An interview with the editor of The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt
Molly Sheridan: Knowing Milton Babbitt‘s writing so well at this point, do you think that there is still something valuable in reading this collection if a composer knows that he or she either does not agree with Babbitt’s philosophies or with his musical style?
Stephen Peles: Oh, I think there’s any number of excellent reasons to read the book. Really let’s be honest—there were two major composers, and by major I mean composers of international stature, in this country in the post-war era. I’m leaving out John Cage because I think history will ultimately judge him not to be principally a composer, but more a kind of early performance artist. The two were Milton and Elliott Carter. Of the two, they both are very interesting, very literate men, but Milton was a little bit more forthcoming not only about other people’s music but about his own. That’s one very good historical reason to be paying attention to what he has to say in print.
More than any other composer of his generation, Babbitt had an impact on fields outside of composition. I suppose the most obvious one would be music theory and yes, of course, we’ve always had some kind of music theory—but in a very real sense as we currently understand the field as being constituted, it’s very much a post-war English-speaking-world phenomenon and Babbitt’s work really was, in many senses, the big bang which began that. He was crucial in the early dissemination in the English-speaking world of the work of [Heinrich] Schenker, for example. Now, one has to realize that there were no English translations of anything by Schenker until the mid-1950s and of course Milton was familiar with that work at least going back to the 1930s, though I’m not sure I can recall, if indeed I ever knew, when he first encountered something by Schenker. But he was certainly one of the prime movers in a certain sense seeing in Schenker’s work things that Europeans could not and as a consequence of seeing those things, making it relevant and frankly palatable in American university environments. Obviously his work on the generalized properties of non-tonal pitch class selections is also seminal to the other principal branch of post-tonal theory for which the English-speaking world has assumed a global dominance in the profession. So from the point of view of music theory we would not have the discipline as we currently have it were it not for Milton’s foundational early work.
Other reasons: not merely was Milton a life-long participant in really an extraordinarily interesting period of world music and political history, but he was also a witness to much of it. That is, he was on very intimate terms with a contingent of European intellectuals, musicians and otherwise, who came to this country, principally, at least initially, to New York City in the 1930s which is exactly where Milton was. So, as a bit of cultural history since they are arranged in chronological order, the collected essays make really fairly fascinating reading as a kind of oral history of the impact that WWII and the immigration of European intellectuals into this country had on the development of music and, no doubt, other aspects of American culture at the time and since.
Molly Sheridan: To take that answer a little further, I was just reading somewhere about the “Babbitt-ization” of orchestral music and it reminded me of how we like to make him a poster child for serialism, often also making him a sort of punching bag for all that went wrong between art and the public during a certain period, if you subscribe to that philosophy. So considering all you’ve just said, how do you expect he will be treated historically moving forward.
Stephen Peles: I haven’t the foggiest. I’ve now seen enough unpredicted change in my lifetime to make me very cautious about predicting what’s going to happen in the future. I can’t think one can disentangle Milton’s long-term fate from my long-term fate or your long-term fate or, for that matter, the long-term fate of western art music generally. It may well be that western art music as we’ve known it is coming to an end. Now I’m not necessarily saying that’s the case, but it’s certainly possible and it’s a relatively recent phenomenon as human history goes. What we don’t know at this point and time is whether or not music of—I don’t know what to call it—with serious intellectual aspirations is going to survive absent the cultural environment that initially gave birth to it—we simply don’t know. So how future generations are going to look upon Milton is going to depend very much on what the culture is in which those future generations grow up.
Molly Sheridan: Did you have much contact with Milton personally?
Stephen Peles: Actually, surprisingly little in recent years. I was of course a graduate student at Princeton, and as was typically the case for most graduate students there of my generation, I was in residence for probably about 10 years, so of course during that time I went through all the usual course work with him. He was, as you can imagine, an extremely popular lecturer. His classes were attended not just by music students but would attract other people who just liked to hear him talk. Since moving, both he and I have more than enough things on our plate at this point in our lives so that no, frankly, there’s not terribly much contact anymore. I’ve seen him a couple times in the recent past owing to a number of academic conferences that have happened as a consequence of the publication of the collected essays and he’s certainly looking well and is still composing at a quite phenomenal rate and is in the process, as I understand it, of finishing up a commission for the Boston Symphony.
Molly Sheridan: I’m always just curious about people who have such a large and public professional output, and in this case through both music and writing, and then the picture of them more personally from people who know them. Especially in this case were you’ve spent so much time immersed in his work, and then comparing that to the actual person behind all the that.
Stephen Peles: Sure. In the case of the collected essays you have to understand that many of these were written by Milton many, many years ago—the volume spans 50 years—so the vast majority of the original typescripts have been lost. I’ve forgotten what I wrote last week, so there’s really no reason to believe that Milton could reconstruct any of these things verbatim, so in short we worked for the most part without relying on Milton for help. We did what we could to salvage what typescripts there were, tracked down all the original publications, some of which no longer exist, and for the most part relied upon the scholarly expertise of the editors, such as it is, rather than upon Babbitt.
Molly Sheridan: Did you notice, since the collection does span such a period of time, any change in thought or philosophy that was remarkable to you?
Stephen Peles: Actually, in change of thought, no. One of the things that has always struck me is how early Babbitt got a number of things right and put his finger right on the pulse of some very important, very difficult issues. If there’s a change at all perhaps it’s just a change of tone, and that’s a little bit poignant. Like many of us in the art music community (which in my case as an active composer dates back to the 1970s) I think we’ve looked with considerable dismay at the decline of support financially but also, more broadly speaking, at the decline of support culturally, for the production of new music. Though this is a very difficult thing to point to particular instances of in the collected essays, it’s not something that goes un-remarked upon, at least in terms of the tone of voice. I don’t know if you know his very excellent essay—I think it’s the last in the collection entitled Words About Music: the Madison lectures, which is essentially a transcription of public lectures and classes that Milton taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the 1970s—called something like “The Unlikely Survival of Serious Music.” So again, the dates are significant. Milton, being at the center of things, was certainly able to notice the decline in its very early stages. To go back and read that article, one is impressed by the prophetic tone, however much one regrets the accuracy of the prophecy.
Molly Sheridan: One more thing that I was thinking about that’s a little bit off track: You mentioned that people were coming to his lectures from all sorts of disciplines. Anecdotally, do you recall any topics or moments that have really stuck with you over the years?
Stephen Peles: Well, Milton’s presentation were not, to put it politely, strongly influenced by the presence in the audience of non-musicians or for that matter by their absence. You’d probably find it unsurprising that in such a context particularly Milton did most of the talking. I will say that awaiting me on my return from a conference at Princeton last December that was organized precisely to commemorate the publication of these works I had an email from someone in the Princeton physics department who while I was on the plane apparently had been going through his copy and I’m embarrassed to say this, had found a typo. So the tradition, in short of there being interest amongst intellectuals even outside of music in Milton’s writing and music is apparently still alive and well.