Milton Babbitt, Avant-Garde Composer, Dies at 94

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Milton Babbitt, a composer known for his staggeringly complex yet lucid, jazzy and occasionally humorous work, died on Saturday in Princeton, NJ. He was 94.

Paul Lansky, a composer on the faculty of Princeton University, where Babbitt formerly taught, said his death came after a long illness.

Babbitt composed over 75 works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments and voice. He is credited with extending Schoenberg's twelve-tone method into what came to be known as total serialism. This meant that every aspect of a composition -- pitch, rhythm, instrumentation, dynamics – could be controlled through serial techniques. It produced many rigidly structured yet elegant compositions.

Together with composers Roger Sessions, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, Babbitt founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959, the first organization in the United States devoted to composition and research in the field.

Ironically, Babbitt is probably best known to the general public as a polemicist and the author of an essay published in High Fidelity magazine under the provocative title "Who Cares If You Listen?" The article, a serious analysis of contemporary music and its diminishing audience, was originally titled "The Composer as Specialist," but the magazine's editor thought the title dull and academic and changed it at the last minute -- without Babbitt's permission and to his eternal chagrin.

More than a half-century later, Babbitt still received angry letters about it. "The title reflected little of the letter and absolutely nothing of the spirit of the article - I care very much if you listen and where you listen and how you listen," he told the music critic Tim Page in the 1980s. But the headline stuck and "Who Cares If You Listen?" was regularly used to summarize and disparage an entire generation of composers as icy, clinical technicians.

Born in 1916 in Philadelphia, Babbitt was raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He studied mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and subsequently received a B.A. from New York University and a Master of Fine Arts from Princeton. Though he studied music with Roger Sessions, composition remained an avocation for a while; during World War II he worked as a mathematical researcher at Princeton.

In 1948, Babbitt joined Princeton's composition faculty, and remained there until his retirement in 1984. He also taught for a period at the Juilliard School.

In the 1950s, partly as a way of composing outside of traditional formats, Babitt latched onto the emerging analog technology of the RCA Mark II synthesizer. In 1960, came his first entirely synthesized work, Vision and Prayer. Four years later, he wrote Philomel, his best-known composition. It was performed by the soprano Bethany Beardslee, with a soundtrack that includes her own taped voice interacting with her live singing.

Babbitt's droll sense of humor surfaced in pieces like Play It Again Sam, for viola; and It Takes Twelve To Tango, for piano.

While much of Babbitt's music was met with incomprehension from audiences and musicians alike, he held an enormous sway over academia and his fellow composers. In addition to his degrees from NYU and Princeton, Babbitt became a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1965 and was awarded a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize board in 1982. Among Babbitt's students were Stephen Sondheim, Lera Auerbach, Mario Davidovsky and Kenneth Fuchs.

Lansky, also a former student, remarked on the fact that Babbitt had "such remarkable ears that he was able to hear tiny details with extraordinary accuracy." Even as serialism went out of fashion, he remained supportive to his younger colleagues, frequently attending concerts in New York until very recently.

Lansky added: "We’re no longer deeply involved in a lot of aspects of serialism, but we do follow his belief that writing music that’s interesting and complicated and challenging is an admirable task to be encouraged."

Please share your thoughts on Milton Babbitt's life and work below.

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Comments [5]

Ed from New York City

As a doctoral candidate at Columbia University School of the Arts, I'd often trudge up to 125th St, take the elevator up to the studio and be met by Milton Babbitt toying with the RCA Mark I synthesizer, being one of the only people there still able to manipulate the machine. He would also frequently attend student concerts at Miller Theater and his presence as a composer and a human being will be missed.

Feb. 01 2011 11:25 AM
Donald Irving from Worcester, MA

Have I missed Babbitt's music on WQXR? While his death has been announced, and this page on the website mentioned, it seems rather odd indeed that I have heard none of his music.

Jan. 30 2011 09:04 PM
David from NYC

Composer? What Composer?
Let's hear it for those luscious leggy ladies in the 2nd vid ! !

Jan. 30 2011 02:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

MILTON BABBITT like his composer colleagues from the Journalism Building at New York's Columbia University Douglas Moore, Otto Luening, and Vladimir Ussachevsky in the 1940s and 1950s, and Princeton's Roger Sessions, with whom he studied his compositional craft opened up a spectacular realm of music making. It is dense, ultra-sophisticated, technically evocative, expansive, totally measured, architecturally skyscraper-like and to the avant garde, totally compelling. The MOOG and the RCA Mark ll synthesizer made his concepts possible and transmissable. Moore, with his "Ballad of Baby Doe," nonetheless, resorted to his conventional composition training, unconvinced that the general public would react enthusiastically as the composers with their new "toy." Kudos to the Babbitts who seek to expand our horizons in the tonal arts !!!

Jan. 30 2011 01:30 AM
Shadeed Ahmad from New York City

There is a lot of talk about a golden evolution occurring amongst humanity in 2012 and beyond. Milton Babbitt's music known as "total serialism" is an elegant initiation into the music that I feel will be an integral part of the music that will joyously inundate our artistic attention in the future. His music was viewed as complex because of an often dumbing down of the general public's musical taste which in turn has adversely affected our chances of communing with each other with greater sophistication and harmony on this planet. Fortunately we have recordings of Milton Babbitt's as reference points to carry some of us more comfortably into an age of enlightenment. We'll realize that we have heard the music of the future times, before. With enlightenment of that nature, people worldwide ultimately will be filled with authentic inner peace that can lovingly caress, comprehend and appreciate such vibes.

Milton Babbitt, may GOD Bless you eternally with the greatest of music, happiness, light and comfort for a job extremely well done.

Jan. 30 2011 12:19 AM

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