|The compositional and intellectual
wisdom of Milton Babbitt has influenced a wide range of contemporary musicians.
A broad array of distinguished musical achievements in the dodecaphonic system
and important writings on the subject have generated increased understanding
and integration of serialist language into the eclectic musical styles of
the late 20th century. Babbitt is also renowned for his great talent and
instinct for jazz and his astonishing command of American popular music.
Babbitt was born on 10 May 1916 in Philadelphia and studied composition privately with Roger Sessions. He earned degrees from New York and Princeton Universities and has been awarded honorary degrees from Middlebury College, Swarthmore College, New York University, the New England Conservatory, University of Glasgow, and Northwestern University. He taught at Princeton and The Juilliard School. He died in Princeton, NJ, on 29 January 2011.
An extensive catalogue of works for multiple combinations of instruments and voice along with his pioneering achievements in synthesized sound have made Babbitt one of the most celebrated of 20th-century composers. He is a founder and member of the Committee of Direction for the Electronic Music Center of Columbia-Princeton Universities and a member of the Editorial Board of Perspectives of New Music. The recipient of numerous honors, commissions, and awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize Citation for his "life's work as a distinguished and seminal American composer." Babbitt is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Milton Babbitt, who has died aged 94, was one of the most impenetrable, inaccessible and influential of American composers and theorists; an article he wrote in 1958 headlined "Who cares if you listen" set the tone, reinforcing the view that contemporary music was for an elite cognoscenti.
Orchestras rejected his output, critics sneered at its complexity and academics rejected his doctoral thesis. Myths surrounding his wartime background in secret intelligence work did him no favours, with the cultural commentator Alex Ross describing him as an "emblematic Cold War composer" producing music "so Byzantine in construction that one practically needed a security clearance to understand it".
Yet Babbitt the serialist composer had his champions, Stephen Sondheim among them, while in the 1960s and 1970s his 12-tone theories, cerebral though they may have been, took root on university campuses, if not in concert halls, across the United States. His supporters, and there were many, argued that his complex music simply required greater involvement and commitment from the listener than had hitherto been the case.
In 1951 RCA invited him to be the first composer to work on their Mark II synthesizer at Columbia-Princeton University, exploring new sound worlds in works such as Composition for Synthesizer (1961), Vision and Prayer, for soprano and synthesizer (1961) and Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964). He revelled in distorting musical sounds, seeing how far he could push the boundaries. The resultant tapes would then be used in the concert hall, either alone or with live instrumentalists or singers.
Much of his output was for small-scale forces (partly out of necessity, as few orchestras could stomach his works either musically or financially). However, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra did give the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra in January 2005. Despite the severity of his music, Babbitt had a mischievous sense of humour, as titles such as Sheer Pluck (1984, for solo guitar) would suggest.
While he opened up many fascinating ideas, critics said that Babbitt – who described himself as a maximalist to differentiate from the minimalists – found himself in a musical cul-de-sac. As John Adams wrote: "Atonality, rather than being the promised land, proved to be nothing of the kind. After a heady first planting, the terrain [its] composers discovered was unable to reproduce its initial harvest."
Milton Byron Babbitt was born in Philadelphia on May 10 1916, the son of a wealthy actuary who demonstrated to his son the deep pleasure of mathematics. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the Deep South ("You can't get much deeper, he once noted") where he knew the future author Eudora Welty.
At the age of four he was given a violin but, wanting a better social life, turned to clarinet and, later, saxophone as well as writing his own pop songs. He recalled being shown Schönberg's Three Piano Pieces (Op 11) at the age of ten and being fascinated with this "absolutely different world".
He read Maths at the University of Pennsylvania, but abandoned that to study Music at New York University with Marion Bauer, seizing any opportunity to experience the music of Schoenberg, and meeting the composer on a couple of occasions. He also studied privately with Roger Sessions, a central figure for supporters of the anti-populism ideal in American music, and later followed Sessions to Princeton.
During the early years of the Second World War he was involved in secret military intelligence in Washington before returning to Princeton to teach mathematics. There his PhD, entitled The Function of the Said Structure in the 12-Tone System, was rejected in 1946; it was finally awarded in 1992 with the university uneasily explaining that his work had been "too far ahead of its time".
The headline on his infamous 1958 paper (published in High Fidelity magazine) haunted him for the rest of his life. It was, he insisted, not of his choosing. Nevertheless, it bore a true resemblance to its contents and Adams suspects that it was always Babbitt's "puckish intention" to offend the larger classical music community.
Enthusiasts of Serialism in Europe championed his cause and British critics turned out to see what all the noise was about. Yet even Stanley Sadie, who advocated the creation of a national electronic studio, considered Ensembles for Synthesizer, performed at the Festival Hall in 1969, to be a "busy, garrulous piece [which] seemed unshapely, unclearly organised and its ending duly unpredictable".
Recently the musicologist Harold Rosenbaum arranged for the publication and performance of a Mass that Babbitt had written many years ago. When the parts arrived he found the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, but no Credo. Fearing it lost he telephoned the composer in embarrassment, only to be told: "My boy, I don't believe in Credos. I didn't write one." Among many US honours, Babbitt received a Pulitzer citation in 1982.
Despite his prowess in electronic music, Babbitt shied away from later technology. "I don't have email; I'm not online in any respect. I am totally offline," he told an interviewer in 2001.
His wife Sylvia, whom he married before the war, predeceased him in 2005. He is survived by a daughter.
--The Telegraph Feb 1, 2011
This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 6, 1987.
Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1991 and 1996. The transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.