Milton Babbit: 1916-2011
February 1, 2011
St. Paul, Minn. —
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was born in Philadelphia, but raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He studied with Roger Sessions at Princeton. Sessions invited Babbitt to teach at Princeton in 1938, which he did until moving to Juilliard in 1973. His students included Mario Davidovsky, John Eaton, Stephen Sondheim, Paul Lansky, Laura Karpman, Fred Lerdahl, Donald Martino and David Rakowski.
Babbitt became an important force in contemporary music through his works utilizing electronics, his expansion of Schoenberg's "12 Tone" system - to include not just the pitches that are organized, but also the dynamics, expressions, registration and durations. "Philomel" is considered a seminal work, along with his "Music for Synthesizer," composed for the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer (1961).
Among his life honors are a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize citation for "life's work as a distinguished and seminal American composer." He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
GABRIELLE ZUCKERMAN: Tell me about your early musical influences.
MILTON BABBITT: My early musical influences began in Jackson, Mississippi. Here I grew up, of course, and my first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom I went to study at the age of 4. She gave me a violin, and as I practiced, I thought, this is exactly what I'd like to be doing in music--don't ask me how or where--although I wasn't really all that excited about the practicing. Frankly, I didn't like practicing. I faked it most of the time, and my mother and father didn't know the difference. They didn't really care whether I practiced or not. My father was a very realistic and sophisticated man, and he would have been just as happy if I didn't take it any farther. The point of the matter is, though, that I did play the violin, and I took it very seriously.
If you want an anecdote, I'll tell you one. My teacher was a lovely and sophisticated woman who had studied with Leopold Auer. I know you Yankees think that if you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, you went around in bare feet, but we lived in a very cultivated crowd. Our public school was very sophisticated, and we were taught how to speak English in a very special way, because we were told that we were the last bastions of high culture. It was a little bit of that that brushed into everything. Anyway, my teacher, Ms. Hutchison, said one day to me, "Well, if you're really interested in playing the violin, why don't you see if this is the kind of music you might play?" And she gave me the violin part of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which I took home. Now this was a violin concerto that I had never heard performed; we didn't have an orchestra, and remember records were very far and few between, so we didn't have a record of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto either. And I thought that if this was all that a violin concerto was, why couldn't I write one of my own? So I started writing something I called "Violin Concerto for a Single Violin." I could've been very chic; I could've called it "Violin Concerto for Solo Violin," but I wasn't that mature yet.
The truth of the matter is, after my experience with the violin concerto, I suddenly realized that the violin didn't get you very far socially. Nobody really wanted you to play this damn solo violin. So I went to the local band director, the man who ran every band in town, the lovely, lovely Italian who didn't speak very much English, but who had a very good musical background. Let me tell you, this is America, so I might as well tell you how he got there. He got to Jackson, Mississippi, from one of the smaller towns in Italy by virtue of a beautiful Mississippi girl who went to Italy to study voice--what else? That's very American. She brought him back to Jackson where she thought he could be a big important person. Well, he was, relatively speaking. So I went to him, and I said I wanted to study the trumpet. And he said, "Why do you want to study the trumpet?" I named all these jazz people of whom he had never heard who played trumpet or cornet. He said, "Look, you're obviously interested in music. Play the clarinet because when you play band arrangements they have the violin parts, and you'll learn a great deal about music, and you'll learn a great deal more music that way." So I agreed and I took up the clarinet. That became my primary instrument. I played the clarinet and eventually saxophone. All throughout high school I played in every kind of band, everything from an imitation Guy Lombardo to an imitation Ben Pollock, which means, you know, the range from what would then be called popular music to jazz.
When I went off to college I played in the band, and that's when I thought I would probably continue as a musician. That's when my father said to me--as a father who had been around a bit--"Why don't you go to a music school? You spend all of your time in music. You spend all of your time practicing and writing music." I told him that I wasn't interested, because I had been around Philadelphia relatives long enough to know what Curtis was like and to know what happened to those poor people--there's no future in that. I don't know if he thought I was going to play clarinet in an orchestra, even if it was the Philadelphia Orchestra, but at any rate, I said, "no, thank you!" So I went to college and forgot about music for two years--I just studied--no music. Then--you know this is relevant because it's going to have a lot to do with other things that are going to happen to me later--I ran into a book called "20th Century Music" by Marion Bauer, who was at Washington Square College, NYU. That was a book that had musical examples which were unheard of in those days. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and American composers like Roy Harris and Richard Donovan were in that book. Have you ever heard of Richard Donovan? Of course not, he's been forgotten, but that's too bad. Anyway, after reading "20th Century Music," I decided that this was where I wanted to go, so I transferred to Washington Square College and that's where my real life in music began with Marion Bauer, a dear lady, and I'm not being patronizing. Her course involved reading from her own book, which consisted mainly of newspaper clippings, but there were musical examples as well.
