Below are various anecdotes about Milton Babbitt. The ones in black are told firsthand. The ones in red are told second-, third- and fourth-hand. I'll be adding more whenever I feel like it.
I was writing my Violin Concerto ('82-'83) and had been stalled for some time on what to do at a sectional break. I had gone to Boston to hear the Lydian Quartet play Ross Bauer's String Quartet, and zeroed in on a passage in tremolos as the solution to my problem. Thus I started the sectional break with fingered tremolos in all of the strings, and acknowledged Ross with the expressive marking Alla Bauer. When I showed it to Milton, he said, "what do you mean, like a peasant? And why are you mixing your languages?"
In the fifties, when it was still cool to be smart, Milton usually had a long line of co-eds seeking his autograph on a program after a performance. One of his students snuck into the co-ed line and offered his program. Milton, without looking up, signed Fuck you. Milton Babbitt. Later he tried to get the program back, but was not successful.
Taking the cue from the previous anecdote, I got in line for an autograph after Joan Heller sang Vision and Prayer in Boston. Milton signed my program To David. Why? Milton Babbitt.
At a reception after a Boston performance of his Woodwind Quartet, Milton related that Harold Shapero had remarked, after its premiere, "you can tell the piece is by an American because it sounds like good Hindemith."
During my student days, whenever I told Milton that I was going to Boston for the weekend, he always asked me to "give my love to Arthur". (Berger)
Milton returned from a Massachusetts Arts Council judging panel one week and related to me — because I had studied in Massachusetts, I guess — that there was one trumpet concerto by a woman in the western part of the state that was slick and polished and very commercial, and he'd never heard of her. He pushed hard to get her a grant, but the rest of the committee was not swayed.
At a Hindemith premiere in New York, just before the beginning, Milton turned to the person sitting next to him and whispered, I'll give you five dollars for every time the bass moves by leap. At the end, he owed nothing.
Imitations of Milton ran rampant. The catch phrases were my dear boy, one of my oldest and dearest friends, and but I don't have to tell you that.
Occasionally, but rarely, Milton would play a few phrases of cocktail piano as we filed in to his graduate seminar. In one of them, he played a cocktail harmonization of the bassoon solo from the Rite of Spring, explaining that William Schuman had once played Milton the pop songs that he (Schuman) had written when he was young, and this harmonization was one of them. When Milton remarked, "Bill! Le Sacre du Printemps", Schuman said he hadn't even noticed.
Milton always had a few nice words to say about the music of any composer, except for two — he made it clear in seminars that he did not care for Ives or Mahler.
Along the same lines as the previous — our lesson was once in a room where the first four bars of the slow movement of Ravel's Concerto in G had been left on the board. Our lesson was very short that day, as Milton spent most of the lesson talking about the Ravel, its long-range voice leading, about all the performances of it he knew, and about how few people appreciated the depth in Ravel's music.
Milton's favorite punch line — or at least the one I heard most from him — would often come unbidden: "When they say it's self-indulgent, I tell them there's no one else I'd rather indulge."
Milton used "quasi" as a modifier quite often, and pronounced it quay sigh.
Any time Milton would put a set on the board, he would duplicate a pitch and have to start over again. Always, always, always. I think he did it so we'd have stories (like this one).
While teaching a grad seminar, Milton was going his usual mile-a-minute, grazed the piano as he went to the blackboard, and looked down at the front of his jacket. "Did I lose a button? Well, if I didn't I should have!" and continued to the blackboard.
On advice from Mac Peyton, I took the train to Princeton and did an interview at Princeton. I brought with me a cassette of the recently premiered A Refusal to Mourn... and wore my il più formaggioso polyester suit (it was like wearing a costume, and felt like it). I was actually in the music building most of the day, and the most memorable interview was with Paul Lansky, who noted, "I don't know if you even had to come. From hearing your music, I feel like I know you already." I've used that line, or one like that, several times since. I had a brief meeting with Milton, then wandered around downtown Princeton. I discovered the Annex restaurant, downstairs from Woolworth's, and as I was taken to my table, I noted a tugging on my arm, and I paused. It was Milton, who said, "I see you've already found the right place to eat!" That wording led me to believe I got in.
When I first got to Princeton, there was a meeting called of all the composition students and faculty. We went around the table introducing ourselves and saying what we were working on. One student said, "I'm sort of working on a piano piece. It begins with a diminished triad, but I don't know where it goes from there." Milton commented, "Well, of course you know there are four places it could go."
Milton's take on Marvin Hamlisch: "the guy couldn't compose his way out of a paper bag."
Milton didn't like the indication "Transposed Score" on a Transposed Score. Transposed from what? Transposed from the part to concert pitch? Transposed from concert pitch to the part? Just say concert pitch or not concert pitch!