Milton Babbitt, who has died aged 94, was one of the most impenetrable, inaccessible and influential of American composers and theorists; an article he wrote in 1958 headlined Who cares if you listen? set the tone, reinforcing the view that contemporary music was for an elite cognoscenti.

What pisses me off about this is that everyone remembers the title, and no one bothers to discuss what Babbitt actually wrote. (And he disavowed the title, which was apparently the work of an editor.)

I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious”, “advanced”, contemporary music. This composer expends an enormous amount of time and energy – and, usually, considerable money – on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value. He is, in essence, a “vanity” composer. The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in his music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow professionals. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

Sometimes you need some super-complex music to break you out of your musical doldrums. I’ve been listening to a lot of Babbitt lately and it’s really been doing it for me. Musical caffeine. What got me really interested in him was a disc with his 2nd and 6th string quartets and other pieces. The quartets are great: wonderfully fluid rhythms and seemingly-infinite harmonic combinations. Whoever says this music in unemotional is dead wrong — there’s a kaleidoscopic variety of mental associations.

I’ve given the Harmonia Mundi disc of the piano music a few listens. The stringency of the earlier pieces is refreshing; like being on insect-time. The two pieces from the 1980s (Canonical Variations and Lagniappe) have Babbitt’s oft-mentioned wit in spades and even re-occurring themes.

Milton Babbitt, a composer who gloried in complexity, dies @ 94
Milton Babbitt – writing music for our elite

R.I.P. Milton Byron Babbitt, composer, born 10 May 1916; died 29 January 2011