Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts
MILTON BABBITT: I’m sorry. I regret Fourplay now because it’s been used.
MILTON BABBITT: When I look for a title, I don’t want anything impossible or pretentious. I don’t want anything stale such as “Duo for Violin and Piano” or things such as that. It just amuses me to be very honest with you. It’s no more profound than that. For example, Paul Zukofsky, that remarkable man who really contributed so much to contemporary music and who recorded more American music over his span as both a violinist and a conductor than anybody—people forget what he contributed, you know. He has nothing now. Typical of a situation as a conductor. He can’t play anymore because he’s got some problems.
FRANK J. OTERI: He had a wonderful record company too for a while…
MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, he still does. Still does. But he can’t get the stuff into any of these bankrupt organizations. Well, anyhow, Paul Zukofsky, who really, I mean when you think of the music for a 20th-century violinist that he recorded, all the things he did. People forget that he did it in so many different places: in Iceland, in some little town in New Jersey. Well, any case, Paul Zukofsky said to me, would I write him a very simple encore piece. Just something he could use, a short encore piece with respect for his inabilities now with regard to his…whatever the problems are with his arm. So I said sure. Well, his father, the poet, Louie Zukofsky, had written a book called Little, and if you’ve never read it, you should. Well, no, I don’t know where you’d get a hold of a copy now; it’s a collector’s item.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, all of Louis Zukofsky’s stuff has been reissued.
MILTON BABBITT: Not Little. All of the poetry has and so forth. Little may be eventually. Little was about a violin prodigy. Of course, it was Paul. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I had to have my wife help me because there’s a lot of Yiddish in it, which I don’t know. But she helped me with that. It’s a hilarious book. His father was an extraordinary man and this book was about Paul and it’s called Little. Well, I decided to call the piece that I was writing for Paul Zukofsky A Little for Little. But unfortunately, when I showed him the first four pages he said, “Look, you don’t understand how bad things are. First of all, it’s gonna be too long and second of all, you’ve already written in things that I can’t manage.” So I’ve now written it, so I extended the piece. It’s now going to be played, I think, next month up at Harvard and in Mexico by Rolf Schulte.
FRANK J. OTERI: He’s fantastic.
MILTON BABBITT: And I’ve called it Little Goes a Long Way.
FRANK J. OTERI: Ooooh!
MILTON BABBITT: Isn’t that nice?
FRANK J. OTERI: It is nice.
MILTON BABBITT: No, but I just like to do that kind of thing with titles. It all began with All Set. That was I think the first time when I dared that. I think that is the first one I did. And that and I try to look for titles. I have failed on many occasions. I have thrown in the towel, and I offended people with a piece of mine that has never been played in New York called Septet but Equal. It was played twice in Boston of all things, but never played here. It’s been recorded by Paul Zukofsky.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh really?
MILTON BABBITT: It hasn’t been released yet.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I think with these titles, you know, for all the people who think, who might think, assume that your music is off-putting for some reason who’ve never listened to it because you know there are a lot of associations that people have with your name not knowing a note of your music.
MILTON BABBITT: Oh, I know.
FRANK J. OTERI: Because of that High Fidelity article, because of all of these other things over these years and in a way, I think these pun-like titles go a long way to showing how much fun this music really is.
MILTON BABBITT: Thank you.
FRANK J. OTERI: I’d like to talk more about specific pieces of MILTON_babbitt.list.htm” target=”_blank”>your own music.
MILTON BABBITT: Well, it’s my own music. It’s my own, I must take responsibility for it. It’s my very own.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, I have personal favorites, but I was wondering if you had a personal favorite?
MILTON BABBITT: I think many of my personal favorites have to do with their biography and very often more than their content. Relata II had such an unfortunate history. It was played four times by the Philharmonic and it was a great misunderstanding that Leonard Bernstein had cancelled it. He hadn’t. Lenny behaved perfectly well with regard to it and you know, I don’t have to defend Lenny Bernstein but I deeply resent the notion that Lenny wouldn’t play the piece. It had to do with the copyist who delivered the parts the day of the first rehearsal and they were so badly done we couldn’t have a rehearsal, so it was postponed and that’s all. And he did it! Lenny conducted two of the performances and his assistant who had been very helpful, he gave him two of the performances. I don’t have a record of a note of it. Why? Because the Philharmonic was not being broadcast in those days and the union wouldn’t let them make a safety tape.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
MILTON BABBITT: So I have no part of that so therefore, I would love to hear Relata II again. There was talk about the ACO doing it, but they just don’t have enough rehearsal time.
FRANK J. OTERI: Juilliard did Relata II.
