The American composer Milton Babbitt (born 1916) is a leading figure among the most abstract and intellectual group of contemporary composers and a pioneer in the use of electronic synthesizers.
Milton Babbitt was born in Philadelphia on May 10, 1916, and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He attended the University of North Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University. At school Babbitt was equally interested in mathematics and music; it was not until after World War II and study with composer Roger Sessions that he decided to devote himself to music.
Expands Schoenberg's 12-Tone Concept
Babbitt was intensely interested in Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone music (which was little known at this time) and published several analyses that revealed new aspects of the 12-tone method of composition. Expanding Schoenberg's concept to include other elements of composition, he wrote Three Compositions for Piano (1947), Composition for Four Instruments (1948), and Composition for Twelve Instruments (1948), in which not only the tones but the durations, timbres, and dynamics are used in a preconceived order. This concept, called total serialization, became one of the dominant musical styles among advanced composers in the 1950s.
Calculations such as these result, of course, in a highly abstract kind of music in which the sounds simply embody the complex organization plans. Babbitt freely admitted that his music had little appeal to the general public. "I believe in cerebral music," he wrote in his 1958 essay, "Who Cares If You Listen?", "and I never choose a note unless I know why I want it there." In this essay he argues that composers should have the same intellectual freedom that abstract scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers enjoy. "Pure" thinkers such as these create for a very small audience of experts; no one but a specialist can understand their thoughts. Babbitt maintained that a composer should not worry about reaching a wide audience but must accept his isolation as a fact of modern life.
Pioneers the Use of Synthesized Sounds
In 1948 Babbitt started teaching at Princeton University and shortly thereafter became interested in the Mark I, an electronic music synthesizer; he helped design and build later models. These early synthesizers produced sounds according to specifications that were fed into the machines on punched tape; the resulting sound was then recorded. The operation was very complex, but the composer gained more control over the sound than he had in conventional electronic music of the era.
In such later compositions as Vision and Prayer (1961) and, his most widely acclaimed piece, Philomel (1963), Babbitt combined the human voice with synthesizer-produced sounds. Additional works include Relata II (1968), Reflections for Piano and Synthesized Tape (1974) and A Solo Requiem (1977), for soprano and two pianos. Babbitt's Piano Quartet (1996) was premiered at a concert held at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in honor of his 80th birthday in May 1996.
In 1959 Babbitt assumed the directorship of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. An influential teacher, his pupils formed the so-called Princeton school. He has received numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1965. In 1982 Babbitt was awarded a special citation for electronic music by the Pulitzer Prize committee.
Babbitt's essay "Who Cares If You Listen?" is reprinted in Gilbert Chase, ed., The American Composer Speaks: A Historical Anthology, 1770-1965 (1966). Eric Salzman, Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (1967), contains a discussion of Babbitt and serialism. Sounds and Words: A Critical Celebration of Milton Babbitt at Sixty, comprises a special issue of Perspectives in New Music (1976). □
BABBITT, MILTON (1916– ), U.S. composer and theorist. Born in Philadelphia, Babbitt started playing violin at the age of four and played in jazz performances and composed popular songs in high school. His father's involvement in mathematics stimulated Babbitt's interest in the subject. In 1931 he began studying mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, but soon he transferred to the study of music at New York University. In 1935 he was a student of Roger Sessions in composition at Princeton University and in 1938–42 became a staff member there. During World War ii Babbitt was active as a mathematician both in research (Washington) and teaching (Princeton University). In 1948 he rejoined the Department of Music at Princeton University, where in 1960 he became Conant Professor of Music. From 1973 he was a member of the composition faculty of the Juilliard School, and taught as a guest lecturer in the U.S. and Europe. His 1983 Madison lectures were published as Words about Music. Babbitt received several honors, including membership in the American Academy of Science and Letters (1986) and its Gold Medal in Music (1988).
Together with Roger Sessions, Elliot Carter, and George Perle, Babbitt represents the stratum of the American avant-garde which was devoted to the rational methods in composition. He wrote the first formal and systematic research paper on Schoenberg's compositional method (1946). In his articles of the 1950s and 1960s Babbitt was a pioneer in his thinking on music, involving terms from mathematics, such as "source set," "secondary set," "derived set," "combinatoriality." In his innovative compositions of that time Babbitt sought to use and sometimes to combine Schoenberg's and Webern's technique of composition. From the 1970s and on the composer continued his intellectual search in 12-tone sound combinatoriality. During the 1960s and 1970s he also worked with the synthesizer, experimenting with electronic sounds.
NG2; MGG2; A. Mead, An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994).
[Yulia Krenin (2nd ed.)]