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Remembering Uncle Milton

February 2, 2011 |  4:25 pm

Babbitt With the death Saturday of Milton Babbitt, a reevaluation of American music’s king of complexity has already begun. Babbitt, who remained an advocate of the 12-tone system developed by Schoenberg and an engineer of sounds and structures to end of his 94 years, was one of our most brilliant musical minds. He did not have a big public, but he was loved by many who knew him (and often called him Uncle Milton) for his conversation and wit -- examples of which can be found on the websites for New Music Box and the San Francisco Symphony American Mavericks series.

However difficult, Babbitt’s music was, like him, ever lively and inventive, and his influence was huge. “Babbitt changed my life,” Stephen Sondheim, who studied with Babbitt at Princeton, says in Robert Hilferty's documentary, "Portrait of a Serial Composer." “He taught me what music was all about.” 

That documentary, which can been seen on the NPR blog Deceptive Cadence, was left unfinished when Hilferty died in 2009 but completed last year by the Los Angeles composer Laura Karpman. This a wonderfully inventive introduction to a composer with a huge generosity of spirit, and it helps reminds us of just how vast were his mind and influence. He inspired generations of serialists and post-serialists, but not just them. 

Besides writing for the concert hall, Karpman, a Babbitt pupil, has won four Emmys for her television scores and is also a successful film, theater and video-game composer. Daniel Catán, whose “Il Postino” opened the Los Angeles Opera season in the fall and starred Plácido Domingo, got his PhD in composition under Babbitt at Princeton. Jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan is yet another Babbitt Princeton product.

Still, Babbitt continues to be ghetto-ized as a chilly academic. That should, and will, change. I make my case in an appreciation here.


Milton Babbitt dies at 94; composer developed first electronic synthesizer

Voices: Milton Babbitt, 1916 -- 2011

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Milton Babbitt. Credit: Princeton University.