A musical legend
By Willa J. Conrad
From the Star-Ledger - Wednesday, March 22, 2006
"Life does not begin at 90!," says the soon-to-be nonagenarian Milton Babbitt, who has lived in Princeton since he began teaching at Princeton University in 1938.
The composer, who is still regularly churning out commissions for the likes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Library of Congress, is turning 90 on May 10, and a wide range of programs honoring the event are planned.
Life has taken its toll, though: Babbitt's eyesight, always plagued by disease, has dimmed, and last year he lost both his beloved wife, Sylvia, and a brother. He retired from Princeton University in 1984, but still teaches two days a week at the Juilliard School, where he has been on faculty since 1970. At Juilliard, his young students regard him as a living icon.
This status seems to both amuse and vex him. "I've had a marvelous career. I would be ungrateful to say otherwise -- I've had a heck of a personal life," says Babbitt, who has never stopped writing the rigorous, immaculately constructed scores that made him the face of the American serialist movement.
If his deep involvement with major academic institutions has unfairly cast him as a cerebral elitist, his many fans among the country's top musicians throwing musical birthday parties hope to offer another view.
"His music just sparkles with life," says pianist Robert Taub, who premiered Babbitt's second piano concerto and will appear in tributes at both Carnegie Hall and Princeton University. "I find it deeply lyrical, very exciting and profoundly communicative. He has taken the best of musical thought, from Bach through Brahms, and brought it to our time, infusing it with effervescent elements from the pop world and combining it with new technology."
Babbitt, who in the middle of the last century was the epitome of musical modernism, traces his own philosophy to a public education that included daily musical instruction, which impressed on him "that we were the last custodians of high culture." His students today, Babbitt says, "have very little sense now of what music can be, because they don't know the repertory. They don't regard it as relevant."
Babbitt, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, has earned his perspective. Born in Philadelphia in 1916, he was raised in Jackson, Miss., where Eudora Welty was a classmate and close friend. When he later moved north in pursuit of modern music, he was impressed by the volume of musical life in Depression-era New York -- "On any given day, you could find almost any piece of repertory being played somewhere in the city," he says -- and was quickly attracted to the music of Arnold Schoenberg, which he first heard at the New York Public Library.
He became close to the Schoenberg family, and later, Igor Stravinsky. "I was just this little American boy hanging around these Viennese sophisticates," he says of the Schoenbergs.
While Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Virgil Thomson were studying with pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in France, Babbitt was back home seeking his own way with Schoenberg's theory of 12 equal tones and the freedom it gave a composer.
That desire for complete control led to a natural, but unexpected place: as co-founder of the famed '60s-era Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio in New York, built by RCA. Babbitt, who became the first composer to use synthesized sound, loved the neatness of strolling in with a score and coming out with a tape completely created by himself. It was a pure pathway from thought to reality that minimized human error.
"I'm talking about precision: We could get closer to what we wanted with regard to a purely musical conception," says Babbitt. "We found out more about our limits of hearing and conceptualization with a synthesizer than we ever could with live performance."
It was a junior lab member, Robert Moog, who later evolved synthesized sound into a pre-programmed, real-time keyboard instrument that transformed pop music, the Moog synthesizer. Babbitt's work probed more deeply, a pioneering project in which he worked directly with a room-sized mainframe, programming it to create the exact timbre and rhythm as he imagined it for tape. He was, literally, creating sound from nothing.
When vandals destroyed the synthesizer, Babbitt reverted to writing for live instrumentalists, which required adjusting his ears.
"For a long time, when I would hear a string quartet, everything sounded out of tune, and if I dared to write rhythmically the way I had been doing, it couldn't be played by humans," he says.
He was offered a chance by Bell Labs to get in on the ground floor of the computer revolution, but Babbitt, who still writes music with pencil and paper and barely uses e-mail, passed on the opportunity, a decision he does not regret. "Even today, the computer still doesn't compare with what we could get out of the synthesizer," he says.
Babbitt felt pressed into "pretending I was a part-time theorist" by writing essays, since so few understood his work. The title of one 1958 article for High Fidelity magazine was changed without his consent to "Who Cares If You Listen?," which earned Babbitt a reputation as a kind of hyper-elitist, academic cerebralist, uninterested in audience reaction.
It took decades to live down. "Obviously, I care if people listen; above all, I care HOW they listen," Babbitt says.
And so, just shy of his 90th birthday, Babbitt continues to teach a new group of composers that to move forward, they must first look back.
"I'm not completely pessimistic about today's students," Babbitt says, "because I was a student at the most complex of times -- we were trying to assimilate some of the most remarkable musicians of the century.
"The music world has changed quantitatively, not qualitatively," Babbitt muses. "We were always living in a multicultural world -- it's a cliché to say music has never been as fragmented as much as society."
What: Celebrations in honor of his 90th birthday
Where and when: The New Jersey Percussion Ensemble in an all-Babbitt program, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Shea Center, William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Road, Wayne.
Juilliard community in an all-Babbitt program, 8 p.m. March 27, Paul Hall, Juilliard School, 65th Street and Broadway, New York.
James Levine leads an all-Babbitt program with the Met chamber ensemble, 7:30 p.m. May 10, Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, New York.
Princeton University Music Department presents a celebration of Babbitt's music, 3 p.m. May 21, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University, Princeton.
How much: Free in Wayne, call (973) 720-2371 or visit www.wpunj.edu; free (reservations required) at Juilliard, call (212) 769-7406 or visit www.juilliard.edu; $68 at Carnegie, call (212) 247-7800 or visit www.carnegiehall.org; free (tickets required) in Princeton, call (609) 258-4239.