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Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt, crabby, exuberant, reviled, playful, rigorous, thrilling. The composer who has been among the most controversial yet influential figures in American concert music of the past 60 years. The theorist whose vision about the direction that music should take dominated the academy for decades. The teacher who has guided generations of young composers both at The Juilliard School and in the Ivy League. The man who, as he celebrates his 90th year, continues to lead a full life as a composer and pedagogue, and who glows at the thought that James Levine, one of his most powerful champions, is now in command at the Boston Symphony.

In person, Milton Babbitt is a small, compact figure whose pursed lips and twinkling eyes behind thick black frames seem always on the edge of a smile. His conversation is quick, his thought fluid, able to dart from one subject to another at the drop of an implication. Just like his music, some might say. Joel Sachs, a Juillliard colleague for many years, makes the comparison directly.

Sachs describes an occasion when he played one of Babbitt's piano compositions at the Dartington Summer Festival in England. "Milton was there," Sachs recalled, "always at the lunch and dinner tables, always gabby, very friendly, very funny." At the recital, Sachs told the audience that one way to "get" Babbitt's music is to think of it as "being like a conversation" with the composer. After the concert, an elderly woman came up to Sachs and said, "Thinking of the conversations with him made all the difference."

"If performers can present his music as conversation that goes by very quickly and very naturally," Sachs said, "that can make a difference."

Gabby playfulness is not the image most concertgoers have of Milton Babbitt, if they have any image at all. Those with some knowledge of music history might recall the February 1958 essay from High Fidelity magazine with the unfortunate��"and inaccurate��"headline, "Who Cares If You Listen?" That was not Babbitt's choice; he says he would have preferred "The Composer as Specialist."

But the argument of the essay, written in a style that is simultaneously precise and convoluted, was that composers of "serious," "advanced" music should retreat into the cloisters of the academic world. Only there, Babbitt contended, among colleagues in such disciplines as physics, mathematics, and analytic philosophy, could they pursue the creation of work that very few in the outside world would be expected to understand.

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"Milton Babbitt, the crabbiest, most ascetic atonalist in America."
Norman Lebrecht, Critic

"My view of his music is that it is exuberant, full of playfulness, and at same time it is unbelievably rigorous."
Peter Lieberson, Composer

"Very few conductors venture into Babbitt territory"either they are afraid of the music or don't like it and revile it, and they know that most musicians in the orchestra will either not understand it or hate it, or both. For myself, I have to say every time I have conducted Babbitt has been a great thrill, to get inside that music with those marvelous sounds and textures, and the incredible variety within each piece."
Gunther Schuller, Conductor/Composer



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