Profiles: Milton Babbitt

Milton BabbittMilton Babbitt (1916-2011) was an American composer who composed for both acoustic and electronic instruments (including the RCA Mark II Synthesizer) and was a founding member of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (now known as the Columbia University Computer Music Center).  He passed away over the weekend.

Philomel for Soprano, Recorded Soprano, and Synthesized Sound (1964)

Babbitt’s compositional style can be viewed as an extension of the serial style of composition as pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg.  However, where Schoenberg fundamentally used this method to keep track of each pitch – careful as to not grant any single pitch more value than another (read: tonal anarchy, better known as atonality) – Babbitt took serialism to the next level, considering the approach to a pitch (duration, timbre, dynamic, etc) just as meticulously as the pitch itself.  This extended style, referred to as ‘total serialism,’ paired with an equally heady approach to writings on music (see his notorious 1958 article “Who Cares If You Listen?”) combined to form the “maximalist” composer whom Babbitt proclaimed himself to be.

Philomel, composed for soprano Bethany Beardslee and based on Ovid’s myth of Philomela (with a libretto by John Hollander), offers insight into Babbitt’s acoustic and electronic aesthetics through his use of live voice and synthesized sound.  The work unfolds as abstracted vocal sounds from Philomel – who in myth has had her tongue cut out – transform to coherent words when she is turned into a nightingale and sings the somber song of her life and torture.

I sing in change / Now my song will range / Till the morning dew / Dampens its face: / Now my song will range / As once it flew / Thrashing, through / The woods of Thrace.

I admit that I am bewildered by such a piece of music as this.  I can certainly understand if you feel the same way.  But to be clear, my goal is not necessarily to praise this piece of music per se, but rather to acknowledge the work and its creator and hope to better understand his contributions.  In keeping with this notion, I’d like to introduce a piece of writing that I often reflect on when I am exposed to new music.  Ironically, this piece – an excerpt from Introductory Remarks to a Program of Works Produced at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center by Jacques Barzun – was itself originally presented prior to a recital in 1961 that included works of Milton Babbitt.  (Click here for the full article).

No doubt your expectations are mixed. You are ready to be surprised, to have your curiosity satisfied, and possibly even to experience snatches of enjoyment as you would at an ordinary concert. If that is your state of mind I am fairly sure you will not be disappointed. But it may be that you are here in a mood of combined trepidation and resistance: this, after all, is the Age of Anxiety . . . Or you may be bent on proving that electronic music is not music – doing this by the most painful test of endurance, or else you may be feeling caught because you have been brought by a friend and friendship is dearer to you than prudence.
If for these or any other reasons you are ill at ease, allow me to suggest a very few considerations which should make you more serene, while leaving you your full freedom of opinion, your entire right to dislike and reject. I suggest, to begin with, that we are not here to like or approve but to understand. And the first step to understanding a new art is to try to imagine why the maker wants it the way it is. That is interesting in itself, even if we ultimately disown the product. To understand in this fashion does not mean to accept passively because someone says that the stuff is new and therefore good, that many believe in it, that it’s going to succeed anyway, so it’s best to resign oneself to the inevitable. This kind of reasoning has gone on about modern art for some thirty years and nothing has been more harmful to the arts. It is an inverted philistinism, which eliminates judgement and passion just as surely as did the older philistinism of blind opposition to whatever was new.
What then is the decent, reasonable attitude to adopt? Very simple: make the assumption, first, that the old style – whatever it is – has exhausted its possibilities and can only offer repetition or trivial variations of the familiar masterpieces. I do not suggest that you should be convinced that your favorite music is obsolete. I invite you to assume that it may be: for by trying to think that it is, as the new composer obviously has done, you will begin to discover what he is up to. By way of encouragement let me remind you that you make this very assumption automatically four or five times in every classical concert, in order to adjust your ear to the changes in style between Bach and Mozart, Mozart and Richard Strauss, and – if you can – between Strauss and Alban Berg. If styles and genres did not suffer exhaustion, there would only be one style and form in each art from its beginnings to yesterday.

Music credit: Philomel as performed by Bethany Beardslee from Babbitt: Philomel [New World, 1977]

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