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.


Górecki: the obituaries

The obituaries for Henryk Górecki, who died on Friday, are rolling in now. Predictably, the Third Symphony dominates, Rob Cowan in Gramophone going so far as to suggest that Górecki ‘was almost a “one work composer”‘. Cowan’s obit is worth reading, however, for the interesting tidbits he provides on the Third’s rediscovery in 1992:

A month before Classic FM hit the airwaves I appeared on Frank Bough’s LBC show with a small pile of classical CDs to review. The Górecki CD had just dropped onto my mat and I decided to play an excerpt from it. As I left the building, a telephonist ran up to me asking what I’d just played. “The phone lines are crammed,” she said, “crammed with people who want to know [what] it was.”

Matt Schudel in the Washington Post gives some additional coverage to the Symphony’s pre-1992 reception:

When the symphony was first performed in 1977, it received unfavorable reviews. Critics complained that Mr. Gorecki, whose music had been aggressively dissonant in his youth, was no longer a serious composer. […]

His Third Symphony had been recorded twice in Eastern Europe and was used in the credits of Maurice Pialat’s 1985 film “Police,” but it didn’t take off until 1992, when the Nonesuch label released a new recording featuring the limpid voice of the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Allan Kozinn’s obituary for the New York Times is full of several interesting perspectives, including the following comment on Górecki’s political engagement:

Mr. Gorecki left his post at the Music Academy in 1979 to protest the Polish government’s refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice. He also composed his Miserere (1981) as a protest, in this case against the government’s crackdown on members of Rural Solidarity in Bydgoszcz. But he always insisted on a distinction between his music and his politics.

“My dear, it would be a terrible poverty of life if music were political,” he told Bruce Duffie, a radio producer, in a 1994 interview. “I cannot imagine it, because what does this mean — ‘political music?’ That is why I ignore questions about political music, because music is music. Painting is painting. I can be involved in some political ideals. That would be my personal life.”

Rudolf Barshai in the Telegraph provides some of the most thorough analysis of  the means by which Górecki’s music came to the UK, as well as a hint at his entanglement in the history of late-1980s Eastern and Western Europe:

In 1985, however, David Drew, from the British music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, was sitting in the crowded bar of the Europeiski Hotel in Warsaw when he overheard an animated conversation about the political state of the country. He soon realised that the chief protagonist was Górecki and immediately began to try to persuade him to visit Britain. Months of negotiation with the communist authorities followed. Górecki himself proved hard to engage on the matter, stating that he was only interested in visiting Germany and Austria, where he spoke the language.

Meanwhile, in 1987 the conductor David Atherton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, using a score brought back by Drew, gave the British premiere of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs at the Maida Vale studios. Word was soon out that this was a most unusual and interesting work, not dissimilar to music by Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.

In April 1989 a celebration of Górecki’s music (and that of the similarly-minded Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke) by the modernist ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, proved a turning point in British understanding of the Eastern post-Shostakovich musical landscape. It confirmed the composer’s importance as an original voice, which found even greater resonance when, within months, popular revolution swept across Eastern Europe.

On the subject of Górecki’s early years, and the role of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in the nurturing of a Polish musical avant garde, I love this quotation in David Revill’s obituary for the Independent:

“I remember these times with pleasure because they were a great reawakening for Polish music. I don’t know how we got away with it year after year.”

According to the Associated Press story, Krzysztof Penderecki, Górecki’s contemporary and former comrade-in-arms in the Polish avant garde, visited him in hospital in his last days:

“Penderecki insisted on seeing him,” [Joanna] Wnuk-Nazarowa [director of the Polish Radio Orchestra] said. “We tried to joke, make plans for the future. Penderecki promised he would direct (Gorecki’s) ‘Beatus vir’ for the 80th birthday” that both would celebrate in 2013.

Boosey and Hawkes, Górecki’s publishers, give a detailed overview of the composer’s output, as well as the final word on that Fourth Symphony that is mentioned in conflicting accounts in several obits:

His death leaves an incomplete Symphony No.4, commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Southbank Centre, London, The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association: Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director, and the ZaterdagMatinee, Dutch radio’s classical music concert series in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

To conclude, here’s Maev Kennedy in the Guardian, with an amusing insight into Górecki’s pedagogical style:

His students regarded him as brilliant but extremely demanding. When they asked him what and how to write, he later recalled, his reply invariably was: “If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write – it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer.”

