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Posted at 6:42 PM ET, 01/29/2011

Milton Babbitt RIP

By Anne Midgette

The composer has died in New York, age 94.

Babbitt's obituaries will no doubt make much of his famous essay "Who Cares If You Listen?" in which he made a case for the composer as specialist, like a research scientist, working on projects that were only intended for a small circle of other specialists. This helped set him up as an archetype of the impenetrable creator of music audiences aren't supposed to like. But this is far too facile an appraisal of a composer whose music is far more human than perhaps even he at times would like to admit (and bear in mind that there are cabaret songs in his output as well as serialist string quartets).

Here's the start of "Philomel" from 1964, perhaps his best-known work, with a pioneering juxtaposition of synthesizer and human voice. I find it speaks well for the world that "Philomel" (and a lot of other Babbitt work) is on YouTube. If only we could see more of that work in the concert hall.

By Anne Midgette  | January 29, 2011; 6:42 PM ET
Categories:  national, news  
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I like music that is inspired and that inspires. This is not it. This is musical mathematics. I would like to be able to whistle or sing some of this stuff but - take my word - I cannot. And, I definitely know what I like. Milton's stuff is one reason classical music is dying.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | January 31, 2011 12:39 AM | Report abuse

My choir - International Orange Chorale of San Francisco - recently performed the first ever a cappella performance of Babbitt's "Music for the Mass". We presented a repeat performance of the work yesterday in San Francisco for an audience of about 100 people. We dedicated the performance to Babbitt's memory. It is a beautiful piece (rigorously contrapuntal, but still fairly melodic!), and it was an honor to sing.

Posted by: laineybug | January 31, 2011 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Milton Babbitt was a fascinating man, as I've only recently begun to learn. Readers may enjoy my little post on him and others of his ilk, which, at the very least, includes what I hope are some good links. The post is at the Raining Acorns blog and is called "Slouching Toward Lachenmann: Who Cares If I Listen?

Posted by: rainingacorns | February 1, 2011 6:58 PM | Report abuse

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