Intervals So Beautiful, Rhythms So Interesting: A Singer Remembers Babbitt

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Judith Bettina with Milton Babbitt

For those of us who have studied and performed the music of Milton Babbitt, we know the countless hours upon hours that we practiced. I am sure that I don’t speak only for myself when saying, “It’s worth it.” The discipline needed to learn any piece by Milton helped me become a better musician. In my effort to sing what was written in the score, I discovered new possibilities in my technique that were often surprising. There is a special kind of exhilaration when one is able to combine Milton’s notes and rhythms with all those constantly shifting dynamics that are unlike any other composer.

His intervals are so beautiful, and the rhythms so interesting, that they inspire determination for getting them right. After all, one always hopes to make composers happy since they have already heard the perfect performance in their minds.

Before I ever sang a note of Milton’s music, he was encouraging to me after hearing me sing when I was still a student at the Manhattan School of Music. During uncertain times, when I was just starting out and jobs were scarce, I would think, “Well, Milton Babbitt believes in me.” Knowing this would often sustain me and give me confidence.

Phonemena was the first piece I ever sang by Milton. I had no idea what I was in for when I first saw the score. All I knew was that it was not too long and that I loved the notes. When I told him I would be performing it, he asked me if I could sing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. Milton’s sense of humor is legendary and to experience it was always a treat. I told him that the only piece I could sing was Phonemena, since for several months, this was all I had been working on. He did not seem too enthusiastic because the performance was scheduled to take place at Weill Recital Hall and he knew that the sound system, which only had two small speakers, was not good at that time. But, when I told him I was first performing it at Columbia University, he became very excited because there were many speakers in every corner of the concert hall, and he knew the sound would be what he wanted.

A few years later Milton asked if I would learn The Head of the Bed. He had given me the score and it looked so terribly difficult that I wanted to tell him that I didn’t think that I would be able to sing it. How could I refuse though? It was a rare thing for Milton to make such a request. As soon as I read the John Hollander poem, I knew that I had to try, and within a very short time I realized that in addition to Pierrot Lunaire, The Head of the Bed was one of the most important pieces I had ever worked on. It’s not a walk in the park, to put it mildly, but it is a masterpiece.

I can assure you that Milton heard all that was going on in performances of his music. If the performance went well, one could see that he was thrilled. If it did not go well, he was still fully aware if you had tried your best. In 2002, I performed From the Psalter with the American Composers Orchestra. For a moment, which seemed like an eternity, I got a touch ahead of the orchestra. Within a second or so, we got back together again just as I reached the words “My God, thy wondrous works how manifold!”. I will always remember the fervor and relief with which I sang these words. At the reception, later that evening, Milton, without looking at me, asked quietly under his breath, “What happened in that one spot?” I apologized and said I thought it was all over at that point. “So did I,” he said, “but you got back on.” I recently remembered when he asked me to sing “The Widow’s Lament In Springtime”, a beautiful song for voice and piano with a setting of the poem by William Carlos Williams. It has a low f-sharp in it and I told Milton that I could sing that note well at 8:00 a.m., but I was concerned if I could sing it at 8:00 p.m. Sending me the music, he slipped a note inside: “So if you can’t sing it, fake it!” I laughed when I noticed that he did not sign the note.

Milton never read any of his reviews. He often said this and his daughter, Betty Ann, told me it was absolutely true. He did however want to know if his colleagues got a favorable mention, knowing that after so much effort a negative response could be terribly disheartening. Milton had great concern and compassion for people and this was true when I saw him only a few days before he passed away. As frail as he had become, he was as sharp as ever and had a lot to talk about. In fact, he did most of the talking!

Whether we spent years having the privilege and honor of knowing Milton, or just a few moments, I have no doubt that each of us has a story to tell. Loved by his family, friends, colleagues and countless students, we know that we were in the presence of greatness and that we will continue to spread the word. His curiosity, appetite for life and generosity are inspiring examples of how to encourage creativity. While he was referred to as a serial composer, I would also say Milton Babbitt was a passionate composer. One just has to listen and study his music to know that.