A screen shot from Eric Chasalow's video interview with Milton Babbitt for the Video Archive of the Electroacoustic Music
Memories of Milton

Memories of Milton

Our community, no, our world, has always been defined in one way or another by the presence of Milton Byron Babbitt. We have all, at one time or another, had to come to terms with his music, with his ideas about music, and with the place he helped define for composers within the American university. Anyone who can make us question the way forward so profoundly is helping us become ourselves, whether we like it or not. And with Milton Babbitt’s passing a few years ago, our world is diminished in ways we have yet to realize.  From my tone, my great affection may be obvious, but even people who—to put it kindly—were not fond of Milton owe him a debt of gratitude.

For those of us making our way in the studio, Milton represented something very special.  His leadership was instrumental in establishing the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. While Luening and Ussachevsky were responsible for the series of Rockefeller grants that established the Center, as well as arranging the loan of the RCA Mark II synthesizer and its move up to the Prentice building on 125th Street in New York, Milton helped establish the C-P EMC as a major center of musical inquiry. (This in spite of the fact that ultimately only Milton, Charles Wuorinen, David Lewin, and perhaps a few others of whom I am not aware ever used the RCA.)  In his role as co-director of the EMC, as in every role he took on, Milton served as an example of someone with the very highest standards for the art of composition.

The fledgling profession needed a public advocate and Milton Babbitt was electronic music’s most articulate spokesperson. He appeared on radio and television and also sat on government and foundation panels.  His lecture topic was often ostensibly technical.  To quote a line from a lecture recorded at the New England Conservatory in the 1960s, “[T]he joy of the electronic medium is that once you can capture sound… it’s not susceptible to change” (by which he meant no longer susceptible to inaccuracy).   In other words, Milton used the newness of electronic music as a way to speak about cherished ideas about music that, while given new power by the evolving technology, were already part of his musical thinking.  When Milton spoke, as he often did, about the importance of “time and order in music” he could just as easily have been speaking about Schoenberg as electronic music.  This too was the power of his example—musical thinking, while potentially expanded by changing technology, is always at the core of what we do.  Milton, and others at Columbia, always asked, “How can I use the tools that I now find in front of me to explore musical ideas?”

In spite of what many might think, Milton’s position on rigor in electronic music practice was as much practical as ideological.  The world of electroacoustic music is still tainted by the notion that the studio is the playground of dilettantes, while real composers write for “real” instruments.  In the late 1950s, when the EMC was established, it was critical that the new venture have the highest aspirations if it were to survive and flourish.  For all that was being invested in grant dollars, facilities, personnel, and all the public notice, there would also need to be a tangible payoff.

Arguably that payoff came quickly.  Composers flocked to the Columbia-Princeton studio—Stravinsky and Shostakovich among many others visited.  At Babbitt’s suggestion at Tanglewood in the summer of 1958, the young Argentine composer Mario Davidovsky came to work there, a move that helped define his career and who, along with another émigré composer, Bülent Arel (who came to CP-EMC from Turkey in 1959), shaped a major electronic music tradition. The studio also drew countless students who were inspired to make their own musical and technical contributions, among them Wendy Carlos, Charles Dodge, Halim El-Dabh, Alice Shields, and Robert Moog.

One aspect of the legacy of the early EMC is the notion of a studio as a musical instrument rather than simply a facility for research.  Hundreds of pieces were composed at Columbia through its first few decades, and a number of these have become acknowledged as masterpieces.  I would include on this list many of Babbitt’s electronic works, especially the pieces for live and pre-recorded resources, such as Philomel (soprano and tape) and Reflections (piano and tape).

Babbitt’s electronic works, all realized on the mammoth RCA Mark II synthesizer are idiosyncratic and highly personal.  The RCA, as Milton put it in the 1997 interview he contributed to our Video Archive of the Electroacoustic Music

, “was the perfect instrument for me.” It was the RCA’s degree of rhythmic precision that most interested Milton.  Ironically, while most composers were excited about the new sounds that the studio made possible, Milton claimed no interest in the sounds themselves.  I suspect that, as in many such things, he was overstating his case.  I cannot hear pieces like Ensembles for Synthesizer without feeling great affection for the sound of the piece.  And one aspect that makes Philomel such a coherent world is the way in which the electronic sounds interact with the vocal sounds (recorded by Bethany Beardslee) that Milton took pains to process through the RCA.

I have avoided the temptation to personalize this essay to this point, but while I never studied with Milton, he had a profound effect on my life and work both through the example of his music, which I heard performed live frequently through the 1970s and ’80s, and through his consistent personal encouragement over our friendship of thirty years—this in spite of a vast difference in our personal aesthetics. (I suspect that many readers could report the same.) Rarely a day goes by when I do not think, usually fondly, of some thought-provoking phrase of Milton’s.  In writing my tribute piece for his 80th birthday, Left to His Own Devices, I spent an exhaustingly intensive few months with samples from archival interviews Milton had given over many years.  In hearing those same phrases over and over again, intoned in that beautiful, resonant voice, a layered and nuanced music emerged and became one with the composer himself.  It is this unified yet ineffable complexity, together with a core of generosity and kindness, that will always be the way I remember the man.

A table with a variety of electroacoustic music gear. Image courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates for NYCEMF and the New York Philharmonic Biennial)

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4 thoughts on “Memories of Milton

  1. Aaron Alter

    Milton was a fountain of information on a universe of subjects, musical or otherwise. I didn’t fully appreciate everything that I learned from him until years after I left Princeton.

  2. Stephen Soderberg

    Thank you for this appreciation, Eric!

    In 1998, following a symposium in honor of Milton held in the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress, I wrote an article, ‘Riemannian Variations on a Theme by Milton Babbitt’ (PNM 35:2) in which I noted:
    “There is a bond, strengthened by many [at the time ca. 40] years of association, between Milton Babbitt and the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Beside having several of his own works commissioned and premiered at the Library, since 1977 he has served on the Coolidge Foundation Committee, lending valuable assistance to the Music Division regarding the commissioning of the works of other composers.” (https://www.academia.edu/2512174/Riemannian_Variations_on_a_Theme_by_Milton_Babbitt)

    But a great institution per se has no memory, intelligence or good faith. What we call ‘institutional memory’ is dependent on the memory, intelligence and good faith of its human administrators at any given moment in time. In 2008 it was only at the very last moment, threatened by embarrassment, that the LC Music Division cobbled together a pair of concerts celebrating the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter. This year, while others are celebrating the centenary of Milton’s birth, I see from LC Music Division’s 2015-16 season concert brochure that there isn’t a single Babbitt work. From a celebratory symposium to zero in 18 years. This is how an institution loses its once-treasured significance. (Milton wouldn’t be surprised at his exclusion. He knew quite well what was happening at LC & yet, trusting things would again change some day, didn’t change his intent to donate his papers.) But I’ve been wrong before, and I no longer have any ins to the insane politics of the place. Perhaps something, as yet unannounced, will again spring up at the last moment. Have I missed something?

    Ah well. At least those of us who do have memory, intelligence and good faith, ‘even people who—to put it kindly—were not fond of Milton’ owe him a debt of gratitude as Eric says. I loved the man, puns & all. I love his music, others do not; but could we all together at least toast the man who gave us the term ‘pitch class’ (among others we now take for granted).

  3. Wendy Babbitt

    My uncle’s last words to me were “Wendy, do something important.” I did not take these words negatively. Rather, they said to me that Milton thought I had the potential to do something important. When I think of Milton, I think of these last words, and they brings me comfort


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