Milton Babbitt

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.


Further Reading on Milton Babbitt

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).