Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt working with electronic equipment in 1966
Photograph by William Gale Gedney (1932-1989)
Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

‘As for the future of electronic music and by extension, of audio art, it has shifted the boundaries of music away from the limitations of the acoustical instrument, of the performer’s coordinating capacities, to the almost infinite limitations of the electronic instrument. The new limitations are the human ones of perception.’

(Milton Babbitt, as epigraphed in Glenn Gould, The Prospect of Recordings, (1966))

“But getting back to the more crucial issue, when I think about a piece, of course I think in twelve-tone terms. I don’t think about the fact that it’s not fashionable. It never really was. I find that always very funny about Schoenberg. His music was never fashionable and now it’s considered old-fashioned. Honestly I don’t want to seem to be heroic about this, but it never occurs to me whether this is fashionable or not. This is my language. This is what interests me more. This is where I still find things that I’ve never thought of before. And so it’s going to be” 

(Duckworth, 1995, 82-83)

‘Portrait of a serial composer’.
Unfinished documentary about Babbitt by Robert Hilferty.

“But when the chips are down, for me the term “academic” simply suggest the most imaginative disciplined, the most responsibly problematical, the most informedly advanced activity. It is in so many other fields, and that’s what I take it to be in music, too. I’m not going to say I’m noyt an academic composer. I’m an academic composer in the sense that the academy makes it possible for me to write the music I want to. It has never imposed on me in the slightest”

(Duckworth, 1995, 89)

“I had cast longing eyes and ears toward the electronic medium some twenty years earlier, when I attempted to work in the medium of the handwritten soundtrack, which had been developed in the twenties in Europe—mainly in Germany—as the result of an awareness that originated with recording itself: that, unless you are a firm believer in musical ghosts in the talking machine, whatever was recorded of musical instruments, the voice, or any source of sound could be implanted on the disc, or on film, without such acoustical sources. This was accomplished on film by a mixture of drawing and photography; all that was missing were composers who needed the medium sufficiently to apply themselves to mastering a new, refractory instrument. But for most composers it appeared to be only an almost unbelievable possibility, technologically mysterious while providing resources which did not yet correspond to needs. So, the technology did not effect a revolution in music; the revolution in musical thought was yet to demand the technological means.”

(Babbitt, 1991)

Milton Babbitt
(unattributed photograph)

“Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”

(Babbitt, 1958)

Further resources
‘A Fine Madness’, article about Babbitt by Greg Sandlow – here
An interview with Milton Babbitt on KPFA radio, November 15, 1984 – here
This entry was posted in Composers, Compositional Techniques, Computer Music, Serialism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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