At school I met some people like Martin Bernstein and Phillip James, and then my life really began. I began really hearing music. You know, the WPA was wonderful for music. The Depression was marvelous for musicians. Things were cheap. You could hear a great many free concerts. I graduated from NYU when I was very young (I was 19) I went to Roger Sessions (thanks to Marion Bauer, she introduced me to him and I knew I wanted to go study with him) and that was it. Three years later I joined him as his assistant at Princeton and that's where my life was for a few years until there was something called World War II. Then my life changed again. And there you have my early influences.
Your early influences...
My early influences, however, I must tell you, were largely in popular music--all kinds of popular music. And you'll be amused to know that while I was in Jackson, Mississippi I never heard a note of country music. The country people are out there, but we're not country people. We didn't hear any country music. We never heard any blues either, though the blues virtually originated in Jackson, but that was not us. It didn't have anything to do with race--by the way, that's a great mistake--it had to do with education. We went to Davis School, which, well, you want me to tell you an anecdote about that? I'll tell you because it involved somebody else who came from Jackson, Eudora Welty, with whom I grew up. Her father was the president of the insurance company of which my father was the actuary and vice president, so we literally grew up together. Eudora Welty ... went to the same public grammar school that I did, the Davis School, and you can guess which Davis that was.
Jefferson Davis, of course. So, anyhow, the story was that [Eudora] would go down to the ladies room where the students were in their little stalls, and our English teacher, Ms. Granbury, would come down there, and if she heard a single grammatical mistake in the conversation among these stalls, she would immediately tell them, "Go to my office when you have done what you have to do here." They would be reprimanded and disciplined. We were taught how to speak in a very special way. For example, if we ever said "civil-ah-zation" we'd be reprimanded, maybe even sent home, because civilization has a short "i," and you aren't supposed to turn short "i's" into "ah".
Talk about the influence of Schoenberg on your work.
Oh, well, that again, is a story that begins rather early and, you know, I didn't mention before because it seemed incidental until you brought up the name of Schoenberg. My mother was a Philadelphian, and every two years she would take me to Philadelphia to stay with my grandparents, mainly because we didn't have air--there was no air conditioning yet in Jackson--the summer can get rather warm, like 118 degrees. So she would take me down and stay with my grandmother. I had an uncle, who died only recently, who was already well into music. He was studying at Curtis by that time, but before that, he had studied with various people including a man who is called the "Wild Man in Music." By that time, he...was engaged to be married to a Curtis pianist. Every year she played a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. One year it was [Edvard] Grieg, the next it was [ Sergei ] Rachmaninoff. I knew the world of Curtis very well when I was 10 years old. One day my uncle, who rather impressed by the fact that I have what is called "perfect pitch" and he didn't--which is trivial, it's whether one is born with it or not, it doesn't matter--told me that he thought I should go into music, which, of course, I had no intention of doing. He said, "How do you like this?: He played for me...I'm not sure whether it was the Schoenberg Opus 19 or the Schoenberg Opus 11. He just played this for me wondering what effect it would have on a 10-year-old. The effect was that it seemed totally incoherent to me, but I was very impressed by the fact that my uncle could play it, and that he did play it, and that there was imprinted music that I could read. That was when I first began to look at this music and go, "What the hell was going on here?" I didn't figure it out.
Then, you know, any number of events after that contributed to my desire to learn more about Schoenberg. When I went to Philadelphia the next time, which was two years later, I asked to hear some more of this, and I heard Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now I don't think that was when I heard them play the Schoenberg variations--I could always look that up--that must have been later, but I did hear something out at the "Dell"--the Robin Hood Dell, where the Philadelphia Orchestra would play in the summer. They played some contemporary music--I don't remember what at this point. That's when I began to waver and wonder whether I should go into music. So after two years of not being into music, I came to New York and went to Marion Bauer, immediately expressing my interest in Schoenberg. I would go to the 42nd Street Library and study scores that were not permitted to be taken out. The first was the Schoenberg Orchestral Variations, and then it all really went from that point on. You couldn't hear much Schoenberg around New York, as a matter of fact, but I did hear the first performance of the Fourth Quartet in the 42nd Street Library--they wouldn't put it in any more glamorous surrounding than that, but that was it. I met Schoenberg for the first time only a year or two later when he came to...he didn't come to New York very often. I saw him very little. I spoke with him on maybe two occasions. I was supposed to have gone again to Philadelphia to hear his violin concerto premiered, and I had arranged to speak with him. He did not come because his child was born, and I never saw him again.
When did you start composing?
Oh, I mean, I can say the usual thing, which happens to be true, but, of course, it's a little silly--I started when I was 4. I began writing my [first little pieces then], and I began writing pop songs by the carload when I was about 6.
Do you still have them? Is there anything that...
No, I don't... Well, I don't want to totally get into this, but World War II destroyed almost all of my records and music that I had at that time and, of course, moving around and so forth. We won't go into my World War II, but, I was teaching at Princeton when it broke out, and I wasn't involved in anything. I was at Washington, in fact, all over the place, so that much of that got lost. But I do remember one or two of those songs, but you're never going to get them out of me.
