Documentary: Avant-Garde Composer Milton Babbitt
The American composer and teacher Milton Babbitt died Saturday, Jan. 29 at age 94. For years, New York-based journalist and filmmaker Robert Hilferty had been constructing a documentary on Babbitt. It was a quirky, loving look at a man regarded by many as a composer of "difficult" music. Hilferty left the film unfinished when he died in 2009. Composer and former Babbitt student Laura Karpman has now completed Hilferty's film. And she has graciously placed its premiere on NPR Music.
Two years ago, I spent the winter in New York, preparing for the premiere of a new piece of mine at Carnegie Hall. I went to visit my old friend Robert Hilferty, who wanted me to watch the latest cut of his film about Milton Babbitt.
For years Robert had constructed Portrait of a Serial Composer. He realized that it was still a work in progress, and we discussed the major changes he intended to make in order to finish it up. He died tragically several months later. His partner, Fabio, asked me to complete the film.
Last summer, I began to sit in the room with Milton again, just as I had done as his student years before. I spent hours combing through footage — seeing images of Sylvia (his wife) again, listening to Milton go on about baseball, Chinese food and music. Always music, with that twinkle in his eye I knew so well.
I think we all know why Milton is so important, and now, why this film is too. He loved music above all things, and because he cared so deeply about every aspect of it, he was greatly misunderstood.
In this film, we see him as the intellectual titan that he was, and we see why he wrote what he did and a bit about how he did it. But he also sings, laughs, drives with Sylvia, talks about his family and his own musical beginnings at the dawn of the last century.
Early last fall, I sent Milton a copy of the completed film. I believe this project started as Robert's love letter to Milton and it ended as mine. In a three-word email, Milton requited the feeling that inspired the film: "I love you."
Laura Karpman, a four-time Emmy-winning composer, writes for film, television, theatre, video games and the concert hall. She is on the UCLA faculty, and a member of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. She received her doctorate in music composition under the tutelage of Milton Babbitt at The Juilliard School.