Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Remembering Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt (l.) with Lejaren Hiller, c. 1980. Photo by Irene Haupt.
Milton Babbitt passed away on January 29 at the age of 94. Known as the first composer to extend serial techniques to sonic elements beyond pitch, Babbitt was arguably one of the most influential musical researchers of the 20th century. He was familiar to Buffalo audiences, not just through performances of his music at UB, but through his participation as a Senior Faculty member at June in Buffalo, most recently in 1994. One of Babbitt's students, Lejaren Hiller (shown above) became the Slee Professor of Composition at UB from 1968 to 1989.

Though Babbitt's music was known for its intellectual rigor, it is also filled with vitality and wit -- qualities that were abundant in the man himself. He was no stranger to controversy: his 1958 essay “The Composer as Specialist,” more famously known as “Who Cares if You Listen?” (a title given by his editor at High Fidelity magazine) set off a debate that still rages more than half a century later. But throughout his career he enjoyed the genuine respect of composers (such as UB's own Morton Feldman and David Felder) whose music was highly dissimilar to his own. An early pioneer of electronic music, he once said: "The new limitations are the human ones of perception." Prophetic words indeed. There have been a number of remembrances published during the past week, but Allan Kozinn's informative obit in The New York Times and Mark Swed's thoughtful essay in the Los Angeles Times are particularly worth reading.

Here's an odd little video to the first section of his most famous work, Philomel, for soprano and synthesizer.

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