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Milton Babbitt

I wrote the Second Quartet in 1953-54 for the New Music Quartet, of which Claus Adam was the cellist. I had to leave for London and never heard the first performance of this piece. When Stefan heard that they were going to play this work, I now recall that he came to rehearsal at Claus's apartment and looked at the score with me, asked some questions, and we had a rather general conversation about the work. Now at that time Claus had given Stefan a copy of my manuscript of the Quartet.

The piece of mine that Stefan pressed me most about, and obviously delighted him for rather esoteric personal reasons, was one that never made it quite to the top of the charts. It was a piece called Composition for Tenor and Six Instruments. He heard a performance which the Group for Contemporary Music did up at McMillin and professed to love it. Now I must confess to you, I think the reason he felt that was because in many ways it was my most difficult piece both to perform and to hear. It was a piece that made many people very angry. It had long, long, long periods of unchanging notes, or very, very slow-changing pitch combinations, which was not like my usual music and which intrigued Stefan. There was another reason, too. It was conducted by Harvey Sollberger, and Harvey and Charles both sort of latched onto that piece. It was then repeated at a large concert at Town Hall, and I remember walking out with Stefan after that, and he expressed this great, great enthusiasm for this piece, which has never been performed since. Now that piece we did go over in enormous detail, for two reasons, the first being the tempo organization. It's not the only piece of mine in which I've done this, but it's the most extreme piece. I decided after that piece that I would have to find some sort of way of writing music that was not as difficult. It was just too much. We also had the problem of the tenor. The tenor in that piece used only phonemes, and the phonemes were indeed chosen in order to either contrast or blend with the instruments. Sometimes it worked very well, and sometimes it didn't. Now that's a piece about which I talked a great deal with Stefan. He wanted to know about phonemic structure. Obviously he knew not a great deal about vocal acoustics and vowel acoustics, and many of us were involved in this, not merely for musical purposes, because we were involved in electronics. He did not know about the Haskins Laboratory in New York. I told him about it. He said he would like to visit it, and he had friends who could get him there.

That is the piece with which I can remember the most discussion about the organization--spatial organization, division of the musical space, as well as musical time, and possible analogies between the two. Stefan was one of those who took quite literally--as almost everybody did, including Stravinsky--a statement that Schoenberg never made, but was alleged to have made, about the identification of the horizontal and the vertical. And Schoenberg said he liked that idea, where Stravinsky said he hated the idea. Stefan said he liked it, but he didn't want to use it too literally, and I remember discussing with him the fact that Schoenberg had never talked about that. He said something much vaguer about the unity of musical space, and this had really nothing very much to do with some notion about whatever goes up may go sideways, or something such as that. It was rather that the whole problem of how to make identifications between that which is defined linearly and that which is defined vertically required all kinds of very specific Schoenbergian techniques. We talked about those a little.

Stefan's Darmstadt lecture [1956] is really a public lecture about a lot of composers. The Yale lecture was not like that at all. The Yale lecture was "How I Write Music." Stefan decided that I'm the academic man, so he called me and asked me if I would look at this lecture. Whether, I thought, first of all, it was long enough. And I said, "Don't pack it too full, because no one will understand." And I said to him, "Look, Stefan, don't speak too quickly, and above all, you'll be able to cover much, much less than you think." Well, he showed me this packet of papers, which at that time was handwritten, and it was a mixture of languages. I mean he would put in German words where he didn't know equivalents. All I can tell you is that I probably saw it two or three times. He was very, very anxious about. He had all kinds of trepidations. He knew that Yale was a prestigious institution, and I think he thought this might get him a job. So he worried and worried. All I can tell you is that he never wrote it out completely. Perhaps a week before he was going up to New Haven I saw it. Al Baumann was constantly helping him, so I guess we did this together. We told him to use many musical examples, to illustrate everything, not to just stand there and describe these techniques. The report was that by the time he came to the end of the first hour people were looking around rather anxiously. By the end of the second hour many people had left. It is reported that it went on for over three hours, when they told him he would have to stop. When I asked him a week or two later how it went, he said he really wasn't satisfied with it, because there were so many things that he had to skip over and skirt through. He said, "You know, people seemed to think that it was too long."

I remember when Claus asked me to come down once to hear Stefan talk about a Bartók string quartet at this new music school somewhere down on Second Avenue around Twelfth. Claus said, "Come on over, Stefan's going to talk about a Bartók quartet," and it was the Fourth. I found it fascinating for a very simple reason. It really came out of a certain kind of tradition of analysis of which none of these kids were aware. It was the tradition of the minor second in the Mozart G Minor Symphony. It was motive-hunting, interval-hunting. But all that Stefan was using the Bartók Fourth Quartet for was a way of showing how he'd gotten some of his ideas and how he'd extrapolated from them. He would show fragmentary things in the Bartók and then show how this could have been developed. It had very little to do with Bartók except as an instigator and as a kind of justifier for the things he was going to talk about.

When Stefan was at a rehearsal, I can tell you with regard to one piece, the piece he wrote for trumpet, saxophone, his jazz piece [Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion, and Piano, 1950]. It was rehearsed at McMillin, and the rehearsal was very interesting. It was probably a dress rehearsal. Stefan was constantly concerned with matters of balance, or being able to hear the relationship between the individual instruments. There was almost no stopping for anything else. Dynamics, a little, but that was dynamics as it contributes to balance. But with that ensemble group the piece did not come off well at all. And I think he was disappointed with the performance. But all that he kept worrying about was the trumpet and the saxophone playing too loudly.

Obviously he was concerned to teach people how music must go to be intelligent, coherent, beautiful, forceful. I forget the adjectives he used to use. These were the necessary and sufficient conditions for making this music, endowing it with those properties. This is obviously when he taught them from the ground up. Stefan was obviously quite different [from Stravinsky and Schoenberg]. He wanted to show people how he wrote music.

Milton Babbitt (b. 1916) studied at New York University where, in 1935 he received his B.A. He studied composition privately with Roger Sessions and subsequently pursued graduate studies at Princeton, where he joined the music faculty in 1938. In 1971 he joined the music faculty at Juilliard and also taught at the Berkshire Music Center. Babbitt was a founding member of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and in 1986 was named a MacArthur fellow. Interview: AC, New York City, 14 December 1983.


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