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Twentieth-Century Maverick Milton Babbitt Dies at 94

Babbitt was known for his influence on total integral serialism and electronic music.

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Photo: Bron Jennifer/Star Ledger/Corbis

Babbitt poses at Julliard. During his career as a teacher, he mentored well-known composers such as Stephen Sondheim.

Milton Babbitt, American composer known for his influence on total integral serialism and electronic music, died Saturday, January 29th at the age of 94.

Allan Kozinn of New York Times described him as “a composer who gloried in complexity.” And it was this complexity that earned him the admiration of many but left him, as Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times put it, “possibly our greatest and most important neglected composer.”

Also distinguished for his work as a teacher, Babbitt spent time on the composition faculties of Juilliard and Princeton. His list of respected pupils is diverse, including such names as Stephen Sondheim, Mario Davidovsky, Paul Lansky, Donald Martino, Laura Karpman, Stanley Jordan, and Eric Ewazen.

Babbitt caused a stir when his article, “Who Cares if You Listen?” was published in the magazine High Fidelity in February of 1958. Though Babbitt saw the title – which was changed from “The Composer as Specialist” without his knowledge or consent – as an offensive marketing ploy by the magazine, it was perhaps not entirely inappropriate. In the article, he discussed the importance of the composer’s independence from public opinion and the need for and validity of complex music designed for experts.

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Photo: RCA file photo

Babbitt in RCA’s room-sized Mark II Synthesizer.

Babbitt’s Music

“Philomel,” for electronic music and solo soprano, is probably Babbitt’s most recognized work. The text by poet John Hollander depicts Ovid’s myth of Philomela, a speechless maiden who transforms into a nightingale. Babbitt composed the piece in 1964 on RCA’s room-sized Mark II Synthesizer. It represents both Babbitt’s interest in composing in a method that allocated him a great deal of control but also his maintained enthusiasm for live performance.

Babbitt expanded on the language of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, pioneering the total integral serialism aesthetic. Under this system, serialist techniques applied not only to pitch (though still an aspect in which Babbitt took a particular interest in manipulating in meaningful ways) but also to notes’ non-pitch features such as dynamics, duration, and register. In discussions of his compositional approach, he introduced musical concepts such as the “aggregate,” “combinatoriality,” and “derived set,” which continue to be used in music theory talk today. Three Compositions for Piano (1947) is one of his first works to explore these techniques:

“All Set,” composed in 1957, evokes an interest in jazz that Babbitt had fostered since his childhood. The twelve-tone piece is written for a small ensemble of an alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, contrabass, piano, vibraphone, and percussion. It puts forth many of the ideas of total integral serialism, but its use of instrumentation (perhaps through the drum set alone) and jazz technique give it a unique sound.

Stefan Scherer-Emunds

Oak Park, IL native Stefan Scherer-Emunds is a junior at Indiana University pursuing a BSOF degree in trumpet and business. During his free time, Stefan enjoys singing and playing racquetball and chess.

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