On the death of Milton Babbitt at 94
Milton Babbitt, who wrote some of the most challenging, determinedly serial music of the past 100 years, died Saturday at the age of 94 in Princeton, N.J.
Like Elliott Carter (still going strong at 102), Babbitt composed music that was as notable for its intellectual brilliance as for its lack of acceptance by mainstream audiences. Most classical music fans outside of major cities probably have heard very little of Babbitt's work; that's not likely to change.
When I heard of the composer's death, I thought about how, when a major movie actor dies, Turner Classics will switch programming pretty quickly to slip in some movies by that star as an homage. How many classical radio stations in this country do you think grabbed some Babbitt off the library shelf and added it to the lineup since Saturday as a way of honoring this eminent figure in American music? Yes, I came up with the same answer: None.
Listeners today remain remarkably protected from the supposed horrors of atonality. You have to seek it out. It's not part of the common aural universe. (In Baltimore, I hasten to add, the likes of Peabody Conservatory and Mobtown Modern have been known to present Babbitt's music.)
I think it curious that people will step into a
modern art museum and refrain from screaming or fleeing at the sight of something terribly abstract and hard to fathom, but they will still go nuts at the drop of a dissonant sound. They'll walk out, even slamming the door behind them; they'll write letters complaining to anyone responsible for inflicting the damage.
The mantra is that composers like Babbitt deliberately set out to alienate the public. That's too easy of a reaction to anyone and anything you don't immediately understand. Babbitt called his language "advanced music" and argued that it was like advanced mathematics -- harder for people to digest, but not, as a result, unworthy of an attempt to understand it.
Babbitt's singular contribution to the 12-tone method launched by Arnold Schoenberg was to expand its application to other aspects of music besides pitch, so that everything in a composition, right down to matters of loudness and softness, would be determined serially. It takes considerable effort to comprehend the way such music is constructed, but it really isn't that difficult to zero in on the frequency, so to speak, and start to experience the music on various levels.
I love the good old tonal stuff as much as the next guy, but I'm grateful to live at a time when so many forms of musical expression are possibile -- and so often wonderfully rewarding. The music would is a better, more interesting place because of Milton Babbitt and those who were inspired by him to explore the farthest reaches of the atonal realm.
I've attached a couple examples of Babbitt's work. The 1957 "All Set" for jazz ensemble and "Post-Partitions" for piano from 1966 (you can follow along with the score on this video). I hope that those of you not normally inclined to listen to such fare will give it a try. Let me know what you think (without four-letter words, of course):