... It's very funny; one does have a memory of trivial things. I mean, I know popular song lyrics of the period from 1926 to the early 1930's that you wouldn't believe. Just try me sometime.
Do they just once in awhile, do you just start humming them or do you think of them or does something...
Oh, of course. I think of them all the time. And sometimes every once in awhile they revive one, and I'll know every word of every one of them, I promise you. I didn't ever study the words, but I played in the bands where the girl singer was singing them, and I made arrangements right and left. No, that's my native idiom I have to say.
So how did you get...you mean, popular music, you're saying or...
Yeah, but they were both together. I mean, I never confused the categories. Even when I was playing in bands and mainly playing Rossini overtures, I never confused that with DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson. You don't. You realize you're dealing with something quite different. It's a different category of objects.
But how did you, why did you decide to go one way instead of the other? You didn't want to do...
Oh, that's a very simple answer. One gets very tired from popular music, you know, 15 minutes or 20 minutes is fine; after that no. You know, you've had enough of it.
Did you start to look at [Schoenberg's] work and start composing 12-tone?
No, no, it wasn't 12-tone. Hey, I'm going to tell you I imitated Webern--imitated in a very superficial way. Then when I went to study with Roger Sessions--remember I was only 19 and still not knowing quite which way I was going. I wrote a piece called, "Generatrix," which was imitative of [Edgar] Varese. I had gotten to know Varese, who lived on Sullivan Street, right down the street from NYU. I talked with him a great deal, and I wrote this imitation piece. When I brought the music that I had written to Roger Sessions, he looked at and he said, "Well, that's kind of an exercise in orchestration isn't it?" That was the end of "Generatrix," and I won't tell you the rest of my interview because it really would have to be censored, because he talked about a ____... He asked me what music I would like to have written after studying with him. He asked me, "How long do you think you can study?" Well, I was very fortunate. My father was very well off and I could afford to stay in New York, which was so cheap in those days. I had the most beautiful apartment in New York, a two-room apartment in the village for $40.00 a month. That's the way the world was, you know, candy bars were three for a dime and they were big candy bars. And you can imagine what the world seems to be now. But, in any case, I went to Roger and --I didn't start calling him Roger for another eight years, but by a southern boy he was "sir" and I would say Mr. Sessions, but I now call him Roger--he asked me what works I would like to have written, after I said I could stay with him for at least three years. (That's what a graduate education would have cost and I was not going to graduate school; there were no graduate schools in composition of any importance at that time.) So I told him that I would like to have written, I didn't say the Schoenberg Orchestral Variations," which would've been my first answer--I didn't know how he felt about Schoenberg who was still very problematic--I said I would like to have written the Stravinsky Octet and the Copland Piano Variations. He said, "The Stravinsky Octet you'll be able to write. For the Copland Piano Variations," you don't need that much time." Now, I've been indiscreet, but Aaron is dead and he was passe. Copland and Stravinsky are both dead. Everybody has their own opinions, you know.
Well, Roger Sessions and Copland, as you know were tied up in the Copland-Sessions Concerts and so forth, but they were far from close. I don't mind saying these things now, it's all history and true history.
Tell me how you got to your compositional style. I mean, how you got to...
By studying the scores of Schoenberg, a certain amount of Webern, a certain amount of Berg, and a lot of other composers who have been forgotten. Krenek was one who came here and became a very good friend of mine. I got to know Ernst Krenek extremely well. When he came here he was looking for a job, then he taught at Vassar for a couple of years and spent time in New York. I kept seeing him after that, even though he ended up at Palm Springs. Poor fellow. I got to know so many European composers thanks to Roger Sessions. Roger had lived in Europe up until Hitler came to power, then he came back here. He had been in Europe for at least 10 years, it may have been more. He knew all the European musicians. When they came here, the first person they looked up was Roger Sessions, not only because they had known him in Europe, but because he spoke all their languages. So then Roger would often call me up and say he was going to have lunch with so and so--I mean Otto Klemperer, for example--and would I like to come along. And I do understand German, so that made it easier, because most of the peoples' obviously native language was German. I got to know any number of people this way. Artur Schnabel became a very great friend. Krenek was a particularly good one... this is a story about Krenek : Krenek was a devout Catholic. It is important to realize that, because people don't realize how many Catholics and others came here as refugees, too. Krenek had, as you know, a tremendous success in Europe. He had written "Jonny spielt auf," which was the most successful opera ever written. I think it was in 120 opera houses, but when they brought it to the Met it didn't succeed very well. Then he came to this country, and I met him the day he landed. I had Christmas dinner with him at the Sessions. In Europe at that time he had denounced all of his 12-tone stuff after Schoenberg, denounced it all as mathematical, all the usual cliches. Then he began what is called a neo-romantic period. He imitated Schubert. He finished Schubert, as a matter of fact; he finished/completed a Schubert sonata and wrote a song cycle that was obviously modeled after a Schubert song cycle. Then suddenly he wrote a book called "Neue Musik." That the first book ever written on the 12-tone system. He became devoted. He was devout no matter what he did. He became a devout 12-tone composer, and then he came here and, you know, worked within that. He wrote the first book in English on 12-tone music called "12-Tone Counterpoint."
