Milton Babbit, a noted and influential composer, teacher and thinker, passed away this Saturday at the age of 94. He is someone who I had met personally and with whom I had a rather influential encounter.
He is known for his highly complex and highly rational music – music that could truly be called “experimental” in light of his vision of academic music programs as laboratories for. He was not only involved in the early expansion of serialism beyond pitch into rhythm and dynamics, but also involved in the early development of electronic music. He was one of the first directors of the “Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center” and involved with the development of the RCA Mark II synthesizer. Many of his compositions from the 1960s were either fully electronic, such as his 1961 aptly named Composition for Synthesizer and his piece Philomel which featured electronic sounds and the processed voice of Bethany Beardslee. Philomel was probably his most well-known work, and you can hear a clip in this video:
Many remembrances describe his music as difficult or unapproachable, indeed the New York Times obituary opens with a description of his music as “impenetrably abstruse”. But I actually find several of the pieces beautiful, I could see listening to them and enjoying them for particular moods rather than as objects of study. Although he is most closely associated with the integral serialism that informed his composition, I see in pieces like Philomel similarities to works by Karlheinz Stockhausn and Luciano Berio based on very different compositional ideas.
I had my own encounter with Babbit about 16 years ago, when I was applying for the graduate composition program at Julliard. I had gotten a callback for live interviews with professors, and I found myself in his office with him looking over my scores. He was very friendly and humorous, and had kind words for my music (far more so than any other reviewer that day). Most significantly, he advised me about the relatively conservative “star-struck” environment Julliard – which has its place for turning out the next generation of professional concert musicians who aspire to cross the street to Lincoln Center – but that I would probably be happier continuing my work at a university such as Yale where I was completing my undergraduate work or Princeton where he taught. There was nothing condescending or discouraging about his advice – it was more a sense of “you are one of us” and I remember it fondly to this day. It was also important in the process that eventually brought me to UC Berkeley and to my current life in California.
My positive personal experience with him was in contrast to the portrayal he received in some of my early classes, where his statements about music most notably his essay “The Composer As Specialist / Who Cares if You Listen?” (an editorial retitling that he never liked) were often put into a dichotomy with others – I recall a couple of smackdowns with Babbit’s essay on one side and a counter-essay by Susan McClary on the other. As someone who was struggling to figure out where I fit in the world of academic music, moving between very rational and very theatrical, I sometimes took the bait on one side or the other. In the end, the argument was a non-argument. In fact, one of the fun things I have learned about Milton Babbit from the obituary writings was his fondness and knowledge of popular and theater music (particularly pre-World War II) and his brief experience with Broadway musicals. Something to keep in mind as we continue to make new music.