Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

2. The Lure of Technology

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s very tempting for a composer in such a hostile environment to turn to technology. About 40 years ago you were the champion of the RCA synthesizer.

MILTON BABBITT: I was indeed.

FRANK J. OTERI: And wrote some fantastic stuff…

MILTON BABBITT: I wish I still had it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You wrote some fantastic music for that instrument…

MILTON BABBITT: You’re very kind.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I particularly loved the interactions between the vocal writing and the electronic writing in some of those pieces.

MILTON BABBITT: I’d love to do it again.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you haven’t done it for decades…

MILTON BABBITT: That’s for very practical reasons. You know, the last thing that happened to me was for me tragic in that I was commissioned to write a violin concerto and I wrote it. The score is there. But the violinist wanted an electronic part and while I was in the midst of writing the electronic part, our studio was ravaged. People broke in and destroyed almost everything. Now the studio could be put back together again; the synthesizer couldn’t. They didn’t want the synthesizer, they just wanted to pull out the wires and get everything they could get by way of electronic equipment. They didn’t even know what the synthesizer was. It could’ve been repaired possibly, but it would’ve been too big of a job. I was getting a little older; I simply wasn’t up to it. And it was also the question of whether we could get replacements. Where do you get tubes for an instrument that requires 1800 tubes? So I just threw in the towel and I didn’t turn to the computer because by that time I thought to learn a new technology was just a little too late. I was asked to get involved in the computer in 1957 when the people out at Bell Labs, my dear friends Max Mathews and John Pierce asked me to get involved. And I said, “Look, I can’t do both. I’m starting out with the synthesizer; I’m very happy with it, but it’s going to take years for me to learn how to use it. If I begin with the computer, it’s just going to be too much.” And furthermore, I got them a young man who understood the math. They wanted me, not because they gave a damn about my music, they themselves were writing On a Bicycle Built for Two for the computer…

FRANK J. OTERI: I remember that. I have that recording.

MILTON BABBITT: You do? My goodness.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I didn’t hear at the time.

MILTON BABBITT: People wouldn’t believe it. But they knew that I knew enough math to understand the literature. So I got them someone who knew more math and was a wonderful musician, David Lewin, and he wrote the first piece for computer, which people forget, but he stopped composing. And then of course, it went into the hands of my colleagues like Paul Lansky and what not, so I just withdrew from it and was very happy to go back at that time to instrumental music and to Bethany Beardslee and all my dear friends and I never went back to the computer. I don’t even have a computer. I don’t have e-mail; I’m not online in any respect. I am totally offline.

FRANK J. OTERI: I find that so strange.

MILTON BABBITT: I tell you, there’s no principal involved. I’m not going to be a musical Luddite; it’s just not that, I cannot start. You know, at this age, it’s too late, I’m going to know how much is involved and the subtleties of programming a computer to get what I would get. I’ll tell you this: There was an attempt by some bright young men to realize my electronic part for my violin concerto on the computer and they threw in the towel. It’s too hard to do. Because you had controls on the synthesizer, people don’t realize, that they don’t know how to get on the computer yet. With regard to the dynamics of spectra and so-forth. And maybe they can do it now, they gave up about ten years ago.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m sure they could do it now.

MILTON BABBITT: This is 1976 when I had to give it up.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, was the piece ever performed?

MILTON BABBITT: Oh no, it can’t be performed, unless I did something. Paul Zukofsky‘s been trying to get me to transcribe the electronic part. No instrument, obviously, can play the part. It couldn’t be played in real time and, you know, again, the people who have tried to realize it into what I had already done and tried to extrapolate from that were not successful and then that was the end of it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, it’s very interesting because the American Composers Orchestra‘s Orchestra Tech seminars and concerts just happened…

MILTON BABBITT: I know. I was supposed to have been there as a matter of fact on a panel, but I can’t because of my personal problems.

FRANK J. OTERI: I thought about you during a panel I was on with Mario Davidovsky who also stopped working in electronic music. The reason he gave was very different. He was talking about how we’ve moved away from humanity. And he’s found that the electronic sounds he worked with in the past informs how he writes instrumental music today…

MILTON BABBITT: I’m sure that’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it raised a fundamental question for a composer. What can you do with live music and with live musicians that you can’t do with a computer or with electronics, with prerecorded sound?

MILTON BABBITT: I’ve never given up writing for live musicians quite clearly. Look, when I turned to the electronic medium, not only was I fascinated by it—I’m gonna use that cliché, the challenge because it was—I had to work for years before I could manage that instrument in any way that I regarded as satisfactory. But the truth is that I did like the notion of walking into that studio with a piece in my head and walking out with a completely performed work in that little tape under my arm. I love to work in isolation, let me say that. I love to compose in isolation, though I’ve often composed, as Gunther Schuller has, on subways. I have also, I like the idea of being able to stand there and redo and redo and redo. If I had that kind of rehearsal time with an orchestra, then I’d probably feel the same way. I think it was a real practical consideration there: Except for some very close friends, I never got the performances I wanted. And that certainly was one of the aspects of it. But I loved working with the synthesizer; I just liked it.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you definitely don’t have to worry about only two pianists being willing to play your score.

MILTON BABBITT: That’s right. No, I was very happy doing that kind of thing and I would have undoubtedly continued doing that kind of thing if I could have. You know, look, there were practical problems, you know, getting up there on 125th Street, even the Shanghai Restaurant closed around the corner. Life was getting tough around 125th Street. That was one aspect of it. And it was not in Princeton, which would’ve been much more convenient for me; it had always meant a lot of time on the subway. We still had an apartment in New York, from which we have just been evicted…

FRANK J. OTERI: Yikes!

MILTON BABBITT: Practically, as I got older and older, it was a little too much work. But I mean, I gave up before I got older and older and older. The fact is that I was delighted to go back to writing for, call them what you will, human beings, if that’s what performers are. But again, I don’t, for example, know how to copy with a computer. I don’t know how to do it; I never bothered to learn. I still do my handwriting and let somebody else transcribe it on the computer. Every kid now comes in with his homework every week beautifully done, of course, now it’s not Finale; that’s beneath contempt.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes, I think it is too. Sibelius is much easier to use.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, Sibelius is what they’re all using. Of course, my expert says that Sibelius is still not as good as Score. He’s a young man here who really knows every program in and out; he says for a professional work, Score. And for a long time, you know, publishers would accept only Score and nothing else.

FRANK J. OTERI: Interesting.

MILTON BABBITT: Now a few of them may be accepting Sibelius and I think they probably are.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m just so happy to have a system where I can enter in music, have it look nice, have it extract parts.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: And be able to hear it play the music back…

MILTON BABBITT: Absolutely. It was unthinkable, and actually it was parts and everything else. Oh, absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you have no interest in…?

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, it’s not that I don’t have any interest. I’m not gonna sit down and learn how to do that now. Sit down and look at a computer screen with these trifocals and one eye? Uh-uh (shakes head).

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