And so you were composing... [Now], what's the difference between serial music and 12-tone?
Well, the point is that not all serial music is 12-tone, although 12-tone does usually imply that it's also serial. Serial simply means that the piece derives in some fundamental way from a series of pitches that are altered, rather than from simply a collection of pitches, as would be true in tonal music. It's as simple as that. And the degree to which [the series is] pervasive throughout the piece and acts at constantly varying distances from the surface of the piece, depends on the individual piece. Of course, that's part of the compositional characteristic of the piece. All it means is that the pitch collection used is the same 12-pitch classes of the usual chromatic scale. People hear 12 and think mathematics; well really, it's the same 12 that Bach and Mozart used. Of course, it's usual, to quantify the frequency continuum that we've been listening to all our lives. It's not...the 12 has no particular connotation there, except to remind you that it is chromatic in some sense. It simply has to do with what was basically and fundamentally--and I don't want to minimize it--a new conception of musical structure that gradually evolved in the music of Arnold Schoenberg. His music evolved not by word, but by musical deed, by a succession of works, the works that are sometimes called atonal. Most of us would've rather called them something else, something that seems to imply there are no tones at all... The connotations of "atonal" were so, so, what can I say, misleading, that we found other words for them. For example, critics of the visual arts had a term, "autotelic," to indicate that paintings are not supposed to represent anything beyond the painting itself; they simply have to do with masses of color and lines. And so, I think "automorphic" is a very good term for music of that kind. It creates a structure within itself.
[Schoenberg] went on from those pieces, which are some of the most mysterious pieces ever written. Some obvious ones are "Erwartung" and "Jakobsleiter," which he never finished, or the of the best known, the Five Pieces for Orchestra of the Opus 16. He went on from that to the first real 12-tone piece, which was the Wind Quintet, and we all grabbed copies of that as soon as we could get them. It was very hard to get music. Remember where we are now; we've gotten in to the 1930's. Though the piece was written in the 1920's, you know, we didn't see it written down for a long time; we simply studied scores, we seldom heard the music, it was very profound.
So there we were. And there I was in Princeton. I was teaching there for four years before the war came, and then I was sent to Washington to spend a few years doing what, I cannot reveal. Then, by one of these incredible accidents of the military or government or we not know what, I was sent back to Princeton to teach mathematics. There was a moment in the war when people were being called back from the Battle of the Bulge to teach mathematics; it was the highest priority undertaking because there was radar, there was sonar, there were all these things and there were these kids who didn't have enough math to learn how to do it. Even MIT graduates had to be retrained, because they didn't know how to use a slide rule. So I did that at Princeton--it was by accident that it was Princeton, I'll never know how it became Princeton, again, because it had nothing to do with my music department or anything else, it was in the mathematics department, until well, after the end of the war and that's... That was a time that I could write no music; there was no I felt that there was no hope. I did do some thinking, though, and when the war came to an end, rather than try to sit down and compose again--because I was very decomposed--I went down to Jackson, back home, and wrote a rather notorious thesis which was called, "The Function of the Set Structure in the 12-Tone System." You want to hear about that?
Yes. Let's hear about that.
Well, that's quite a tale, though it's a boring one.
Around what year [did you write it]?
1946. In 1946 I sat in my parents' home in Jackson with my wife. We were married before the war. We had been in Washington together, and when I went back to Princeton, she couldn't come back with me. The war was rather complicated business. I began writing out this thesis and it was typed up by my wife. I submitted it as a test case--this is boring by the way, but now you've got me into it--as a test case because the Princeton Department refused to give a Ph.D. in music or theory. They gave it in music history so that the musicologists could go out in the world and get all the jobs because they had a Ph.D. Nobody cared what you could do; they just wanted you to have a Ph.D. They would try to teach theory courses by keeping one chapter ahead of the students in the [Walter] Piston books, something they often were not able to do, but that's the way the world... We were very angry--very, very, and I thought I should press the issue, I thought that I was in a position to press the issue, and I wrote this theoretical study of the 12-tone system. I submitted it to the Princeton Department, which is kind of funny, because I was no longer in the Princeton Department at that time. I had taken a leave because of the mathematics...that's why I told you it would be boring and complicated. Anyway, I sent it to them, and the music department said very simply to the dean of the graduate school, "We don't understand it." But they gave it to a famous mathematician named John Tooky, whose name you may know, who just died a few years ago and who did a great number of things. He was also a great colleague of Mr. John Nash, of whose name you may have heard lately in "A Beautiful Mind." I'll interject for the moment about John Nash: When I first went to teach at Princeton, people always asked me if I knew Einstein. Now they ask me if I knew John Nash. The answer in both cases is yes, but in between I had those glorious years where they asked me if I knew Brooke Shields. That was much more pleasant. She hung around the music building more too. Anyhow, the mathematician read my thesis and said, "It's fine. In fact, it even makes a few contributions to group theory." Even after that, they still wouldn't give me the degree.
