Sunday, January 30, 2011

RIP Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt died yesterday, further reducing the already dwindling number of old guard modernist composers on the planet.

I'm probably leaving a couple American composers out if I refer to Elliot Carter as the "last man standing" at this point (with Kurtag and Boulez, young scamps, chilling on the other side of the pond), and it's probably not quite respectful (especially if I go on to note that Carter is also the best of the Academic Modernists, so it makes sense that he's immortal). But Babbitt's music was only ever a curiosity to me; having given him at least mild due course at the turntables in my music schools' libraries.

The main thing I wonder about (drum roll... counterfactual coming...) is what Babbitt would have done, compositionally, had that synthesizer not dropped into his lap at Princeton once upon a time. Comparing his music to Boulez's for instance, we see that Boulez was extremely interested in pushing human virtuosity to its limits (Jack and I heard him talk about this a bit, a couple years, ago, when he was conducting a student group playing his "Masterless Hammer")--in line with Ligeti as well--and the kind of expression that becomes available at the limits of capability (and how capability evolves, and how this evolution alone can be the engine for newness/novelty that modernism needs). But for Babbitt, at least so far as the narrative goes, the synthesizer "freed" him from human performance capability. And I think that's an alienation that he never recovered from--there's still his one virtuosity, as a music-composing intellect and synth-manager, but that lacks the necessary spectacle (compare him here to, say, Richard Feynman, who was a super-genius, but is more famous, respected, etc. in his field (SCIENCE!), since he happened to also have a strong sense of showmanship).

Invective ≠ spectacle.

Death is an empty set.


Blogger Jack said...

Yes, RIP. Babbitt's music never did that much for me, although I haven't tried it for a while. Boulez and Carter both composed sensually in their own way -- fluid gestures, washes of unexpected color -- but Babbitt's music sounds extremely dry to me. I've heard essentially none of it live, which probably doesn't help it in my ears.

By all accounts he was brilliant and intensely witty, and the one time I heard him speak he came across as such.

1/30/2011 5:09 PM  

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