RIP Milton Babbitt

I just got the word that composer Milton Babbitt passed away this morning, at the age of 94. Uncle Milty, as we modern composer types affectionately called him, was a major figure in 20th-century music. He is known for his extensive use of serialism (a.k.a. twelve-tone music), though he occasionally combined its techniques with elements of jazz, and even wrote a musical early in his career, which is a pretty transgressive thing for a modernist composer to do! (Furthermore, he taught Stephen Sondheim at one point, and passed up his opportunity to bring the future musical theatre titan over to the dark side of atonality!)

Babbitt became notorious for an article published in 1958 in High Fidelity magazine, which he titled “The Composer as Specialist,” but whose title was changed, without his consent, to “Who Cares if You Listen?” Babbitt found this editorial stunt “offensively vulgar.”

Babbitt was a pioneer in the field of electronic music, and wrote one of the seminal works combining electronics with a live performer: Philomel, composed in 1964. In it, he combines spliced and rearranged recorded segments sung by soprano Bethany Beardslee with material created on an analog synthesizer.

I remember studying this piece as a graduate student. Although I didn’t necessarily love all the sounds – they seem pretty dated now – I did find the techniques fascinating. The way he manipulates the voice – chopping it up, duplicating it, creating interactions between different segments – created a sort of interior opera, just as dramatic, in its own way, as the traditional kind.

I also had the honor of meeting Babbitt once, when I was among a group of young composers to receive a BMI Student Composer Award (back in the last century, I hate to have to say!). I expected him to be as serious as his music can seem, but he was quite jovial.

It’s a sad day for modern music, but also a day to celebrate a long and productive musical life. Goodnight, Uncle Milty!