Now I'll just jump ahead: I went back to the Princeton Music Department eventually after I received an honorary degree from Princeton. I think it was in 1993 that they gave me a Ph.D. for my thesis written in 1982. Isn't that fun? Anyhow, that's how funny a life one leads! You know, don't want to seem paranoid about this, but of course I am: music departments are treated abominably, particularly in places like Princeton and Harvard--and I've taught at Harvard so I can speak for them, too. They're treated badly, that's all. We taught twice as much for half the salary of the physicists, the mathematicians, and the economists, because the feeling among most people in those fields was, why should music be in a university; it should be in a girl's finishing school! You know, they thought, I already have to go take my little daughter to piano lessons on Saturday morning; why should I have to suffer with anymore of this stuff? They never go to concerts, of course... Well, it was a very, very tough road to teach at a university in those days. Things are much easier now.
They're better now, huh?
Oh yeah, much. And most places are much better now.
So when you went back to Princeton, that was let's say, what year was that?
A couple of years later.
Okay, so maybe the 1950's?
I tell you, I have to fudge that a little bit because I went back... You know, I'm not even sure I wanted to go back. I had written a musical comedy in the meantime. I wrote a--they called them musical comedies in those days--it wasn't very funny.
What was the title of it?
Based on "The Odyssey"?
"The Odyssey." The real Odyssey. No other Odyssey. I got hooked into this by virtue of a couple of young men, one of them I had known at Princeton, the other was from Yale and that's when I should have been suspicious. They got me to write the music of this for a famous musical comedy star. I don't want to reveal her name, it's all too nasty, but she decided she wanted to have something very classy, because she was known as the woman who sang "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Well, we wrote this musical, and three of the songs from it were published by dear old C. F. Peters as three theatrical songs. Of course, they're not really theatrical songs, but I mean, that was very much on the tip of my fingers, as you gather from my background, when I wrote this musical. We auditioned it, and we had a big agent behind it and everything, and they said, "Okay, you should open it in England, because it's a little too classy and somewhat too intellectual for the audiences here." Well, my rich collaborators, one of them went back to his home in Connecticut and said, "I don't want to deal with these people anymore." Another one of my collaborators, whom I still know very well and whom I had known at Princeton, got so fed up with show business that he went to Columbia Law School and became a very rich lawyer. He eventually became director of the Museum of Modern Art and is now retired. His name is Richard Koch, if you want to check my facts. He is still living in Washington Square. So, the fact is, they became fed up, and I became fed up and I went back to Princeton. I learned my lesson. I never should've done it, though it was easy for me to do--but the world of show business is not for me. I can't stand the venue, I can't stand the people.
I wonder, though, if that had been a success, if it had actually been produced and...
God knows what. I can't traffic counterfactuals. I'll only tell you this, I'm glad it wasn't. I'm very glad it wasn't. I was never happy with it. I did it because it was kind of fun way, and I sort of liked playing it, and plus, I was thinking about other things all the time. That's me. You know, that's very funny. My pre-theatrical songs are published by my dear C. F. Peters, which is, you know, one of the oldest firms that is, like most all music publishers, in dire straits now. The idea of those songs being published representing me is always very funny, it gets many more performances than anything I've ever written, and the idea that I have girls who sing it who don't know how to sing them at all... Nobody knows how to sing show tunes anymore. You probably know that better than I do.
mm hmm... I've heard a lot of that.
They don't know what to do with lyrics; they don't know how...I mean, go find Anita Ellis for me. Anita Ellis, unfortunately, is not to be found. Or Gogi Grant.
When did they start the lab, the Columbia/Princeton...
Oh, that's another long and boring story. It really is.
Well, that one leads up to "Philomel."
Yeah, it does indeed. Well, if you know Princeton geographically, you know that right across Route 1 there is the old Sarnoff Labs. They're still there, but they are no longer a part of RCA. In those days they were RCA. That's where television was invented; that's where everything happened. We all knew these people; a man named Harry Olson was in charge of the sound aspects of the... He was not only that, that's not true, he had a big, big executive job. I went over there around 1938 and told him about what was happening in Europe with sound on film, whereby you know, you just inscribe the sound directly on the film. There were already some cartoons in Europe that were doing that; I mean, it's very easy to put speech on film. After all, what's on that was on those days of variable density or variable speed film. Everything that you heard there was reproduced without the intervention of a human, except the human hand. Well, they got very interested in this, and we began working on it. It was very tough, it was very hard. It had all kinds of technological aspects, and then came the War and they abandoned all of that.