MILTON BABBITT: Well, you know, Juilliard recorded Relata I, well Relata II is a bit harder and particular instruments, which Juilliard is not strong in…and I mean, I wrote Relata II for the Philharmonic many whose members, of course, I knew really well and I knew what they could do. They had no particular problem with it, but they were under-rehearsed. But I must say, I have to say something with regard to a man that just died. Isaac Stern was playing the Prokofiev first concerto on the same concert and he gave me a lot of his rehearsal time. I was very indebted to him for that. But they didn’t have enough and Lenny, look we don’t want to go into this. He fought and fought to get more rehearsal time, because well I was far from being Lenny’s closest friend or favorite composer, he did it, we were old friends and he tried it, so that’s one of the pieces that has a very particular place in my memory and still I would love to hear again. There was the thought of doing it here and this is a good orchestra but there are certain weaknesses and they unfortunately are weaknesses that would be revealed by Relata II. The other, well, there are other pieces of mine that, as I said, Septet but Equal, which is a very tough piece, which Gunther conducted first in Boston. No, he didn’t, that’s not true, he conducted the second performance in Boston, in which Paul Zukofsky recorded but did not perform in London, and there’s a wonderful tape of it, it will be coming out on record, but it’s never been done in New York. I have other pieces. I have a piece called More Phonemena for a cappella chorus, which was done only in San Francisco and was never done in New York. Where do you get a chorus here in New York that can do it? It’s for twelve-part chorus. The French Radio Chorus could have done it; the BBC Chorus could have done it. It’s for chorus using only phonemes and I have a recording of it, which I don’t play for one very simple reason. Wiseguy students will think that they sing terribly. Well, they’re not professional singers in most cases. The rhythm is impeccable, the dynamic marvelous, the ensemble is great—the sound is not because they’re not very good singers. It’s a group in San Francisco and don’t ask me the name of the chorus, I don’t remember it off-hand, conducted by a young composer. Of course, who else? I’ve got a lot of pieces like that. And my piano trio was never done in New York. It was written for the Kennedy Center, it was done in Princeton, but it’s never been done in New York, because the people who learned it never could get together, and that was the end of it. I have pieces like that which mean a lot to me. Funny things happen and they don’t get recorded.
FRANK J. OTERI: I love the First Piano Concerto a great deal.
MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, it isn’t that great a recording. Gunther was just here talking about this; he gave a little seminar for the students. We had three hours of recording time and I don’t have to tell you, out of every hour twenty minutes disappears for rest and relaxation. And the guys in the orchestra said, “Look, we don’t need any rest now that we’re stuck way up in the Bronx, you know, let’s do it.” And the union man wouldn’t let ‘em do it, so they had to take twenty minutes out of every hour to do nothing except sit there. So they’re under-rehearsed. The strings are particularly under-rehearsed but at least I have a recording of it. I was trying to think of a piece that, well, I tell you, a funny one: There’s a piece of mine called Composition for Twelve Instruments, which had a very checkered career because back in 1949 you couldn’t find a guitarist who could read music. So Varèse scheduled it for one of his concerts and we had to cancel, so finally I just gave up and put a harp in and then it was played and it’s been played a couple of times only. But the guitar at that time was an instrument played only by jazz boys and when Mitropoulos wanted to do the Schoenberg Serenade with guitar, we found a jazz boy for it, who couldn’t really read music. We taught it to him by rote. But now just reach out and touch a guitarist who can play anything. That’s one of the instruments that’s changed the most.
FRANK J. OTERI: So, do you anticipate a recording of Composition for Twelve Instruments with guitar at this point?
MILTON BABBITT: No, if there’s somebody that wants to do it…nobody has any money now for recording.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, let’s talk about the future for a little bit.
MILTON BABBITT: Oh, dear me. Well, I have a couple of years maybe.
FRANK J. OTERI: What pieces do you want to write that you haven’t written yet?
MILTON BABBITT: Oh boy. Um, not an opera. I had an opera planned. I had a chamber opera planned for electronics and voices. I’ll never do that, I needed the synthesizer for that. I don’t want to write an opera of any other kind; I can’t deal with the mechanisms there. When Herman Krawitz was general manager of the Met he suggested it, but he’s no longer general manager of anything but New World Records, and they can’t afford an opera. They can’t afford a place to live. There are pieces that I have wanted to write. For example you would be amazed at how modest my desires are. I’d like to write a woodwind sextet.
FRANK J. OTERI: A sextet not a quintet? Because I know you wrote a quartet.
MILTON BABBITT: No, but I want to write it for oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, and what have I forgot?
FRANK J. OTERI: Contrabassoon?
MILTON BABBITT: Oh, I forgot the flute. And nobody wants me to write it. For some strange reason there’s no real desire on anybody’s part to have me write it. Believe it or not, that’s a medium that I’ve always wanted to write. I really can’t think of anything that much. At the moment, I’m supposed to write, well, I’m gonna write a piece for the Cygnus Ensemble if I can do it on time, because they’re wonderful kids and they play well and I feel very close to them.
FRANK J. OTERI: And two guitars.
MILTON BABBITT: I’ve never written anything for two guitars.
FRANK J. OTERI: No, but the Cygnus ensemble has two guitars.
MILTON BABBITT: I was going to write for guitar and mandolin actually.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wonderful.
MILTON BABBITT: And then I’m supposed to write a short orchestral piece but since I’m not sure if I’m actually going to do it or not, I won’t say more about that.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to get back to the wind sextet. You said that nobody wants you to write it. Would you consider just writing it anyway?
MILTON BABBITT: I would if I was younger, but who the hell is going to copy it? Who the hell’s gonna get the parts and who the hell’s gonna play it?