On Babbitt

I never met Milton Babbitt, who died this past Saturday at 94, nor have I heard many of his works in concert,but his impact on my work was direct nonetheless.

Bill Hibbard, my teacher at Iowa, was a fan of Babbitt's music and had studied it extensively. When looking over a passage in a piece I was working on at the time (I don't remember what it was, what it was scored for, or even if I ever finished it), Dr. Hibbard seemed to sense that I was trying to do something with register (the high/low placement of notes in musical space) that I didn't have the experience or means of doing. Over the course of that lesson (which ran long) he decribed in extraordinary detail how Babbitt had dealt with registral issues in a few measure of Composition for Four Instruments (1948).

Part of the beauty of Hibbard's teaching was that he did not require or even expect me to use the specific techniques he or Babbitt or any other composer used. He wanted me to see how it's possible to use any aspect of sound to create expressive music. It's clear to me that he himself had learned that from his study of Babbitt's music.

And part of the beauty of Babbitt's music (and his writings and his work with young composers of many stylistic stripes), for this then-young composer anyway, was how it seemed to show that there are many paths to an individual musical voice.

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Phil Freeman, proprietor of Burning Ambulance, asked me to respond to a quote from Babbitt's most notorious article. My response is here.


  1. Anonymous8:37 PM


    I find it odd that AC Douglas has yet to comment on the passing of Babbitt at his blog.

  2. Strange that you're asking here, anonymous. Oh, wait, you can't comment on S&F - but Steve won't know the answer to that.

    Anyway, I would think that anyone who has read S&F can figure out what ACD would have to say about Babbitt's music.

  3. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Dear Listen 101,

    My name is Barbara O’Brien and I am a political blogger. Just had a question about your blog and couldn’t find an email—please get back to me as soon as you can (barbaraobrien(at)maacenter.org)