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Milton Babbitt: So What If He’s Intellectual?

Milton Babbitt, who died on January 29 at 94, produced some of his best-known music electronically, using the gargantuan, rudimentary computers of punch-card antiquity. Since there is no action footage of the work being created or performed, the clips of this music on Youtube are generally accompanied by still photographs of Babbitt, and these pictures point as well as the music to the Milton Babbitt problem. There he is: bald, middle-aged, and white, in his horn-rim glasses and tie, posing with his instrument, the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, at the David Sarnoff Laboratory in Princeton. Play any of these clips with the sound off, and you can see in those pictures the essence of the standard criticism of Babbitt’s music: It’s too intellectual—technical, mechanical, and isolated from the interests of the listening public.

Babbitt certainly had brains—he taught both mathematics and music at Princeton, where he got to know Einstein—and his mathematician’s fascination with systems of structure led him to do advanced experiments in serial music and electronic synthesis. Nearly all his music is challenging intellectually—or it was when it first appeared, and so it remains to contemporary listeners who come to serial music or electronic music unprepared. It’s fair to call Babbitt’s music intellectual. Yet its intellectualism is, on its own, hardly a failing.

Over the years, the standard attack on Babbitt’s music has produced a standard defense. As Babbitt’s student Stephen Sondheim has pointed out, the intellect is a conduit to feeling. If music stirs the mind, it will make its way to the heart. If so, it’s also true that music can follow many other routes through the human system: It can move the body first and later the heart—or it can hit the heart and only later resonate in the mind. To defend art that stimulates and challenges the intellect because of its secondary effect on the emotions is not a defense of the intellect; it’s intellectual defensiveness.

For all its technical complexity, much of Milton Babbitt’s music is deeply emotive, and the emotional impact of pieces such as “Three Compositions for Piano” (an early serial composition) and “Philomel” (composed for soprano voice and synthesized accompaniment) grows with repeated listenings. In time, the music moves to the heart. Other pieces, such as the “String Quartet #3,” a formally intricate work from 1970, hit the brain and never leave, and I don’t see what’s wrong with staying there.