Hindsight normally gives perspective to history, but in the case of the 20th Century, even looking back, it’s hard to fathom the sheer magnitude of change in human thought and technology. Composers faced the twin revolutions of electronic sound — recorded, synthesized, and eventually computerized — and new systems for organizing pitch and rhythm from the early European avant garde to access to every world music culture.

One figure at the center of the academic reinvention of American music was Milton Babbitt, the experimental innovator who passed away over the weekend at the age of 94. Obituaries inevitably brought up his infamous, tragically-titled High Fidelity article “Who Cares if You Listen?” (for which the composer himself blames an editor – something I can easily believe as a writer). Much is made of the gulf between listener and composer, but perhaps that misses the point. Dig into his arguments, and you hear the struggle of a composer in the midst of revolution and turmoil, one that fragments composers from other composers, not just audiences:

…it is a result of a half-century of revolution in musical thought, a revolution whose nature and consequences can be compared only with, and in many respects are closely analogous to, those of the mid-nineteenth-century evolution in theoretical physics The immediate and profound effect has been the necessity of the informed musician to reexamine and probe the very foundations of his art. He has been obliged to recognize the possibility, and actuality, of alternatives to what were once regarded as musical absolutes. He lives no longer in a unitary musical universe of “common practice,” but in a variety of universes of diverse practice.

Original essay text

Oddly enough, he doesn’t argue in that article for absolutes – good or bad, popular or serious – but instead makes the (none-too-controversial, on the face of it) argument that some experimental music being made will be too complex for some ears. The part of the argument that seems not to hold, in a grand indication of just how revolutionary the 20th Century was, is the idea of separating radio technicians from theoretical physicists. Instead, we live in a world in which theoretical quantum physics becomes the stuff of dinner conversation and may soon power the memory in our computers. I just saw string theory advocate Brian Greene on The Colbert Report. (It’s hard to imagine Neils Bohr showing up on the Ed Sullivan Show to do an act, by comparison.) So great was the revolution of those thoughts that they seem inseparable from daily life.

Relevant to this site, part of that revolution was electronic. In an interview with Eric Chasalow in 1997, Babbitt recalls his own part in some of that history. It begins, humbly, with odd noises and early artifacts of the first electronic scores. New sounds start with tangible construction, even when programming, which required punching binary codes in paper. Eventually, one winds up at the part of the story that’s better known — the RCA Mark 1 and (radically different, says Babbitt) Mark 2 synths for which he was a consultant.

Extending the argument of “Who Cares if You Listen,” theoretical physics and radio repair are no longer independent in music, either. The experimental technologies and odd noises Babbitt and others helped develop now pound away on dance floors around the world and appear in pre-installed software on computers and phones.

To even begin to fathom what has happened, or what happens next, then, I can think of no better time to listen to the gravely voice of Milton Babbitt, to reflect on what his revolutionary, sometimes-unpopular musical radicalism could generate, and to listen again to his music. Some of the electronic sounds date poorly, but they also exhibit his sonic and rhythmic imagination and stand as a challenge to work to come.

There aren’t many people whose oeuvre begins before World War II and lasts past the second invasion of Iraq, who helped launch the academic computer music lab as American phenomenon and also tutored Stephen Sondheim. In 2001, he told New Music Box he had bleak hopes for the future of “serious” music, but also admitted he didn’t own a computer. The outpouring of support on the Web over the past few days for the composer suggests a lot of people did care, and did listen.

Milton Babbitt talks about “Philomel”

Sequenza and Synthtopia point to this new documentary by Laura Karpman, posted by NPR. I was also at that CUNY Graduate Center event, and saw Babbitt speak there, as well. As may come across in these videos, he was a warm presence, very different from the persona ascribed to his role in music and culture.

  • Andrew Stone

    NPR has just put up a remarkable documentary on Babbitt.


  • flip

    Peter Kirn is a very talented writer.  That said, there is a Zappa quote that cracks me up whenever I read anything about music:  "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

  • Ivan

    And this is a quote from Brian Eno : "I've fought for years the idea that rock and popular art is only about passion and fashion and nothing to do with thinking and examining and if you do think there is something suspicious about you"

  • james

    i remember another babbitt quote, that i'll have to paraphrase because i can't find it w google.. at the dawn of electronic music he said something along the lines of "one can't help feeling a lot of it is the result of serendipity". prescient and cutting – serendipity plays a huge part in how people write electronic music – the happy accidents, fiddling around until we spot that a randomly made sound is good. made me rethink my compositional strategies..

  • Peter Kirn

    @flip: A great investigation into who actually said that (I'm fairly certain it wasn't Zappa, though he said plenty of other clever things):

    I like "writing about music is like singing about economics." That should prompt someone…

  • C.P.Roth

    Thanks for posting this Peter. Babbitt was a ubiquitous presence in Princeton, NJ (where I grew up), and not just cause he was Milton Effin Babbitt. You'd often see him tooling around town….in his FERRARI! You gotta understand what kinda effect this had on a teenage rock boy interested in composing and arranging and seeing that. Sadly all my Ferrari money's gone towards software. RIP Milton.

  • My laptop of the last three years was named in honor of him since I used it for so much electronic composition. Sad to hear this news.

  • Christopher Penrose

    Great to see this article Peter.  Milton's quote you provided was quite prescient, particularly 'He lives no longer in a unitary musical universe of “common practice”', and should be the credo for any musicologist worth their salt.

    I never saw that Ferrari and had no idea!  ROFL

  • Always interesting to hear about the early developments. Thanks for this.


    Is still alive, and also did some nice interviews about the NatLab period.

  • fourthirtythree

    Architecture is a great subject for dance.

    And sub editors always seem to distort anything I write with a punchy headline.

    RIP Milton. 

  • flip

    @Peter:  Of course, right after I posted that my google fingers filled me with doubt regarding the veracity of said quote!

  • z

    Poor guy had to go and pass away the same week as the legendary John Barry