Musician Deathwatch

Another big catch-up: | About this list

:: Garry Shider P-Funk guitarist
:: Bill Dixon Free jazz trumpeter
:: Jimmy Dean Country singer, TV host and businessman
:: Ernest Fleischmann Los Angeles Philharmonic manager
:: Hetty Buchanan Cellist
:: Benjamin Lees Composer
:: Marvin Isley Isley Brothers bassist and songwriter
:: Jack Beeson Composer
:: Stuart Cable Stereophonics drummer
:: Anthony ‘Little Benny’ Go-go and funk trumpeter
:: Paul Gray Bassist with Slipknot
:: John Ellis Organist and composer
:: Yvonne Loriod Pianist
:: Hank Jones Jazz pianist
:: David Randolph Conductor
:: Ronnie James Dio Heavy metal vocalist
:: Rosa Rio Silent movie organist
:: Rob McConnell Big band leader
:: Bob Mercer EMI executive
:: Doris Eaton Travis Chorus girl
:: Francisco Aguabella Afro-Cuban drummer
:: Giulietta Simionato Mezzo-soprano
:: Gene Lees Jazz biographer, critic and lyricist
:: Jerry Adler Harmonica virtuoso
:: Wolfgang Wagner Bayreuth opera festival director
:: Bobby Charles Songwriter
:: Charlie Gillett DJ and historian
:: Raymond Monelle Lecturer, conductor and critic
:: Ron Lundy Rock DJ
:: Johnnie High Country music impresario
:: Alex Chilton Singer and songwriter
:: Micky Jones Lead guitarist of Man
:: Larry Cassidy Leader of the post-punk Factory group Section 25
:: Margaret ‘Marge’ Levin Co-owner of Washington Music Center
:: Gene Chenault Rock radio pioneer
:: Robert Crafton III Bassist, rapper and songwriter
:: David Soyer Cellist
:: Aaron Schroeder Songwriter who wrote for Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole
:: Malcolm Vaughan Singer
:: Kenneth Solway Tafelmusik founder, Baroque oboist
:: Malcolm McLaren Former Sex Pistols manager
:: Beth Anne Newdome Violinist
:: Otmar Suitner Conductor
:: Doug Fieger Singer and guitarist with The Knack
:: Dale Hawkins Singer, songwriter and guitarist
:: Ariel Ramirez Pianist and composer
:: Kathryn Grayson Actress and singer
:: Michel Glotz Classical music producer
:: Jacques Hétu Composer
:: Irina Arkhipova Opera singer

RIP, everyone.

Musician Deathwatch | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Beth Anne Newdome Violinist
:: Otmar Suitner Conductor
:: Doug Fieger Singer and guitarist with The Knack
:: Dale Hawkins Singer, songwriter and guitarist
:: Ariel Ramirez Pianist and composer
:: Kathryn Grayson Actress and singer
:: Michel Glotz Classical music producer
:: Jacques Hétu Composer

RIP, everyone.

Musician Deathwatch | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Irina Arkhipova Opera singer
:: Sir John Dankworth Jazz saxophonist
:: Dorothy Gibbs Musicologist and singer
:: Jack Rose Improv guitarist
:: Kate McGarrigle Singer-songwriter
:: Jay Reatard Punk rocker
:: Eric Woolfson Singer and songwriter with the Alan Parsons Project
:: Carl Smith Country singer
:: Bobby Charles Rock ‘n’ roll songwriter
:: Earl Wild Pianist
:: Jane Jarvis Jazz organist, played at New York Mets games
:: Ed Thigpen Jazz drummer
:: Tony Bellamy Redbone guitarist

RIP, everyone.

Musician Deathwatch

I’ve fallen really behind on this. The full list is available through my delicious feed; these are just the names since late November-ish. | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Tim Hart: Founder-member of Steeleye Span
:: Alaina Reed Hall: Actress and singer
:: Bess Lomax Hawes: Folklorist and singer
:: Consuela Lee: Jazz pianist and educator
:: Derek B: Rapper
:: Dick Johnson: Jazz clarinettist, flautist and saxophonist
:: Felix Wurman: Cellist and concert promoter
:: Vic Chesnutt: Folk-rock songwriter
:: Isaac Schwartz: Composer
:: James Sullivan: Heavy metal drummer
:: James Gurley: Guitarist in Big Brother
:: John Roberts: World music scholar
:: Judy Kreston: Singer and cabaret owner
:: Louisa Mark: Singer and originator of the Lovers Rock genre
:: Mary Curtis-Verna: Opera singer
:: Pete King: Jazz musician and entrepreneur
:: Sandro: The ‘Elvis of Argentina’
:: Sonny Bradshaw: Jamaican jazz trumpeter and bandleader
:: Teddy Pendergrass: Soul singer/songwriter
:: Richard Meale: Composer
:: H. C. Robbins Landon: Haydn scholar
:: Stacy Rowles: Jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player and singer
:: Marylou Speaker Churchill: Violinist
:: Jim Carroll: Poet, punk rocker and author
:: Jacques Chanier: Jazz pianist

RIP, everyone.

