality. None of them will contain the sentence “Milton was at a loss for words.”

He didn’t drive, and he didn’t type. A vast swath of America’s most distinguished composers studied with him. That they are all different is a testimony to his teaching.

My first encounter with Milton’s music was when I was in high school and had just been bitten by the composition bug. The only recent serious music I knew was band music I’d played at festivals, and I wanted to know what else was out there. My band director, Verne Colburn, had collected the 22-volume Time-Life series of classical music, probably from the late 60s, and he lent me the last volume, Music of Today. Besides Bernstein and Hindemith and Prokofiev, there was one LP side that was absolutely pristine: this one had the tracks Le Soleil des Eaux by Boulez and Ensembles for Synthesizer by Babbitt. This was, for a kid of 16 who’d spent his whole life surrounded by Future Farmers of America, eye-opening, ear-popping music. I listened to both pieces a lot, and though I couldn’t explain why, they both made a lot of musical sense to me. I particularly liked the moment near the beginning of the Ensembles that sounded like somebody turned on the vacuum cleaner. It was funny, witty, and musical in ways I was at a loss to describe.

I went to New England Conservatory as a composition major and almost immediately noticed that all the composition faculty—Ceely, Martino, Heiss, Cogan, Peyton—had studied with Milton Babbitt. So I was his grandstudent! One day in my freshman year, an oboe major rushed into my dorm room with a score and a record—actually, he rushed into my room with a score and a record a lot—of Babbitt String Quartet No. 2. “You have to hear this! This is so great!” He was right. It was an extremely clear and very traditional kind of rhetoric, I thought—fragments that gradually get assembled into the underlying melody (or set, as it turns out). And the moment when the quartet begins playing all in unison and busting out into chords, pure magic and beautiful. It was a piece with a big moment, and a big moment done right and for the right reasons. I definitely wanted to study with this guy.

I was tickled to get to meet Milton when Continuum and Bethany Beardslee came to NEC to do his Solo Requiem. He gave his usual scintillating lecture in the listening library’s “fishtank”, full of wordplay and paragraphs nested inside paragraphs nested inside paragraphs that unfold like a time-lapse movie of a flower blossoming. He brilliantly parried with one student who said he had proof that music was meant to be triadic. And of course, the piece was quite marvelous. I definitely wanted to study with this guy.

So I did. My four years at Princeton were Milton’s last on the faculty, so I was privy to the end of an era. I took lessons whenever I could, and I took the graduate seminars he taught. The seminars were just like the fishtank lecture—nested paragraphs, wordplay, and some pretty serious down-and-dirty analysis. In particular his two-lecture (five hours total) disquisition on a Bach chorale (an abridged version of which appears in Words About Music) was exciting. Discovering the depth and the many nested relationships happening on multiple time scales in a simple little piece inspired me to try and do likewise in my own music. By example, Milton taught us to strive to make our music all that it can be.

When Milton talked about electronic music, and the then emerging field of computer music, he always made a point of denying that composers embraced it for the new sounds that were available. “Nothing grows old faster than a new sound” was a mantra. He also regularly spoke with disdain about composers and listeners who wanted “nothing more than titillation” from music.

Lessons with Milton were bracing. There was plenty of talk about new beers we’d just tried, and baseball, and even more talk about the music I was writing. (The week I ditched my glasses for contact lenses, I recall a 20-minute disquisition on male vanity.) I had brought in an immensely complicated septet and its encumbering charts of pitch fields, home sonorities, and large-scale voice-leading. The piece was so fraught with notes that Milton asked me to give him copies of new pages two days before our scheduled lessons so he’d have time to go over the music. I don’t know how he did it, but he always began by pointing to the moments that I’d been the most unsure about—though he never asked me to change them. He would merely point out that the relationships he was hearing weren’t the ones I told him I’d been trying to make.

I suppose Milton wrote just about enough recommendation letters for me to repaper the walls in my house. Indeed, a secretary at Princeton said that he spent the whole morning of most days writing various letters for people, by hand, which he would deliver to the secretaries at lunch time. You can be pretty sure none of them were short letters, either. We corresponded occasionally, and his letters were just like him talking. They always ended “As ever, Milton.” Several times I asked him for scores, which he sent, and the accompanying letter was always the same: “The enclosed are what they appear to be. As ever, Milton”

I don’t remember going to a new music concert in New York between 1980 and 2000 where I did not see Milton. He came to every New York performance I had in that time, and he usually made a point of sitting next to me so we could talk.

Shortly after graduate school, I briefly crossed over from Babbitt listener to Babbitt performer—indeed, I have a Babbitt “West Coast premiere” to my credit. Milton had written a piano four hands piece for Don Martino’s 50th birthday for a Dinosaur Annex tribute concert. It was a four and a half minute ditty called Don, and it was very unusual. Almost all of the piece was marked at the dynamic ppp (a pun on Martino’s giant piano opus Pianississimo), with a single line in long notes in the middle register marked fff. I thought the piece was beautiful, and beautifully understated, and when the Griffin Music Ensemble was established, Martin Butler and I performed it on its first concert. I don’t suppose that was a great performance, but I do remember doing it again at Stanford and Davis with Lyn Reyna. We rehearsed it for eleven hours, and as I got progressively more familiar with my part, I started hearing jazz and wit and silliness all over it. I got really invigorated doing the complicated counting and getting it right. I got it! Our performance crackled. If listening to Milton’s music is like watching a lightning ball, then performing it is like being the lightning inside the ball.

The last time I saw Milton was in 1999 for lunch at his favorite hangout in Princeton, the Annex restaurant. He wanted to know everything I was doing, he had a list of new beers to try, and he offered a long disquisition about how hard it is to find a properly made rare hamburger (the Annex did it right). And he asked me about a piece that had recently appeared in The New York Times about composers under 50 to watch. He hadn’t read it. He chuckled and said his Juilliard colleagues were distressed that no Juillard graduates were on the list. He then smiled broadly and said, “How can anyone care about anything written in The New York Times?”

My last contact with Milton was in 2001, when I sent him my big wind ensemble piece Ten of a Kind, which I’d dedicated to him as an 85th birthday tribute. The inside of the score notes the dedication “to lapsed clarinetist Milton Babbitt”. I immediately got a handwritten note from him. “Dear David, This is a wonderful gift. I decided immediately to take out my clarinet and try out your licks, until I realized I haven’t owned one for sixty years. Thank you for this wonderful gift. As ever, Milton”

I also dedicated pieces to Milton for his 65th and 75th birthdays. It had occurred to me that the piece I’m working on now may be for his 95th. Now, sadly, it will be in memoriam.

Milton,

As ever.