Milton Babbitt – a rookie’s obituary

It was sad to learn yesterday of the death of Milton Babbitt, at the age of 94. As Marc Geelhoed put it – “we’re down to Boulez and Carter”. It feels like an entire generation will leave us misunderstood.

Maybe this is something to do with being European and outside his intellectual solar system, maybe it’s my own laziness and blindspots, but I’ve never yet caught up with Babbitt’s music. I’m not able to write about a particularly revelatory moment when his music touched me, or what it meant to me personally. Not because I don’t like what little I’ve become familiar with, but because I simply haven’t found enough of it for myself.

Babbitt – most of all that extraordinary generation – was known by a reputation that could persist in almost the complete absence of any notes. ‘The Composer as Specialist/Who Cares if You Listen’ was like a plunging neckline that dared and/or hypnotised anyone who came close, and few had the manners to look back up at the face. Only the other day I grumbled on a messageboard that one thing I didn’t want to hear again in 2011 was the ‘Who Cares if you Listen’ appeal. I feel acutely embarrassed writing now that I felt that way but still don’t know enough of Babbitt’s music – which by so many accounts is wonderful.

So, in place of an obituary, a couple of things that have been going around the internet today: First, Babbitt’s Second String Quartet, with accompanying score. “I remember the first time I listened to Milton Babbitt’s 2nd String Quartet…such a beautiful and charming piece” – @JACKQuartet.

Someone who did look up from the neckline was Greg Sandow, in this essay on Babbitt’s music. I think this is fantastic writing – which at least suggests that there was something more moving and inspirational to Babbitt than the one thing we all already knew about him.

Two-note phrases – duality — are everywhere … All this turns zany after a while, as if the director of a two-character play had put two of every set piece and prop on stage, and made up each actor with two putty noses. … I’d suggest that the proper pairing for Babbitt is not Stefan Wolpe, who despite his own formidable complexity comes off bland in comparison, but Mozart, whose equally transparent and unpredictable but less intense music would put Babbitt’s in fascinating relief.


9 thoughts on “Milton Babbitt – a rookie’s obituary

  1. I appreciate your honesty about your experience with Babbitt. My experiences with his music are also very similar even though I am American. I have taken this opportunity to listen to more and more.

  2. “Down to Boulez and Carter” — and Aldo Clementi!

    Start with Babbitt’s piano music, and you will not fail to hear the imprint of his early jazz and show-tune experiences. The electronic music, to me, largely sounds of its time — but whenever he got to work with glistening timbres and sharp attacks he was an absolute master of texture, register, and infectious and slippery rhythmic energy.

    I doubt any composer’s work in history has ever been so ill-served by the composer’s own rhetoric about it, nor can I see Babbitt’s record in that regard ever being broken.

  3. We have recently learned that the American Musicological Society is hosting their upcoming conference at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. On June 8, 2010 employees at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco went on strike and called for a boycott of their hotel. We write to inform members of the AMS about the dispute and respectfully ask your organization to relocate the event to a different venue and to not eat, sleep or meet at the Hyatt Regency.

    The members of Local 2 have been struggling to renegotiate a contract that secures affordable health care and retirement benefits. In San Francisco, and in cities around North America, Hyatt Hotels is squeezing housekeepers, dishwashers, cooks, bellpersons, and others harder than ever, trying to lock in ever-higher profits as the hotel industry grows. In wage and benefit agreements over the last several decades, we have forgone larger wage increases to keep our medical benefits affordable for ourselves and our families. Now Hyatt is pushing proposals that would lock workers into a permanent recession even as Hyatt benefits from the economic recovery.

    Recent multi-city strikes represent a major escalation in a labor dispute involving Hyatt and its billionaire owners—the Pritzker Family—who have been the target of a number of major demonstrations in more than a dozen cities across North America this summer. Hotel workers have endured months of chronic understaffing and excessive injury rates. Now Hyatt has become an obstacle to the recovery of working families. While many hotel workers live in poverty, the Pritzker Family cashed out over $900 million in their sale of Hyatt shares in November 2009.

    On January 18th, 2011 Hyatt workers took to the streets to defend their Legal Fund from Hyatt hotel management. The Legal Fund protects members from evictions and foreclosures and facilitates legal immigration (citizenship, work permits and family reunification).

    In recent negotiations, Hyatt went backwards in their pension proposal and it has become abundantly clear that this labor dispute is going to continue well into next year.

    The AMS and its convention patrons are caught in the middle of this contentious labor dispute. The dispute will continue to escalate as will demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience actions and the on-going boycott, until workers secure a fair contract. AS members of the larger Bay Area Community we ask you to respect SF Hotel Workers and encourage your organization to avoid the labor dispute and meet at an alternate venue.

    For more information about hotel labor disputes in San Francisco, you can visit our website at Please contact us to address any questions and so that we may assist you in moving to a hotel not subject to a labor dispute.


    Powell DeGange

    415.864.8770, ext. 759

    Meetings and Conventions Department

  4. Definitely. I am trying to get the word out to people interested in this field, sorry for posting in the comment section on a unrelated post. I just sent you an email about possibly making a blog post on this issue.

    thanks so much

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s