Milton Babbitt, crabby, exuberant, reviled, playful, rigorous, thrilling. The composer who has been among the most controversial yet influential figures in American concert music of the past 60 years. The theorist whose vision about the direction that music should take dominated the academy for decades. The teacher who has guided generations of young composers both at The Juilliard School and in the Ivy League. The man who, as he celebrates his 90th year, continues to lead a full life as a composer and pedagogue, and who glows at the thought that James Levine, one of his most powerful champions, is now in command at the Boston Symphony.
In person, Milton Babbitt is a small, compact figure whose pursed lips and twinkling eyes behind thick black frames seem always on the edge of a smile. His conversation is quick, his thought fluid, able to dart from one subject to another at the drop of an implication. Just like his music, some might say. Joel Sachs, a Juillliard colleague for many years, makes the comparison directly.
Sachs describes an occasion when he played one of Babbitt's piano compositions at the Dartington Summer Festival in England. Milton was there, Sachs recalled, always at the lunch and dinner tables, always gabby, very friendly, very funny. At the recital, Sachs told the audience that one way to get Babbitt's music is to think of it as being like a conversation with the composer. After the concert, an elderly woman came up to Sachs and said, Thinking of the conversations with him made all the difference.