Drove to Princeton University yesterday, an 80-mile round trip, for the music department’s tribute to Milton Babbitt, who died in January. Babbitt taught at Princeton for God knows how many years, and Steven Mackey, the department’s current chairman, said that for a long time after his retirement in 1984, candidates for the composition program would write on their applications that the reason they wanted to come to Princeton is that they wanted to study with him.
First things first: the program was brief — only about an hour — but it was choice. The great Fred Sherry opened with More Melismata for solo cello. Soprano Judith Bettina followed with a charming performance of the Phonemona, accompanied by pianist James Goldsworthy. The title is an example of the kind of wordplay Babbitt enjoyed (I still have trouble pronouncing it) and it refers to the fact that the text of the song consists entirely of discrete English-language phonemes — in short, nonsense syllables. The piece has the feeling of atonal scat, and Bettina sold it with hand gestures that would make you think she was actually telling a story. (I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin singing French-sounding gibberish in Modern Times.) John Link, the Carter expert, told me afterward he would like to see Bettina perform the piece at the Café Carlysle, which did not strike me as a very far-fetched suggestion.
The only piece on the program not by Babbitt was the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 4, a piece Babbitt is said to have loved, and which Robert Taub paired with the second of Babbitt’s early Three Compositions for Piano. (At least I think that’s what the Brahms was. I have lost my program. Correct me if I’m wrong.) The two pieces had similar moods and fit together well, and the pairing served to illustrate Babbitt’s frequent assertion, repeated to me later by one of his former students, that his music was in many ways very traditional.
Bettina and Galsworthy then returned for “Penelope’s Night Song,” one of the Three Theatrical Songs Babbitt wrote back in the 1940s for a projected Broadway musical based on the Odyssey. It was an unexpected treat, and indeed, it would not sound out of place at the Café Carlyle, or an early Streisand album. I called for an encore, but either they didn’t hear me, or they decided to ignore me.
Last, and most substantial, was the String Quartet No. 6 from 1993 performed beautifully by the Zukofsky String Quartet. It’s hard to describe exactly what goes on in this piece, but it has a rich, warm, consonant sound that I would not hesitate to call Mozartean, or maybe Handelian. Babbitt does have this quality. There is a warmth and humor in his music you don't find in a major influence like Schoenberg.
The recital was followed by a reception downstairs at Alexander Hall in a room that was much too small to accommodate the crowd comfortably — and there was a crowd. The Richardson Auditorium had been quite full. To commemorate Babbitt’s love of beer, there were free samples of some of his favorite brews, primarily Belgian brands like Chimay and Duvay, as I recall, and, to commemorate his love of food, there were hors d’oeuvres-sized won tons and ginger pancakes, in addition to the usual buffet of fruit, cheese, crackers and cookies. (Reports are he also loved baseball and horse racing. It’s surprising no one thought to get up a pepper game.)
Fans and students traveled long distances for the tribute. I chatted with the composers Stanley Jordan, who flew in from Los Angeles, and Jane O’Leary, who came over from Ireland. Both had studied with Babbitt at Princeton. Lance Morrisson, another composer, did not, but he described himself as a fan, and he flew out from Missouri just for the event.
I also met Betty Ann Babbitt, the composer’s daughter, and a woman introduced to me only as Paula, Betty Ann’s partner of 27 years. I never spoke to Milton — and everyone there called him Milton, not Babbitt — but Paula was able to give me a little insight into his work habits. She didn’t remember any sketch books, she said. It seemed Milton worked note by note, and if the way a piece was turning out didn’t satisfy, he would throw it out and start over. She also told me that after about 2006, he was unable to complete any new music. The kind of work he produced required more concentration than he was able to give it.
I hung out a long time, almost until the reception room had cleared out completely. Finding myself in Princeton on a sunny spring afternoon, I browsed through Labyrinth Books and the Princeton Record Exchange. In an astounding feat of self-discipline, I limited myself to one purchase at each place. By coincidence, each one had something to do with Charles Ives. The book was Stuart Feder’s biography of Ives, My Father’s Song. The CD was Stokowski’s classic recording of the Orchestral Set No. 2.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to speak with “Bob,” my favorite DJ at WPRB Princeton, who told me he was going to be there. He e-mailed me a picture to make it easier for me to spot him, but spotting one middle-aged, balding white guy at a Babbitt concert is a little like playing Where’s Waldo?