My Dinner with Milton

The following is a guest post by Music Specialist Steve Soderberg.

Portrait of Milton Babbitt. Music Division, Library of Congress.

“As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa in the mid-sixties, I met Milton Babbitt for the first time.  I’m using “met” here in a special, private sense, since what literally happened was that I, and at least a hundred others, saw and heard Milton Babbitt at a presentation he made with Charles Wuorinen on electronic music.  I didn’t see him again until his Piano Quartet was premiered at a Library of Congress concert at the Kennedy Center in 1996, but during that span of thirty years I heard Milton Babbitt’s music more and more.  And the more I heard Milton during those years (at some point I came to think of him on a first name basis) the more I read Milton, which made me want to hear more Milton.  Gradually I began to listen.  I simply had no choice.  Here was a man who not only created worlds which, to borrow a phrase from John Fowles, were “always a complexity beyond daily reality,” he also wrote about those worlds – and (this is important) the implied existence of others – in words which were always a refreshing complexity beyond daily reality.”

I wrote those words as part of an essay associated with the symposium in Milton’s honor held in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium in May 1998.  I thought of those words again this past weekend when I learned that Milton had died, when dozens of memories began flooding into my head.  There is only room here to share one of these, so I will tell one that relates to that essay and fits into the long relationship between Milton and the Music Division at the Library of Congress.

Since I had orchestrated the event, the night before the symposium I was invited to have dinner with Jon Newson, then the Music Division Chief, Jon’s wife Iris, and Milton and Sylvia Babbitt.  The conversation, as I recall, was mostly a “dueling banjos” between Milton and his wife Sylvia as they bantered for two to three hours about old songs, old movies, and old New York.  I still have no idea who knew more about movie history and trivia, Milton or Sylvia.  But it seems, in hindsight, that Sylvia was possibly the only one Milton would ever have yielded a point to about movies.

During this dinner I told Milton that two of the people at the symposium had, by sheer coincidence, decided to use Milton’s solo French horn piece Around the Horn as an example in their presentations.   I immediately noticed the twinkle in Milton’s eye.  He said, “You know why I called it Around the Horn don’t you?”  The real pun didn’t register until he just came out and told me the answer.  Then I remembered.  Groan.

The next day the symposium was a success.  It was attended by 150-200 people from around the US and a few from Canada and Europe.  Everyone loved the Coolidge as a venue for the symposium.  One said it was like a hundred people sitting in a big living room together.  We listened to scholarly papers on Babbitt and listened to his music.  Then, at the end, Milton got up to give his “response.”  Since Around the Horn had been discussed by several people without alluding to any pun, he was all set up to replay what he did to me the previous evening, but this time to an entire audience.  He asked them what the title referred to.  Knowing the answer then, I stayed quiet.  Someone shouted out the obvious, “Wind blowing around the tubes and valves of the horn.”  Someone else said “Sailing around the ‘Horn of Africa.’”  Then silence.  Milton hinted: “Doesn’t anyone here know anything about baseball?”  More silence.  Then the glee in his face when he finally announced, “Oh, you children – it’s the most difficult double play in baseball . . .”  (Groans)  “. . . and it’s what the infield does as a hustle after an easy out . . .”  (More groans)  “. . . 5-4-3 – throw the ball from third to second to first – ‘around the horn.’”

I last talked to Milton by phone on New Years Eve.  He was obviously quite ill and needed some cheering up.  I remembered that I had collected excerpts from some correspondence between a friend of Milton’s –  the late David Lewin – and the former head of the Music Room at the British Library, Oliver Neighbour.  Most of the excerpts were David’s comments about the music of Arnold Schoenberg.  So there were all sorts of connections I knew would interest him.  When he heard about this he was eager to read it, so I immediately emailed a copy to his daughter to give to him.  I hope reading them gave him some pleasure.

After that phone call I happened to think of something quite silly, but very true, that I could say about the man I had just spoken with.  Physically, Milton Babbitt was 94, but mentally he was 49.  Anyone who talked to him over the past few years knows that there was still much music in Milton, looking for ways to be expressed.  Still the music that did emerge from his life – that beautiful Babbittian complexity that can take us beyond our own daily reality – will keep us listening and wondering for a very long time.

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The NPR web site posted a documentary on Babbitt by New York-based journalist and filmmaker Robert Hilferty.  Hilferty passed away in 2009, but his project was finished by composer and former Babbitt student Laura Karpman.  This documentary is highly recommended.

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