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milton babbitt: an appreciation

February 02, 2011

milton babbitt: an appreciation

image: furious.com

I met Milton Babbitt once, and we talked about beer and potato chips. Afterwards, hearing from people who knew him, that was apparently not an unusual conversation to have had.

After college, I was working in the box office at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC, and various well-known composers like Steve Reich and Joan Tower would come through the lobby. Somehow you almost expected to see composers like them at Merkin (seeing as how it’s kinda “downtown” while physically being “uptown”) but it was, for whatever reason, a big deal to me to see someone like Babbitt there, perusing the choices at the snack bar and happily chatting with the ushers as they folded programs. It’s Milton Babbitt! Trying to decide between Lays and Doritos! A surreal only-in-New-York experience, to say the least.

Babbitt passed away last weekend at the age of 94. In the obituary in The New York Times, they politely explain that he “wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse.” A total serialist (think Schoenberg’s serial ideas taken to the nth degree), Babbitt not only organized pitches by mathematical means, he also predetermined duration, instrumental timbre, dynamics, range, etc. Basically, if something in a piece of music could be organized in a serial manner, he did it.

Do I often just sit down and listen to Babbitt’s music? No. But do I find it fascinating? Absolutely. The deepest I ever delved into analyzing the highly complex world of his music was a project in graduate school about the use of time in works by Babbitt, Reich and Cage. I started to pull apart his String Quartet No. 2, specifically his use of “duration rows,” which were his way of treating amounts of time in the same way as the tones themselves. (See how quickly you devolve into very esoteric and confusing ideas when talking about his work? I don’t think it’s possible to be succinct and clear….) It was one of the hardest papers to write; unlike writing about something like “ways in which Mozart changed compositional rules set down by Haydn,” to write about Babbitt you first have to understand what is going on in the most basic sense, the idea of where you are and what his musical world is. Which is a rather daunting task. But there is an amazing sense of accomplishment when you reach that “aha” moment in your analysis. All of a sudden, a light bulb goes on and you have the realization I sort-of know what’s going on here, and it actually makes sense! And who doesn’t like that feeling?

In addition to his music, Babbitt is probably most well-known for an article he wrote in 1958 for High Fidelity magazine entitled “Who Cares if You Listen?” The inflammatory title was added by an editor — Babbitt wanted it to be called “The Composer as Specialist” — but in new music, just like everything else, controversy sells. And though the title is somewhat on the combative side, it’s actually a pretty fair summation of Babbitt’s thoughts. In the article, his basic point is that this complex music he creates is not being written for the general public; he feels that the work and thought he put into writing a piece of music should be matched in prep time and education by the listener. If you don’t understand the music, don’t listen. He writes,

It often has been remarked that only in politics and the “arts” does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated “I didn’t like it” from further scrutiny. Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on “Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.” At the conclusion, he announces: “I didn’t like it,” social conventions being what they are in such circles, someone might dare inquire: “Why not?” Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer’s voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is left undisturbed…Composers (and performers)…are singularly adept at the conversion of personal tastes into general principles. Music they do not like is “not music,” composers whose music they do not like are “not composers.”

A little harsh, but also true. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that if you love or hate a piece of art you should be required to justify your opinion. Do I think you shouldn’t be allowed an opinion because you don’t understand the complexities of total serialism? No. But if you hate total serialist music, you have to be able to say more than just “I didn’t like it.” Anyway, I recommend reading the whole article, even though it’s dense, because it’s full of interesting and thought-provoking ideas.

Babbitt’s strict adherence to highly cerebral music is inarguable. But, just to make things interesting, he loved American popular song of the 1920s and 30s, and was a huge fan of Jerome Kern ( Show Boat ), and was also Stephen Sondheim’s composition teacher at The Juilliard School. They got along really well, and in a recent NPR interview, Sondheim said ““I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that’s what I learned from him. We had four-hour sessions once a week and we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by Jerome Kern or by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson — the classic songs of the American theater and American movies. ... But what we did was — we did an hour on songs and three hours on Beethoven and Bach, and it was all about essentially compositional analysis.”

If you’re interested in experiencing some of Babbitt’s music, I recommend String Quartet No. 2 (yes, it’s the piece I know the most about, so of course I’m recommending it). There’s a really helpful video that someone made which moves the score along with the recording—it’s like a new music follow-the-bouncing-ball situation (feel free to sing along!).

Babbitt was a friendly, interesting person, a complex and highly intelligent composer, and a true American original. He will be missed.

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