Musician Deathwatch

Have I not properly updated this since December? Yikes. | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Ted Jarrett Musician, label-owner and producer
:: Steve Dullaghan Bassist for the Primitives
:: Nancy Overton Singer for the Chordettes
:: Tam Paton Bay City Rollers manager
:: Nick Bertocci Jazz clarinettist and bandleader
:: Dan Seals Soft-rock singer-songwriter
:: Bud Shank Jazz saxophonist
:: Erland von Koch Composer
:: Maurice Jarre Film composer
:: Uriel Jones Motown drummer
:: Anthony A. Mitchell Conductor
:: Archie Green Folklorist
:: Joseph Bloch Pianist and teacher
:: Willie King Blues singer and guitarist
:: Geoffrey Crankshaw Music critic
:: Ernie Ashworth Country singer
:: Hank Locklin Country singer
:: Schuyler Chapin Impresario and manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera
:: Lukas Foss Composer
:: Mansour Rahbani Lebanese composer, musician and producer
:: Max Neuhaus Percussionist and sound sculptor
:: Molly Bee Country singer
:: Danny Dill Country songwriter and guitarist
:: Page Cavanaugh Jazz pianist and singer
:: Richard Van Allan Opera singer and director
:: Coleman Mellett Jazz guitarist
:: Gerry Niewood Jazz saxophonist
:: Sam Taylor Blues singer, songwriter, guitarist and whistler
:: Dave Dee Pop singer
:: Snooks Eaglin R&B singer and guitarist
:: Ron Asheton Stooges guitarist
:: Susanna Foster Singer and actress
:: Tessa Bonner Early music singer
:: Tom Brumley Steel guitarist
:: Tony Osborne Pop composer and arranger
:: Veronika Dudarova Conductor
:: Victor Lewis Jazz bandleader, guitarist and agent
:: Vincent Ford Reggae songwriter
:: Wannes van de Velde Musician and poet
:: Jon Hager Half of musical comedy duo
:: ‘Cachaito’ Lopez Buena Vista Social Club bassist
:: George Steiner Violinist
:: Billy Powell Keyboard player with Lynyrd Skynyrd
:: Blossom Dearie Singer-songwriter
:: John Cephas Blues singer and guitarist
:: Tom O’Horgan Broadway director
:: Butch Baldassari Mandolin player
:: Charles Camilleri Composer
:: Christopher Raeburn Record producer
:: Claude Jeter Gospel singer
:: Clint Ballard Jnr Songwriter
:: Betty Freeman Photographer of the composers
:: Angela Morley Composer and arranger
:: Lux Interior Cramps singer
:: Chick Hall Country guitarist
:: David ‘Fathead’ Newman Jazz saxophonist
:: Chuck Bennett Rock bassist
:: Delaney Bramlett Guitarist and singer-songwriter
:: Derek Wadsworth Trombonist
:: Dewey Martin Drummer for Buffalo Springfield
:: Eartha Kitt Singer and actress
:: Louie Bellson Jazz drummer
:: Estelle Bennett Singer with the Ronettes
:: Freddie Hubbard Jazz trumpeter
:: Gary Kurfirst Punk manager
:: George Perle Composer and theorist
:: Hank Crawford Big band saxophonist
:: Hazel Bowen Orchestral violinist
:: Ian Carr Jazz trumpeter
:: Irving Bush Trumpet player
:: Israel Horowitz Record producer and columnist
:: Joe Cuba Bandleader and conga player
:: John McCarthy Thrash rock singer
:: John Martyn Folk and jazz guitarist
:: John McGlinn Conductor and historian of musicals
:: Kelly Groucutt Bass player with the Electric Light Orchestra
:: Kofi Ghanaba Afro-jazz drummer
:: Kurt Demmler Pop and rock lyricist

Rest in Peace.