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R.I.P. Milton Babbitt, influential composer and electronic music pioneer

Milton Babbitt—the influential experimental composer who took an uncompromisingly intellectual approach to music and championed composition as a rational, mathematical pursuit—died over the weekend. He was 94.

As the New York Times notes in its obituary, Babbitt was a self-described “maximalist,” a term he adopted to distance himself from fellow experimental, albeit more minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Babbitt’s music was anything but minimal, building on Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method to create a system known as “total serialism,” organizing notes, dynamics, timbres, duration, and the like into rigidly structured rows that formed the basis of his work. His explanations of his approach were typically impenetrable—the NYT quotes one program note that refers to “models of similar, interval-preserving, registrally uninterpreted pitch-class and metrically durationally uninterpreted time-point aggregate arrays”—and Babbitt became notorious for not kowtowing to those who couldn’t fathom it after writing a 1958 article for High Fidelity titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” (The headline was substituted by an editor for Babbitt’s original title, “The Composer As Specialist,” to Babbitt’s objection.) In it he argued that advanced composing was a field akin to mathematics or philosophy, to be chiefly created for and appreciated by specialists.


Despite his general indifference toward a mainstream audience, Babbitt’s work would come to have a profound effect on all aspects of pop and electronic music thanks to his early adoption of the synthesizer, as heard on groundbreaking works like 1961’s Composition For Synthesizer and 1964’s Ensembles For Synthesizer, which incorporated electronic sounds with acoustic and voice ensembles. In the 1950s, RCA hired him as a consultant on its Mark II synthesizer, an instrument that Babbitt lauded for its capability of producing the exacting precision that he so prized. He would produce numerous works that combined acoustic and electronic instruments throughout the 1970s, although that period more or less ended after the Columbia-Princeton studio that housed his Mark II was vandalized, and Babbitt returned to creating music for more traditional instruments and voices. Babbitt received a Pulitzer for his life’s work in 1982, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986, and served as a professor of composition at Princeton from 1938 until his death. Here are a few examples of his work.

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