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Milton Babbit ,Composer of Bafflingly Complex Avant-Garde Music, Has Died At 94

  American composer Milton Babbitt passed away the other day at the venerable age of 94 . He was nowhere near as well-known to the general public as his fellow American composers Aaron Copland,George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber , but he never wrote for the masses. That simply wasn't his style.

  His specialty was mind-bogglingly complex and abstruse avant-garde music which took Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone atonal techniques and added even greater complexity to them ,as well as music using electronic instruments and mixing them with acoustical instruments and the human voice.  But he also loved popular music and Broadway musicals paradoxically, and even dabbled in these as a young man.

  Babbitt taught composition for many years at Princeton University ,and was still living in the town at the time of his death. He taught many disitinguished composers there,including Stephen Sondheim of all people, who was very much interested in learning  avant-garde compositional techniques. 

  Babbitt's music is not really for classical music newbies, but once they become more familiar with 20th century music, it might be worth a try.  But forget about hummable melody and Romantic lushness if you are willing to give it a chance. At first, it will be about as comprehensible as a treatise on nuclear physics or Einstein's Theory of Relativity. But with repeated hearings, it may begin to make more sense to you if you make the effort to listen carefully. 

  His music is also extremely difficult for musicians,even the most technically adept, to perform. Even a group as virtuosic as the world-famous Philadelphia orchestra was unable to master a work of his once, and the performance was scratched !  

  Babbitt won the Pulitzer prize for his music and was internationally recognized as one of the most important composers of out time, even if most listeners found his music completely baffling .  He became famous,or possibly notorious,for an article he wrote in the late 1950s for the now defunct magazine High Fideltity, which was one of the leading reviews of classical recordings, called "Who Cares If You Listen"?  This was not actually his choice for a title, but the magazine's editor chose it to the composer's dismay. 

  The article was a justification for his extremely abstruse music ,and he asserted that his music,and that of other avant-garde composers of the day ,was meant to advance classical music as a whole, and to pioneer new techniques in composition,even though audiences rejected it.  Babbitt claimed that he did indeed care very much if people listened to his music.

  But the memory of the title haunted his reputation for many years.  No, Babbitt will probably never be performed as often as Copland, Bernstein, and Barber etc. But that does not diminish his stature and importance as a composer in any way.  Check for recordings of his music- if you dare !


Posted: Jan 31 2011, 06:08 PM by the horn | with no comments
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