Further Thoughts on Milton Babbitt

Last week, our community lost one of the last great composers of the 20th century with the passing of Milton Babbitt. On Sunday, The New York Times published an extensive obituary and here at NewMusicBox, we gained two beautiful reminiscences of his life (1 and 2). As a teacher and as a supporter of younger composers, Babbitt helped to nurture several generations of musicians who followed him. My own contact with him was extremely limited, but was also very important to my development as a person living with music.

I believe that Milton Babbitt was quite possibly the most misunderstood composer of his generation. In our undergraduate classes, we all learned about integrated serialism and about his argument that experiments in music should be supported because musical development is in itself a worthy goal. But it’s relatively rare to find discussions of the influence of jazz on Babbitt’s music, or of his influence on jazz. Also lost in these discussions is any sense of the generous listener with catholic tastes who mentored students working in all styles. When I first read “Who Cares If You Listen?”, I viscerally reacted against its premise. But now I see his argument in a different light, and I believe that it’s really a plea for variety in music: simple music will always find support because it will always have an audience; in order to propagate different musical styles we need to nurture music that is more complex. Babbitt never argued (as Boulez did) that simple music was useless or of inherently poor quality; it appears to me that he simply sought a refuge from where music outside the mainstream could originate.

I only met Babbitt on one occasion. As a young composer, I had the honor of sitting next to him at an awards ceremony for a prize that he helped to administer. Throughout all the long speeches and the endless (and endlessly important!) thank-yous, he whispered a running commentary that left me helpless in hysterical laughter. Each of the speakers glared in my direction, wondering exactly what it was that I found so funny in their sincere remarks, and yet I couldn’t help myself because it was like sitting next to an extraordinarily good Borscht-belt comedian. His penchant for puns is well known from his titles (Whirled Series, Septet, But Equal), and once a person is clued into it, his great wit is also evident in the music itself.

It’s this humorous wit that allows many neophytes to immediately appreciate Babbitt’s music on a visceral level. Uninitiated listeners who gravitate towards interesting music find his works immediately aesthetically appealing. And this is the aspect of his music that’s most neglected in general discussions—its sheer beauty. Instead we tend to focus on the intellectual underpinnings and on the complexity. But the joy of these original and satisfying compositions can lead those young listeners who seek experimental and interesting music to experience a true epiphany. I’m reminded of the old adage about the Velvet Underground, where their influence was explained by stating that while they sold relatively few records, everyone who bought and enjoyed a Velvet Underground record ended up forming a band and creating their own music. I think that Babbitt’s works have had a similar impact in the concert music world.

When I was awakening to the possibility of embarking on a life in music, it was a time when we were beginning to lose many of the remaining composers who were working during World War II. In the early 1990s, I remember feeling vaguely affected by the passing of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Olivier Messiaen, but to me those composers were all distant figures known only through second-hand tales. In the past several years, our direct connection with even the next generation, the first generation of post-World War II composers, has started to fade. I hope that young composers who are beginning their journey towards a life in music will continue to find inspiration in the music of Babbitt and that his influence will continue. I hope that we can continue to share our favorite reminiscences of Babbitt so that the next generation can understand some of the reasons why he is so well loved.

6 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Milton Babbitt

  1. augustusarnone

    I’m not sure why you chose to refer to the article by the erroneous title, that cost him a great deal of trouble in his lifetime can’t we start calling the article what he titled it?

    Reply
  2. colin holter

    can’t we start calling the article what he titled it?

    That’s a good question. Certainly the editors of High Fidelity set the cause of new music in America (not to mention Babbitt’s standing among nonspecialists!) back some distance by manufacturing such a flammable straw man. On the other hand, “Who Cares If You Listen” is an important part of the story of modern music in the US—and although it’s a terrible and injurious title, it accidentally says a great deal about the then-new problem of context that Frank identifies here. I don’t know what we should call the article, frankly.

    Reply
  3. smooke

    Augustus:

    I referred to the article by that title because that was the title under which it was published. I know that he preferred the title “Composer as Specialist,” but I also don’t feel that it’s my place to revise the historical record. Also, here I’m discussing my personal reaction to that article from when I first encountered it over 20 years ago, which partially derived from its recorded title. I hope that this answers your question.

    -David

    Reply
  4. mollys

    mea culpa
    David’s column did originally refer to Babbitt’s essay as the one “that was famously titled ‘Who Cares If You Listen’ against his wishes”. Perhaps it was the volume of mentions of the story behind the essay in recent days, but I assumed this background wasn’t needed at this point in history. My apologies for the confusion it has generated.

    Reply
  5. jhelliott

    Milton Babbitt
    I too had the pleasure of witnessing Milton’s hilarious commentary during an awards ceremony. He was as clever in off-the-cuff remarks as he was in his elegant, witty, and unique music.

    Reply

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