So, after the War, we went back, while in the meantime, my colleagues at Columbia were working with tape. I was not interested in taping; it was just not for me. What I had in mind when I was interested in electronics was doing everything from its roots, if you wish, from its sonic origins. So while I began working with [my colleagues] and getting to know them, I never did any actual work on the tapes. After a certain amount of talking and thinking, the Rockefeller Foundation came along and said, "Look, your two universities [Princeton and Columbia] seem to be the only ones who have worked in this field and know what you're talking about. We think it's about time for a studio here--there was already one in Cologne and other places--so we're going to set you up." So the question of where to set it up arose, and eventually to my great inconvenience, it was decided quite rationally that it would be better to have it here in New York--not on the Columbia campus, but 125th Street where there was a building left over from the War that was wonderfully insulated, which actually used to be a dairy. The place was sound proof and everything, so Columbia gave us some odds and ends of furniture and what not, and they moved the famous RCA Synthesizer here to 125th Street, and we were in business. Of course, that word synthesizer connotes some little boy with a small box, sitting at a keyboard. Of course, that was far from the case, this was a programmed instrument that was more than the length and size of this room, you know, so people saw it and they thought it was a computer, although it wasn't a computer. It couldn't compute anything, did no number-crunching, and had no memory--for which it was probably grateful. There is computer sound now, you know, and that's obviously the way to go, but computers couldn't do it yet. Very soon they began to do a little. This particular computer (synthesizer) was mine, more or less, because nobody else, but I had worked on it. I went down there and worked, and I knew how to use it. It was a very recalcitrant instrument; you had to do everything yourself, it was very hard. You programmed every aspect of a musical event and the mode of progression to the next event. Then you recorded it on tape. The only function of tape was as it would be in a recording studio, to store information. Then you could, of course, splice pieces together, although you didn't splice for any other function. And there it was.
I began to work with it, and I worked with it for at least, I don't remember now, 4 or 5 years before I dared put anything out. Then I wrote something called a "Composition for Synthesizer," and there were a number of pieces before "Philomel." There was another piece with voice, vision, and prayer sitting at the Dylan Thomas home, and then the Ford Foundation--one forgets how much we've lost--there was a Ford Foundation subsidizing music then. They were not only commissioning pieces, paying for people to go out into the high schools, paying for performances, they were also paying for recordings. The Rockefeller Foundation was competing with them in any number of ways. Well, the Ford Foundation commissioned [soprano] Bethany Beardslee to commission, and she commissioned "Philomel." And that was it. That's how "Philomel" came to pass. All of the electronic aspects were done by me in the studio, and this was the first time I did something else: I recorded her voice and then subjected it to various kinds of mutations and transformations in the synthesizer. The synthesizer, technically speaking, could do anything that could be heard, but how to do it was often a great puzzle. And, you know, one would spend months trying to get something or sometimes, you'd spend a day and get, you know, 15 seconds of something. But above all, the important thing about the synthesizer was that the only limitations were the conditions of human hearing, discriminatory capacities, perceptual capacities. You could do things that you could never hear; you could have things go faster than you could possibly discriminate. Of course, one had to learn the limitations. One had to learn that, you could, you know, tell the machine to do that which would be of any significance auditorally, or one could play around and simply try things that were not possible yet. People began to hear things that they had never heard before. We had engineers who worked with these things so much that they would begin to hear relationships that, according to the books, one should not be able to hear--particularly temporal relations--before and after precedence and subsequent relations.
Anyhow, that's how I came to "Philomel." The origin of the poem itself, of course, was John Hollander, the poet who took went back to a well-known Philomel legend. He knew a lot of music, and he also understood that the piece was going to be composed of a live soprano and four fundamental sound sources. So he wrote it with all of that in mind. The three sections of the piece are based upon Philomel's escape from King Tereus and re-finding her voice as a nightingale. You see, it was very adaptable to electronic purposes. Then in the second section, there are four sections of the second large section, in each of which he has Philomel communicate with some of the denizens of the woods in echo verse. John had written a book on Echo Poetry, and this is not just straight echo, it is very elaborate and intricate poetry. The third section is a series of five arias as Philomel finally regains her voice and sings about different aspects of her life. That part took me a long time.
Well, I'll tell you, I was interrupted by a trip, so I can tell you it was very close to a year. I composed it first. With regard to the synthesizer you had to compose first and then go in and realize it. You couldn't sit and...there was no improvisation at the synthesizer, you were punching this stuff in.
And then when was it performed?
Well, I was performed, according to the desires of the Ford Foundation, which was that the first performance had to be someplace other than New York, in order to carry the word to the people. So it was in an out of the way place called Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. We gigged the first one there, but Amherst was a small school and at that time didn't have a very functional music department or certainly did not have an electronic studio, so we gave the first one in the Amherst Chapel, because there was no other place to do it in Amherst. Then, we gave the second performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the third one, we had to go out in the woods again, and we went out to a small school in Iowa and don't ask me which one, I don't remember at the moment. I can only remember that they told us that Bethany and I were put up in the guest house. We were told that this was a bed in which President Truman had slept, but there was a much greater crisis than that at 6 o'clock. Bethany, we were going to perform at 8, and Bethany discovered she needed lipstick. We went down into the town and everything was closed. That's the crisis I remember, she never got her lipstick. The rest is not history.
