Obituary: Milton Babbitt, composer

Martin Cullingford2nd Feb 2011
Milton Babbit: belief in music (photo: Tully Potter Collection)Milton Babbit: belief in music (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

In 1958 the composer Milton Babbitt, who has died in Princeton, New Jersey aged 94, wrote an article for High Fidelity magazine arguing that music had now evolved into a quasi-science which “the normally well-educated man without special preparation” could hardly be expected to understand. Like philosophy, physics and advanced mathematics, Babbitt said, music deserved support as a purely academic pursuit. He called his article 'The Composer As Specialist', but was appalled when High Fidelity ran it with the more emotive title 'Who Cares If You Listen?' Babbitt’s reputation as the Ivory Tower composer’s Ivory Tower composer, whose sole purpose in life was to write music nobody wanted to hear – who had taken everything from Schoenberg and Webern’s serialism except their emotional, poetic core – was sealed by the fancy of a sub-editor’s pencil.

But the reality was different: Babbitt loved jazz, he adored Broadway shows and beer, and exhibited amusingly geeky, John Motson-like tendencies for baseball stats. He simply wasn’t the unfeeling academic his detractors liked to presume, despite his long tenure as professor at Princeton University. I suspect many more people disliked the idea of his music than ever actually encountered a Babbitt composition in the concert hall, or on disc.

Had Babbitt simply kept schtum about his theories, it’s tempting to speculate that his music could have found a wider audience, like Elliott Carter or Roger Sessions, his onetime teacher. But his belief in music as an academic discipline was not an affectation or pose. What better medicine for finding bits of your brain you didn’t know existed than the meticulous, rigorous study of philosophy or logic? And in the moment of listening often I’m stuck by the grace, whimsy and dignity of a music shell-shocked by the rigours Babbitt is putting it through, as the compulsive conviviality of so much New Music is chased down a Babbitt hole. The listener is forced to confront their assumptions about listening; about how music unfolds over time; about the myth of composition as divine inspiration.

Some works, like the relentlessly arid violin and piano The Joy of More Sextets, are like eating oysters: the promise is so intriguing, you become desperate to acquire the taste. But the challenge of My Ends Are My Beginnings, the Clarinet Quintet and Melismata is more like the playful intellectual joy that comes with solving a particularly cryptic crossword puzzle. (And that playfulness also extended to Babbitt’s punning titles – Sheer Pluck for guitar, Four Play, It Takes Twelve to Tango and None But The Lonely Flute. Boom boom!) This clarity of texture and purpose could be lost inside Babbitt’s stodgy orchestral works, but pioneering electronic pieces like Composition for Synthesiser and Philomel for voice and tape still stand up remarkably well. By pushing for such academic extremes did Babbitt prove that music is, after all, music?

Philip Clark

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