Besides having one of the coolest names in American Music, Milton Babbitt had the rare privilege and responsibility of defining an entire musical culture. Somebody had to be Milton Babbitt, and nobody could have been better qualified.
Since he passed away last weekend there have been numerous postings from former students and colleagues attesting to his legacy. I’m numbered among the many who had frequent interactions with him over a period of about five years – I didn’t study with him privately, but his larger-than-life personality, reputation, intelligence, physical features and booming basso extended his circle far beyond that of most teachers.
Babbitt possessed a quick wit and a shocking frankness. He could also be astonishingly warm: those of us who knew him as a teacher were as much in awe of his devotion to us as we were of his accomplishments.
Milton was also justly celebrated, I suppose, for his convoluted manner of speaking and writing, juggling subjects and multiple countersubjects in a single sentence. But that wasn’t the way I experienced him. I knew him as a brilliant aphorist, the source of pithy, acerbic summations intoned with a melodious charm that elicited uncomfortable chuckles from the students circling him in the hallway, as we tried to sort out the proportions of humor and seriousness contained within. Two that I recall off the top of my head that seem somehow emblematic:
“If I knew when I was your age what I know now about the composition profession, I never would have gotten into it.”
“Why do music departments have piano majors? English departments don’t have typing majors!”
And then the elevator light would ding, and he’d be gone.