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.