Tod Machover remembers Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)

By Tod Machover

Milton Babbitt

I know Milton Babbitt hadn’t been feeling well, but he was one of those people you think will never die. Unlike Elliott Carter, who always seemed much younger than he was, Babbitt always seemed older…deep voice, wrinkled, small and intense, ancient in middle age. I got to know Milton well over the years, starting with my time at Juilliard in the 70s. Although I studied composition with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions at Juilliard – I had the feeling, maybe incorrect, that Babbitt wanted me to study composition with him – I went to Milton to study Schoenberg, and we spent a few years pulling apart the great Schoenberg works, tone row by tone row, early experiments to late masterpieces, and that was a great experience.

Milton also introduced me to someone who could teach me to program computers to make music. Juilliard didn’t even have an electronic music class when I was there, and pretty much no one was working with computers. Babbitt sent me downtown to the City University Graduate Center where I learned Fortran, typed out punch cards, and waited a week to get magnetic tape back with my musical experiments. Elliott thought that was kind of nuts; Milton understood it perfectly.

Milton actually nominated me for the first several prizes I received as a young composer, including one from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Pierre Boulez pretty much rejected Babbitt and his music, first at the NY Phil and then when I was with him at IRCAM in Paris. Babbitt is exactly the kind of composer who Boulez should have supported – he had started many of the musical movements that allowed Boulez to develop as he did – but I think Boulez considered him to be a dry academic and rarely played a note of his music.

I think Boulez was wrong about this. Milton Babbitt was a brilliant and somewhat misunderstood man, a wonderful musician who masqueraded as a nutty professor, and a supreme politician whose power-brokering worked better in the university world than in the musical one. I think his music will be viewed much more favorably with time, and his crazy rhythms and broken melodies will seem closer to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman than to mathematics. And his electronic music from the 1960s sounds as fresh as when it was created, not something you can say about much electronica created since.

Further reading
From the New York Times, by Allan Kozinn: Milton Babbitt, a Composer Who Gloried in Complexity, Dies at 94
From the Los Angeles Times, by Mark Swed – “Critic’s Notebook: Open your ears to Milton Babbitt: He had a rich life but died an unjustly neglected American composer.”

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