Okay. First of all, talk about what was the reaction? I mean, what's...
Oh, the reaction was good, the reaction was fine. But with Bethany, when you send out Bethany to sing, the reaction is always going to be good; it doesn't make any difference what the hell you write. I'm serious about this. I mean, Bethany goes out there and, you know, sings the way she can sing and it didn't make much difference.
Then, you know, we have to talk about... I know this became sort of infamous, too, was the piece that you wrote, was it for a newspaper or a magazine?
The "High Fidelity" mag, we're going to get to that, all right, and we'll straighten that one. It has been straightened out many times now, but probably not for public radio.
Okay. You're talking about a piece that was eventually entitled "Who Cares if You Listen". That was never my title, though. I'll tell you the story from the beginning, because it's, of course, it's pursued me and angered me. When I taught at Tanglewood in 1957, Aaron Copland asked me if I would give a lecture to the general multitude that came in on Friday before the big Friday concert, to give some sense of what it was like to be a composer in the university. I mean, as you know, most people don't realize that there is such things as serious composers alive and particularly in a university. They think, what the hell are they doing in a university? Well, I was the university composer in his eyes, so I said sure I'll do it. So I gave a lecture called "Off the Cuff" about what life in the university was like and why composers were there per force and what the advantages and disadvantages were. And that was the end of it. But in the audience there was a man who lived in Great Barrington down the road, who was the editor of a magazine quite perversely entitled "High Fidelity." And I, two days later, heard from him. He told me that he would like me to write this up as an article for "High Fidelity" magazine. Well, he said that I could write it down exactly as it was, and I said, "Look, I don't want it to be changed because it could be so misunderstood. It's a very delicate subject, so please don't alter it." Well, the next thing I know, it appeared under the title "Who Cares if You Listen?" ...They had to have something much more journalistic, something much more problematical, something much more adventurous. "Who Cares if You Listen," which had nothing to do with, it had little of the letter and nothing of the spirit of the article. Of course, I do care if you listen; above all I care how you listen! It was republished this way many times. They also knocked out a few sentences because some new advertising came in at the last moment. The magazine, as you probably know, is now well long out of existence, but it was very popular in those days, very widely circulated. That pursued me; it was published in anthologies until lately, but people had it published under its original title.
But it's funny to still see that noted, you know.
Oh, of course you do. I mean, there are a number of anthologies which now carry it with its correct title and, of course, "Who Cares if You Listen"--I find it offensive, of course.
Yeah, definitely inflammatory, I mean, you know...
Oh, yes, but that's what they wanted. I mean, how do you sell copies of "High Fidelity?" I don't know the answer to that, but apparently they did.
So talk to me about audience and, you know, finding an audience for your work. I mean, a lot of the work that we're featuring doesn't get a lot of performances, you know.
As a matter of fact, "Philomel," one my works, has gotten many performances. Many singers have done it. It's got two recordings; it was very hard to record for obvious reasons. I don't have any other...oh, yes, "All Set" is the other, of course, for a jazz combination. Jimmy Levine is going to be doing it next week, as a matter of fact, instead of The "Head of the Bed," which was originally scheduled, but that's harder and not quite as popular.
Talking about the music and the series, a lot of it doesn't get... it's not picked up by, you know, it's not in the...
Are we going to get into that? You want me to talk about conductors. I don't think you do really.
Yeah, or orchestras.
Look, this is show bizz. I mean, these people have jobs that they have to keep. Some of them are very good musicians, some of them are not, but they have to have audiences and the audiences are dwindling. Listen, it's not only for my music, it's for Brahms's music. I went over to the Philharmonic one day a couple of years ago and walked in and found the place half empty, and I knew the manager at that time very well, and I saw him and I said, "What's going on?" He said, "You know, look, the audiences for Brahms are dying off. We have to find some way to get an audience." And he said, "Don't worry about Schoenberg, we have to worry about Brahms and Mozart."
Do they have any idea about what they can do?
