Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

12. The Future of Sophisticated Music

FRANK J. OTERI: What then is the future of, for lack of a better term, sophisticated music?

MILTON BABBITT: Good, I like that term. You know, many years ago, I was obliged to give a talk, which I think was printed called “The Unlikely Survival of Serious Music.” I still think it’s very unlikely.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it will not survive?

MILTON BABBITT: I don’t think it will survive in any form that I would regard as serious, or that I would regard in any public sense. I have students now who write these very, very, very able pieces and very interesting pieces that don’t get performed. Who’s going to perform them? There’s nobody to subsidize these performances. And sometimes they get played around here and sometimes they don’t. And, I don’t know what kind of hope one can have for this kind of situation. So I think probably the music will be changed as the result by the situation; I hate to think what it’s going to be changed to.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of the kind of directions that music can take beyond the direction you’ve taken it…

MILTON BABBITT: I don’t know what direction it can take because if I could foresee that I’d probably try to do it! But at the moment, look, at the moment we have to face the fact that at the moment we don’t have any real champion of demanding contemporary music. We don’t have a Mitropoulos. And I mean, Mitropoulos changed the face of music in this town more than any single person. At least you could hear the music. You have to be courageous and committed the way Mitropoulos was. Where do we have a conductor with a major orchestra who is so committed and courageous?

FRANK J. OTERI: But now, we have the Internet; we have programs like Sibelius

MILTON BABBITT: That’s another matter.

FRANK J. OTERI: So composers can at least hear anything they write even if it’s in a MIDI version and doesn’t sound exactly natural…

MILTON BABBITT: Well, if they’re satisfied with that, fine. That’ll have to be the future. I don’t see any other possibility. I mean, I don’t know what else they can do. They’re not even being recorded in the usual sense of the word. Where are the recordings one used to get from the small record companies? They’re not surviving. Their records are not being sold. The people who sold the records are now going bankrupt, as you probably know. On that happy note…

FRANK J. OTERI: The Web seems to offer hope.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, I don’t doubt that for a moment and I wouldn’t presume to talk about it because I don’t have a computer, as I said.

FRANK J. OTERI: The fact that more than a thousand people a day visit NewMusicBox to read about contemporary American music is very encouraging to me.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, of course. I accept that. I accept that because I am in no position to comment on that. And if it’s true, I can only say that I hope that your hope is right.

FRANK J. OTERI: But perhaps the models we have, the structures we have, the economy that we have that attaches this music to things that it doesn’t necessarily really need to be attached to, whether it’s older music…

MILTON BABBITT: Or big orchestras.

FRANK J. OTERI: Whether it’s the structures that are in place that don’t serve this music. It’s almost like we’re banging on this door and they won’t let us in, but in a way, you know, maybe we shouldn’t want to be let in because the orchestras aren’t doing well, you know…

MILTON BABBITT: They sure aren’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: The radio stations that play so-called classical music aren’t doing well.

MILTON BABBITT: They’re going down the drain. And look at what they play.

FRANK J. OTERI: They’re playing nothing but Boccherini

MILTON BABBITT: No, you can hear Malcolm Arnold and you can hear Arnold Bax, but you can’t hear Arnold Schoenberg.

FRANK J. OTERI: But maybe they’d do better if you could hear Arnold Schoenberg.

MILTON BABBITT: Well, I don’t know. The public stations that we have in Princeton are preposterous with the exception of WKCR which we now can’t get. Contemporary music is represented by, at best, Villa-Lobos or who’s the other one they play all the time? Martinu.

FRANK J. OTERI: But of course, you know, KCR plays a lot of jazz.

MILTON BABBITT: That’s alright. Fine.

FRANK J. OTERI: But maybe that’s what it’s all about. Maybe it’s about connecting to the new ideas in other forms of music…

MILTON BABBITT: I mean it’s fine with me if they play interesting jazz because they also play a lot of other interesting things. We do not get that on any other station around Princeton. Oh, the student Princeton radio station does a little bit, but not much. It’s not as good as KCR.

FRANK J. OTERI: Exciting new music sonically has more in common with experimental jazz than it does with Stamitz.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, no doubt. Other stations, the big ones, the expensive ones. Gunther when he was here the other day was talking about what WNYC used to be and what WQXR used to be. WNYC used to have all this live music from every school in New York, from every concert in New York. Well, when I was on a WNYC program a few years ago, which we did from Tully Hall in celebration of something, I asked them about this. They said, “Well, we can’t afford to broadcast live concerts. One transmission line costs $10,000 and you need a second one in case the first one collapses. We can’t afford $20,000 a concert for just transmission lines.” These radio stations used to transmit—I can’t tell you, you know, from every university in New York, from every college in New York, from every concert in New York you used to be able to get pick ups. Also, we were allowed to get tapes from abroad. You would hear a lot of records that you couldn’t buy or that you never even encountered. Those days seem to have gone. And the program directors…. Who are the program directors of those radio stations? And the announcers who will tell you what is lovely, who will tell you what it great, they’re also music critics.

FRANK J. OTERI: On that pleasant note…[laughs]

MILTON BABBITT: Go back to college. Go to Columbia. We beat you in football at least! Princeton beat Columbia. They can’t beat anybody else, but they beat Columbia.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, Columbia has a terrible football team.

MILTON BABBITT: My brother’s a Columbia man, I must tell you. In fact, he was even more Columbia than you because he went all the way through to the PhD.

FRANK J. OTERI: I got a master’s from them.

MILTON BABBITT: Well, he was in math, so he got the PhD. No, my brother when he got out, when he got tossed out of the Navy—they were suddenly dumped out prematurely because the war ended before they expected it to, and I’m talking about World War II, one you may have heard of—and he went to Columbia. Columbia and Yale were the only two places that had mathematicians that interested him; doing the kind of work he was interested in doing and he went to Columbia rather than Yale because Columbia gave him a private room and he had been in the Navy, so for a private room he’d go anywhere. So he lived in John Jay Hall.

FRANK J. OTERI: I served people food in John Jay Cafeteria as an undergrad.

MILTON BABBITT: Well, there you are.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s terrible food too.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, I’m sure. Look all that food was terrible.

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