Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

4. Rap Music

MILTON BABBITT: Now we have teachers, apparently, who think the way to get into serious music is by teaching them rock. And I’m told this is just not true. It just doesn’t work. I mean, people who call Pierrot Lunaire a form of rap. You like that one? Have you heard that?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s interesting.

MILTON BABBITT: O.K. No, I mean, the point is it turns out that you don’t go beyond that. As soon as they get to anything else, you know, they say, “That’s boring.” You know, it’s a lot like Chinese water torture.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, but of course we’re saturated with popular culture everywhere.

MILTON BABBITT: We certainly are.

FRANK J. OTERI: Those are our most universal reference points nowadays. So it could be worthwhile to connect Pierre Lunaire with rap because the people who are coming to it now have already heard rap, so they already have a context for a melody line of imprecise pitch. That’s already in their immediate frame of reference.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, but…

FRANK J. OTERI: Why not use that context?

MILTON BABBITT: Because all those pitches and everything are very disturbing. It’s like something I’ll tell you. There was a marvelous, marvelous student of Schenker, a wonderful one named Jonas, Oswald Jonas, who wrote one of the first introductions to Schenker in German, then he moved to this country. Died in Riverside, California. And he hated all this contemporary music, just really loathed it; thought it was the devil incarnate. But we were very good friends. And one day he confessed to me that he had heard Pierrot Lunaire and all he could say to himself, “God…”, he would love to have heard that poetry if only that stuff behind it would stop and I think that’s very much the way. I know some people who have tried this, by the way. At the University of Michigan there was someone who did this with Pierrot and with students who were brought up entirely on rap and…I don’t even know what hip-hop is, to be honest with you, do you understand hip-hop? What is all this scratching of records?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, they take recordings, they have different recordings and sample parts of them. Or you’ll have two turntables going at once and you’ll have a phrase and you’ll loop that phrase.

MILTON BABBITT: But how do they repeat it from the one time? Do they record it then?

FRANK J. OTERI: Um, well, most sophisticated DJs are now using samplers, but originally they’d have turntables and they’d play a little snippet of music from a record, then go back, play it again, go back, play it again, go back, play it again and then bounce it off another recording and you’d have those two different patterns going off against each other.

MILTON BABBITT: Little did they realize that they are writing what is now called serious music. Go ahead, I’m sorry.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, at this point, this gets into an interesting area because I find your music fascinating; I love your music.

MILTON BABBITT: Well, you’re very kind. You may stay here. You may have this room because I think that you will have one fellow traveler that who will join you. Go ahead.

FRANK J. OTERI: But at the same time, there are things in hip-hop that I also find fascinating.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, I don’t doubt that for a moment! I grew up with popular music.