Milton Babbitt died today.

You can read all about it in NPR Classical’s article.

I had tweeted about it when I saw the memorial status updates on Facebook; I kept dropping the ‘t’ at the end, a mistake I’ve been doing ever since I first learned his name.  I glibly tweeted that the power of combinatoriality had given him his long life.  I was quickly reprimanded by another composer on Twitter, David Vlasak, which is absolutely appropriate.  It was insensitive of me to have said.

The incident gave me pause: why was it okay for me to make light of his death?  If this was my father or grandfather we were talking about, I wouldn’t dream of saying anything like that.  I’m usually not that much of a jerk.  So why did Babbit(t) get the go ahead in my, um, head?

After some thought, I realized that although I know of Babbitt, I have no idea of who he is as a person.  He doesn’t exist to me, other than being a signifier for his compositional philosophy and his techniques.  I’m not alone: to the bulk of undergrad music students studying his music, “Babbitt” is a four-letter word.  Just like the great classical composers of the past, he has been dehumanized, reduced to little more than an exaggeration of his personality suited to aid in the struggle to understand his works.

Classical music has no higher honor to give than that.  For better or for worse.

Babbitt’s music has influenced every composer since his rise to prominence, whether they loved, hated, or avoided it.  I guess that means that someday when I die, I can only hope that there will be some kid who doesn’t know me making light of it.

  4 comments for “Milton Babbitt died today.

  1. 01/29/2011 at 8:45 pm

    He was a totally sweet man. He came to IU when we were playing this very-near-impossible piece, the IU NME (New Music Ensemble) — I think it was ‘Consortini’ for five instruments, 1989. He had such strong & clear ideas but was adorably warm & supportive of talented young musicians. He made a huge impact on me. I had never practiced anything quite that hard, mostly before he arrived. After he arrived, I just remember being blown away by his personality, especially as a contrast to the tough feelings I had been experience while being stuck in a practice room sorting it all out.

  2. Anonymous
    01/29/2011 at 8:48 pm

    The internet isn’t written in pencil, it’s written in ink. When you are a jerk online, it tends to have a ripple effect.

Comments are closed.