Perfect Sound Forever

OHM- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music

Milton Babbitt talks about "Philomel"
by Jason Gross
(April 2000)

Still going strong at age 84, renouned composer Milton Babbitt was a founding member of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Center (see related article) where he created "Philomel," one of the first compositions of the synthesizer (available on New World Records).

Q: What was the origin of "Philomel"?

John Hollander, the poet at Yale, knew a great deal about music and had written a lot about it.  He wrote a piece for me where I would know exactly what the conditions would be- it would be for solo soprano, there would be at least four sets of speakers around the hall and that it would be a work in which I would record her voice and fabricated and modulated through the synthesizer.  It was planned as a twenty minute piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, funded by the Ford Foundation.  At the time, there were funding four or five works a year- it's indicative of our time that they (or the Rockefeller foundation) don't go near music anymore.

John wrote the libretto for me and the piece was basically commissioned for a soprano, Bethany Beardsley.  He gave it to me and made some modifications.  John wasn't aware of the presence of audience and he didn't realize that certain conjunctions of words might sound strange.  The text is highly, sonically organized.  He's highly concerned about every aspect the of the English language.   It was very much concerned with sound, the sound of words and the relation of the sound to words to what he would knew the music would be, even when he knew what the electronic instrumentation would be.

He also understood that the synthesizer could do anything.  It was no longer a question of whether it could be played or whether it could be heard.  So he kept very close to me, to what the surrounding singer would do and how I laid it out.  So it was very much a collaboration between the two of us.  It took me about a year and I could have used more time.  It was very, very difficult because first of all, I had to create the sounds from the synthesizer.  Then I had to tape her voice for sections.  A great deal of the time, she's singing straight but also a great deal of the time, she's answering herself as she is recorded.  Of course, these are things that one really can't get on a record.  Usually, it was written, as most of my music was at the time, on four tracks.  We had this marvelous set up at the Macmillan Theatre where had not only four tracks but we have had any number of tracks distributed in different ways.  It makes a lot of difference, it's not for a great deal of electronic fantasy.  It's for clarity- clarifying lines coming out of four different speakings, heard separately and then trying to compound them, you lose a great deal.  You're going to get a certain amount of masking and it's not the original but what are you going to do?

Q: How do you look back at the piece today?

My thoughts are 'I wish I had my synthesizer.' (laughs)  When you're walking into the studio up at 125th Street (Columbia) with a piece in your head and eventually, you're able to walk out with a finished piece and a tape under your arm, it's an unparalelled experience.  You're not dependent on anyone but yourself.  That's a slight exaggeration because you get into the hall and your dependent on the speakers and the amplifier.  Remember, all of this is analogue.  We were not working digitally, for which I am most grateful.

In the most serious sense, it's a matter of just being the master of everything.  Your decisions are your decisions.  You convey them to a machine of course.  Learning how to convey them to a machine was a big problem at the time.  I could walk into the studio and could spend the day getting NOTHING that I wanted because musically, I had to get some of those things.  The machine was totally neutral.  There were no set-ups or samplers.  We had to start from stratch and do everything from the beginning.  Remember, I started working with the machine in 1957 and I didn't produce a piece with it until 1961.  "Philomel" was from 1963 and that took me a long time to do.  I did a number of pieces after that, some of which are much more intricate electronically.

But "Philomel" is very near and dear to my heart.  Part of it is because of Bethany Beardsley, an incomparable performer and wonderful musician who I've spent a great deal of my creative life with.  It's also because that was made on my own with the synthesizer in that studio.  It's gone and I miss it very much.  It's not because I want to eliminate performers.  I've worked with performers all my life.  We didn't want to reduce the dimensions of music, we just wanted to enhance them.  And we did but the problem was that it was a monster of a  machine.  It was the size of a whole room, a huge affair.  There was no question of replicating it because it cost RCA half a million dollars.  They were never going to replicate it.  But our studio was invaded.  They didn't steal much of the synthesizer because they wouldn't know what to do with it.  They took amplifiers and tape machines.  To rewire all of that, the synthesizer would have never got back into shape.  In fact, I had a piece in progress at the time which never got finished- I finished composing the piece but never finished the electronics.  It's a sad day in my life.

I never went to computers.  I could have started with computers with Bell Labs with Max Matthews in 1957.  But you couldn't imagine what it was like at that time.  With the turnaround time, you might as well have gone out and hired an orchestra.  You had the punch cards and the mainframe computer in which you had to pour your work into.  I knew enough about it to know that this was not for me.

You'd be amused to know that RCA (who build the synthesizer) asked me to put out a record originally because all of their programs were highly mathematical.   It was machine-language programs so I got someone else who knew more mathetmatics to work with them.  So they put together a private collection called Music From Mathematics where an engineer there synthesized "A Bicylce Built For Two" and you get the picture.  It's an interesting piece that he did- as far as I know, it's the first computer generated piece.

I just decided that I couldn't do anything like that.  Life is too short.  I haven't done any electronic music since.   In 1975, I turned back to instrumental music, not that I wasn't always writing that.

Q: How do you think "Philomel" fits into your work overall?

That's a good question.  It doesn't.  The things that I did in that piece were so determined by what was possible electronically.  Remember, I didn't turn to the electronic medium for 'new sounds.'  Nothing gets as old quickly as 'new sounds.'  It wasn't for the superficial titillation of sounds.  It was for, above all, music time, the way you can control time.  There's such a difference between being able to produce a sound as a performer, being able to strike the keyboard, it's automatic.  To produce a duration, it's totally different.  Teaching a child to imagine rhythm, a succession of durations, is so much more difficult than teaching someone who to put their finger down in the right place on an instrument.  Time has always created problems with  contemporary music- that's why the music wasn't performed and when it was performed, it was done sloppily.  We were tired of this.  The idea that we could control time as we wanted...

For example, the people working with tapes.  I should have mention that I never worked with tapes like my colleagues Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.  They had to sit there and splice tapes of various durations.  On a synthesizer, you could specific durations by punching it in like everything else.  So that was the first thing, the control of time.  What that led to was teaching us how to hear and perceive time.  I could produce things faster than any pianist could play or any listener could hear.  We were able to work with greater speeds.  That was one of the things that interested me the most- the timbre, the rhythmic aspect.  And we learned a great deal.   It was an analogue device and it was given digital information and switching instructions (for envelope, specter and other aspects of tone) passing over very expensive gold wires that scanned the information and then recorded it on tape.  I could change certain qualities of a tone while keeping other qualities, like the pitch, consistent.  I could hear what I was playing as I was playing it, using trial and error.  We had no precedent and we were extrapolating from no known theory.  Theories about what could be heard and what couldn't be heard were essentially wrong because they had never been tested in those conditions.

It's had an effect on what I write now for instruments.  Sometimes I write rhythms that are considered very difficult to play.  They can be achieved and they have been achieved by performers willing to do it.  There was a time that I would write out on the synthesizer and let them hear what I would want them to be producing on their instruments.  It has changed the way I wrote.

The things I did in that piece, I have never used since.  The vocal part is fairly straight-forward.  It had to be since she was producing that in the confines of the human voice.  I wrote things for her that I would not have wrote otherwise because so much of it depending on what was going on electronically.  Sometimes the matching of tambres or the rhythm of the ensemble and her own rhythmic part was all taken together.  This was something that you would never dare try with live performers.

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Also see our article on Babbitt's "All Set"

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