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A Eulogy to Milton Babbitt

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In the past century, there was one composer who, contrary to many of the standards of the mainstream, believed that music shouldn’t always be easy listening; he was a composer who eventually became a giant in the classical music world for the highly unique musical language he developed. And in early 2011, there was one passing which shook the classical music world to its core, a passing which was sorely felt.

Milton Babbitt, who passed away on January 29 at the age of 94, is a name notable in the classical music world, though perhaps not quite as well known to my readers as Bach, Schubert or Beethoven. His music is not performed that frequently. Even within classical circles, Babbit was somewhat renowned for music that was extremely difficult to listen to. In fact, Alex Ross, cultural commentator, music critic and author of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, spoke of Milton Babbitt as an “emblematic Cold War composer” producing music “so Byzantine in construction that one practically needed a security clearance to understand it.” Despite these and other complaints that his music was deliberately inaccessible by mainstream audiences, the innovations he brought to composition and classical music remains.

Though the public suspected — perhaps as a reaction to something they could not understand — that he actually wanted to alienate his listeners, the fact remains that he brought a different way of thinking into the musical spheres. Besides being well versed in jazz and American pop music and using these influences in his compositions, Babbit believed that classical music, especially contemporary, shouldn’t always just be easy, obvious listening. Instead, he believed that the listener should be willing to take the time to listen to this kind of music. This type of music should be worked at to be understood, somewhat paralleling the views of intellectuals and writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. This kind of music was for trained musicians, not for the mainstream.

According to this tribute published on Princeton University’s web page, Milton Babbit’s views were innovative indeed:

“Serious modern music, he argued, was not for the average listener — it could be understood only by those with training, similar to learning how to appreciate works in mathematics, physics or philosophy.”

Ultimately, to the musician who was willing to take the time to decipher this music, this would be a rewarding listening experience.

Part of the development of this music stemmed from Babbitt’s own fascinations with math and music theory, leading to the development of a particular use of the 12-tone scale in music. This idea originated from Austrian composer Schoenberg, and Babbitt took it to the next level. The 12 notes of the scale, ordered in a particular way, formed the basis for the piece.

Among other things, Babbitt also embraced electronic music, which excited him with its possibilities. And even though his own music was probably the most inaccessible, he also embraced music like jazz, pop, Broadway, and more. To him, different kinds of music deserved to be heard, and was ultimately worthy of respect.

He also taught Stephen Sondheim, Broadway composer and lyricist of such hits as West Side Story, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd.

The classical music world will miss him greatly.

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About Sang Woo Kang