Look, we all feel very strongly about it, including my colleague here who happens to be a pianist. That is, music education. I mean, I don't see how anybody could sit through a work by Schoenberg or even Brahms who has no conception of how to follow the piece or is unable to follow the piece by ear. I mean, musical structure is in the memory of the beholder, in the memory of the listener, and if you can't remember, then you aren't trained to listen. I mean, how can you remember what's going on. How can you remember anything in a foreign language? You can't. We have something like a famous equation, which is, you know, the magic numbers 7 plus or minus 2, which means you can't remember more than maybe 5 to 9 things in succession that are not structured for you. There are unstructured events going by, and so, of course you become bored. You become uninterested; you become almost antagonistic as to what the hell is going on here, making any reasonable sense. I mean, you know what's happened to music education; it's disappeared from our schools completely. I'll go back to my childhood, since you asked me about it, I'll impose it upon you again. In Jackson, Mississippi, when I went to public school, we had 1 hour of music every single day. We would have a little lady who sat in her room and went to each of the six classes 1 hour a day and that's what it was. We weren't told about Mozart the Wunderkind, we weren't told stories. We wouldn't play phonograph records, because there weren't many phonograph records. What we did was learn to sing. We were given Golden Books and made to sing these things, and when we began to play instruments, we would come back into the school and we would play together and learn how to transpose. If we played a B flat clarinet, we suddenly had to learn that if it's a C written there, it sounds a B flat, so we better learn how to transpose a major second higher and so on. We all played instruments. We'd gather at night and play music. It could be pop music, it could be... No, but there were many, many young ladies who played the piano, and I'd go over and play the Brahms clarinet sonatas with them, very badly, we'd have trouble with it, but we did it. That was Jackson, Mississippi, again without any questions here of sectarianism. The fact is that in New York, there was much more of this, obviously, and people heard a great deal more music. I mean, when I say music education, it was all these things; it's the informal as well as the formal education. The music you heard in childhood, listen, you should know how it persists. If you know how to structure it, if you can remember what's going on in the music, then after that, the question of whether that's what you want in life or not is another matter. That's a normative matter which is quite independent of how you've analyzed it, and I'll use the word analysis in a very light sense. But we have a popular music now which is the most primitive and rudimentary popular music that has ever, ever, ever taken place in this country. It's like Chinese water torture. No one denies it is primitive, but that seems to be its virtue. I mean, what can you compare at your own turn with what you hear now by way of rap? ... See, I'm an old timer.
This series is focusing on composers that we're calling mavericks or people who have...
I actually find that a very interesting designation. I don't know whether I should be flattered or not, but maverick usually carries with it strongly the connotation of lack of discipline. I never thought of myself as undisciplined.
Mine is that sort of idea.
All right, we'll disregard that.
How do you think your work fits into that?
I tell you, I could never think of myself as a maverick, and I really don't mean in any sense, because I derived my work from such an immediate tradition as, well, as my transitivity to a long tradition. I mean, my music comes most directly from Schoenberg with a little bit of Webern maybe, and Schoenberg takes you right back to Brahms. I'm delighted to be taken right back to Brahms, because I can go there directly if not by way of Schoenberg. I always felt that connection to what music has been. I always wanted to make my music what it has been, and it is that rather than what one can get away with music to me.
Do you think that there's a through line about composers, something that makes [a composer] American? Something that's American about the music?
I tell you, in many subtle ways I do. I mean, there are the obvious Americana, which doesn't certainly have anything much to do with me, nor with most of the other composers you'd be talking about. But I think there is that. I mean, first of all, our American education, that's the first thing. Because, we are American by definition. I mean, you know, all of us were born here, educated here. I never set foot in a European school of any kind, so I never had any kind of European training. The generation before me went to France, went to Boulanger. I had none of that, nor did most of my colleagues. By virtue of chronology, by virtue of the state of the world, in that case, of course, we had to be, but what did it mean? I think in my case, I felt that what it meant was that we were very much concerned with learning everything we could, because as Americans we thought we didn't have a real musical tradition. There was a great musical tradition that had begun, and you stole it from them anytime you wish, but it was European. And, therefore, if we took it and learned from it and then produced our own original works, that was American. I mean, I would hate to think, you know, that one would have to say we're American, therefore we're going to start something absolutely new that has no relation to what music has been because music has been pretty remarkable.
Would it be, you know... why re-invent the wheel, you know, you can sort of use that.
No, I didn't re-invent the wheel. I don't even want to...I don't like wheels.
How about Varese, if you can talk about him?
What would you like to know about Varese? As I say I knew him very well, although I can't tell you most of the Varese stories...
I've gotten that gist.
I'm sure you understand. Varese was a very hot-headed man. He'd like to think of himself as a Frenchman, but he wasn't really. He was born in Italy, as you can infer for the fact that the name is Varese. He would say the most irresponsible things about people. He sort of hated the world. He felt his music wasn't being played enough. The time I knew him, though he was a celebrity, he was never played. All through the 1930s it would be hard pressed to find a Varese performance. I was very friendly with him, I made a speech about him at the, wherever it was that he got some kind of an award, the MacDowell Colony. We were very close friends, and I spent a lot of time in his house and his apartment on Sullivan Street. His music had no particular influence on me. I tried to imitate it as I said before when I was very young and I soon abandoned that.
They always make the distinction between the uptown and the downtown scene.
Oh, look, this is journalism, of course. Absolute journalism. People are always so amused when I tell them that I knew John intimately. John wanted to write an article on the first piece of mine that was published, my "Composition for Four" instruments. He claimed he was asked by "Musical America" to write it, and that he was working on it; nobody can find any evidence of it, but we were very friendly. And if that's what they're talking about, the difference in our music, well look at the difference in the up... so-called... I mean, this is simply concocted for journalistic purposes.
Listen to the Stream
Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Philippe Graffin, violin
Judas Maccabaeus: See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes!
George Frideric Handel
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
You can now listen to Classical and Choral Music on your iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) or Android device.