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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 15, 2000. All rights reserved.
`Distinctive Voices, Visions’
Celebrating its 20th subscription season with an all-20th-century
music series, the Princeton Chamber Symphony hosts one of the nation’s
and our town’s most influential and esteemed composers, Milton Babbitt,
in its concert presentation, Sunday, March 19, at 4 p.m. in Richardson
Auditorium. Babbitt’s "Composition for 12 Instruments" is
featured on a program of "Distinctive Voices and Musical Visions,"
together with works by Prokofiev, Ravel, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland.
Babbitt will join artistic director Mark Laycock in a brief conversation
onstage before the performance.
U.S. 1’s Elaine Strauss interviewed Milton Babbitt at his Princeton
office last year prior to the performance of one of his choral works
by Princeton Pro Musica. Below are some excerpts from their talk.
A man of smooth movements and an open face, Babbitt
gives little evidence of being a living legend, except for the fact
that he seems to know just about everybody in the field of music.
He seems to have all the time in the world, and to be endowed with
The oldest of three brothers, Babbitt was born in 1916 in Philadelphia,
where his family summered. His father’s university appointment was
in Lincoln, Nebraska. "My father was a mathematician," Babbitt
says. "He was a great planner and we were always born in the summer."
Babbitt’s mother was descended from Prince Potemkin, the ingenious
advisor to Catherine the Great of Russia. In 1904 Babbitt’s mother
returned to ancestral properties in Russia. "At a Christmas party,
in a dacha outside of Moscow, she met my father," Babbitt explains.
"He was a graduate student in Zurich. My mother brought him to
the United States."
"My father, who was a distinguished mathematician, went periodically
to Omaha, to consult with Bankers’ Life on actuarial work," Babbitt
says. "During one of his visits, Eudora Welty’s father offered
him a job at his company, in Jackson, Mississippi, as an actuary,
and my father became a vice president. We were well off during the
"When I grew up there was only live music," says Babbitt.
"At Jefferson Davis School, a public school, we were taught that
we were the last custodians of high culture. We all got a classical
education. I started as a violinist, and switched to clarinet."
Summers he would spend time with an uncle who was associated with
Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. "My uncle played Schoenberg at
me when I was 19," Babbitt remembers. "Of course, I couldn’t
make much out of it, but my uncle, whom I respected, took it seriously,
and he had a tremendous influence on me." In the 1940s, Babbitt
became a pioneer, known for refining Arnold Schoenberg’s avant-garde
compositional principles of the 1920s.
During the 1950s, Babbitt turned his attention to electronic music.
He and Vladimir Ussachevsky of Columbia University acquired the sound
synthesizer developed at RCA as a birthday present for RCA’s General
Sarnoff and installed it at Columbia.
"You had to specify everything and the machine made the sounds,"
he says. "It was a very slow process. It was an input device,
not a computer; it couldn’t deal with numbers. It had 1,800 vacuum
tubes, not because they didn’t know about transistors, but because
vacuum tubes produce the best sound at high frequencies. The synthesizer
was in sections, and went around two corners. It was bigger than my
office. The complexity of the machine can’t be exaggerated. I worked
on it until 1975, when the studio was broken into and ravaged. Since
then I’ve done no more electronic music. I didn’t want to start with
The prolific Babbitt has produced almost 70 compositions since the
time he gave up electronic music. They include orchestral compositions
and concerti, chamber music for brasses, and for strings, solo pieces
for a variety of instruments, songs, piano music, spoken word pieces,
and material that defies classification.
Babbitt continues to teach composition at New York’s Juilliard School,
as he has done since 1971. At Princeton University, where his teaching
career began in 1938, his office is well used. He is warm and responsive,
and, at 83, shows no signs of wear. To what does Babbitt attribute
his vigor? "I don’t do a damn thing except get up late and go
to bed late and work the whole time," he says. "In my generation,
the war had a big effect. We all have the feeling that we’re always
— Elaine Strauss
Symphony , Richardson Auditorium, 609-497-0020. Soloist Meng-Chieh
Liu is featured in Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto. Lecture at 3 p.m.
by musicologist Laurence Taylor. $25 & $28. Sunday, March 19, 4
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