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PRINT Summer 2011

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Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt at work in one of the four composition studios at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Columbia University, New York, ca. 1968. © William Gedney Collection/Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.

BABBITT. For decades, that bouncy disyllable signified two things: a man who was one of the most engaging presences in the New York musical world—composer, theorist, teacher (at Princeton and Juilliard); connoisseur of popular song from the golden age; lecturer possessing formidable erudition, wit, and improvisatory prowess; faithful supporter at his friends’ and students’ concerts—and a prodigious body of work that went back to the years immediately after World War II and guaranteed its author a leading place among those remembered for remaking music at that time. But, hard as this may be to admit for those who benefited from his generosity, the balance was off. Babbitt the man was often to be encountered, Babbitt the music rarely.

Espoused as his works were by many formidable musicians, from James Levine, who commissioned his last two orchestral scores (the Second Piano Concerto [1998] for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Concerti for Orchestra [2004] for the Boston Symphony), to the numerous younger pianists fascinated by the sparkle and strangeness the composer found in their instrument, Babbitt was the most neglected of the great pioneers of his generation. Everyone knew—the history books all agreed—that he had reestablished twelve-tone music on a firmer, broader, and richer base, his Three Compositions for Piano (1947) anticipating by half a decade the integral serialism of Pierre Boulez. Everyone knew, too, that he had invented at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center an altogether new, synthesized soundscape in such works as Philomel (1964), for voice and tape: highly defined, at once abstract and itchy with life and atmosphere, looking forward with brilliant clarity to the ways in which computers would be used in making music. Performances and recordings, however, with some proud exceptions, failed to take stock of his abundant, diverse, and stimulating productivity.

For many artists, such patchy attention would have brought on bitterness or failure of nerve, especially in the face of a culture that was embracing minuscule talents when it deigned to take note of contemporary composers at all, and that was marginalizing his work as “complex” or “cerebral.” Babbitt, though, retained both his robust good humor and his creative drive. To the age of ninety he kept up a steady output in the genres he had always favored: piano music, chamber pieces, and songs, written for musicians eager to put into his music the work it expected and rewarded, together with the odd orchestral composition when he got the chance. He became more relaxed. Abstraction and airy beauty, exemplified by the six string quartets that marched through his output roughly one per decade, or the several pieces he called simply Composition, were joined more often by a comic spirit betrayed in such titles as Septet but Equal (1992), Whirled Series (for saxophone and piano, 1987), and Four Play (for clarinet—his own instrument—with violin, cello, and piano, 1984).

Devotees of Babbitt—and he inspired devotion among performers, fellow composers, students, and listeners who realized they were on to something—have been inclined to play up the playfulness and downplay the formidable theoretical armature supporting it, but the two belong together. Babbitt’s music is not lively despite its rigor; rather, its rigor—the high determination fixing every note, every particle of rhythm, every dynamic value, every instrumental color—frees up the liveliness. This is no paradox. Submission to system liberated Babbitt’s notes from the sways of his creative will. Of course, he set up and elaborated his systems, of which there could be no end, but then the way notes behaved would be partly taken out of his hands. The notes could frolic, liberated from any guiding expressive voice. One does not hear Babbitt speaking through his music; one hears his music speaking as if of itself, in a rare and exhilarating experience of art’s autonomy.

Composing for the solo voice, though, obliged Babbitt to find a voice of his own—flickering, fragile, virtuoso, often wobbling around small selections of notes (the jittery repeated note being a Babbitt hallmark)—and it may be through his vocal works that he will most quickly gain new admirers. He wrote songs throughout his life, setting poets from Shakespeare to John Ashbery, and he enjoyed the warm respect of singers, especially the soprano Bethany Beardslee. It was for her that he wrote his endlessly fascinating Philomel, in which John Hollander’s specially written poem made it possible for Babbitt to take a narrative instant—the moment when the raped Athenian princess of the title is metamorphosed into a nightingale—and protract it into a concert scena for live singer in dialogue with an alter ego (recorded by Beardslee) in a fantastical forest of electronic figuration. A video recording of this remarkable work, with Tony Arnold as soloist, is among the posts winning Babbitt a widening audience on YouTube, a medium his egalitarian spirit would surely have welcomed: In his music he threw hierarchical thinking out the window along with self-expression.

Designed with exacting care, Babbitt’s music is among the most beautiful of its time. It does not have so much to say about him, the man whose voice, simultaneously gruff and warm, was an open invitation. It tells us much more about itself—and about musical possibility.

Milton Babbitt died on January 29, 2011.

Paul Griffiths, a music critic, novelist, and librettist, is the author of The New Penguin Dictionary of Music, among other titles.