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Remembering Milton: the Music Versus the Persona


There have been a number of concerts commemorating Milton Babbitt since his death in January, but few have attempted to paint as full a picture of the composer as New England Conservatory’s Milton Babbitt Memorial Concert on Sunday October 9th, coordinated by Rodney Lister.  The program was largely drawn from Babbitt’s solo and chamber music with the exception of Brahms’s Feldeinsamkeit and Schoenberg’s Piano Piece, Op. 11 No. 1.  Throughout the program, colleagues and students of Babbitt, including Rodney Lister (who also performed on piano for a number of the works on the program), David Rakowski, Joshua Rifkin, Malcolm Peyton, Lewis Lockwood, and Martin Boykan, provided remarks on their interactions with him.

The performances for the vast majority of the program were overwhelmingly positive. The first two pieces, both collections of songs, Du (1951) and Mehr ‘Du’ (1991), seem to highlight a general theme of the program by outlining the expressive disparity between the composer’s early, meticulously controlled compositions and the later ones, which, although still meticulously controlled, have a certain poetic quality to them. The earlier pieces, in my opinion, are attractive only in their structural elegance on the page—an aesthetic quality that is not transmitted in its intended form to even the most receptive ears. That said, the performance of Du by Sarah Bach and Rodney Lister was so well-executed that it generated a certain appeal on a separate plane than that of the structural organization—a phenomenon not uncommon to Babbitt’s music. Ceceilia Allwein highlighted the more expressive nature of Mehr ‘Du’ with candid feeling, which sometimes felt at odds with the more deliberate approach of the instrumentalists. I much appreciated D’Anna Fortunato’s presence at the concert. Her performance of the Feldeinsamkeit was simply gorgeous. Babbitt’s Composition for One Instrument (2000), performed on celesta by Lister, existed in a strangely engaging place between the eerie and playful, whereas the program’s closing piece Composition for Viola and Piano (1950) seemed cold and sterile.

Perhaps the most interesting contributions were from the NEC Preparatory School students. Pianists Hannah Ryu and Niklas Kniesche showed technical ability and musicianship far beyond their years, as did violinists Tristan Flores and Yuki Beppu in their duet performance of Arrivals and Departures. Daniel Kim, who seemed to be the oldest of the student performers, showed true prowess in the tongue-in-cheek It Takes Twelve to Tango, but really shone with an exquisite performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Piece, Op. 11 No. 1, which is simply amazing.

The focus of the guest speakers in general was on Babbitt’s warm personality, yet there seemed to be an uncomfortable subtext about the “at large” musical community’s attitude towards Milton Babbitt.  The exception was Marty Boykan’s explanation of Babbitt’s historical importance, with praise for the moment-to-moment aspects of Babbitt’s music.  I daresay even Boykan would have difficulty appreciating the narrative qualities of the more rigid, earlier works for which Babbitt is most known. Granted, some of these trying questions would have seemed out of place at a memorial concert, but I do not doubt they were on many minds: what precisely is at the root of such a large portion of the musical community’s rejection of Babbitt’s music? Why have the vast majority of living composers found Babbitt’s compositional system to be a creative dead-end? Listeners’ preconceptions and prejudices are largely to blame, no doubt. The famous essay by Babbit from High Fidelity magazine in February of 1958 entitled, Who Cares if You Listen?, is usually misunderstood by readers who are unable to derive the optimistic subtext of the argument (the title was changed by editors from “The Composer as Specialist” probably to make the article more polemical).  But despite the stalwart performances by the musicians throughout these performances, I still couldn’t help but find the lingering contrast between the cold, calculated nature of the music and the amiable nature of the man a bit mystifying.

So how do we reconcile the counterpoint between Milton Babbitt’s music and his personality?  The reality is that our recollection of his warm, personable nature­—his love of Broadway, beer, and football—and the tales of his interactions with his students will eventually fade from our cultural memory.  Even his significant contributions to electronic music and academia’s role as a patronage system for composers will shift with the ever-changing artistic landscape of contemporary music in the United States. What will remain, however, is his body of work.  And if the entirety of Babbitt’s character is to live on past the anecdotes of those close to him, the performance practice of his music will have to incorporate a more subjectivist approach.  In many cases (particularly with his earlier serial compositions), this will mean re-conceiving the musical interpretation of his work, most likely in a way that is at odds with the principles inherent in the composition of these pieces.  Perhaps a freer interpretative approach to the performance of Babbitt’s music is the best way to communicate his artistic intentions.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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  1. I find it very strange to read that music which I find beautiful and expressive and warm and completely engaging, and more and more so as I spend more time practicing and playing it, described as cold and calculated and sterile.   It’s also a little strange to read that Babbitt’s later and much more “advanced,” complex, and difficult music described as less “rigid” and somehow simpler.   Everyone is, of course, entitled to his own opinions, but I want to make it clear that there are at least some of us who love Babbitt’s music and love with our whole hearts, who do not find any of it to be rigid or inexpressive and who certainly don’t reject it. 

    Comment by Rodney Lister — October 13, 2011 at 1:25 pm

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