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Book Review

The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt

Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt
Milton Babbitt (Author)
Stephen Peles, Stephen Dembski, Andrew Mead, Joseph N. Straus (Editors)
Princeton University Press (2012), pp xi + 517 pages
ISBN-10: 0691155402
ISBN-13: 978-0691155401
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Milton Babbitt lived from 1916 to 2011. Although perhaps still eclipsed by the shadow that covers many a major artist immediately after their death, he will surely turn out to be one of the most important composers of modern times. He was certainly amongst the most influential – especially in terms of theory and innovation. He was well able to communicate what he did, how and why: he was a prolific writer whom few composers with pretentions to currency in music can ignore. His writings make stimulating and essential reading. This new collection from Princeton (one of several institutions he could call an alma mater) edited by also eminent experts, Stephen Peles with Stephen Dembski, Andrew Mead and Joseph N. Straus contains in 500 pages just over 40 essays on a satisfyingly wide range of musical topics that expose and explain Babbitt's thinking and experience.

Arranged chronologically, the essays were written between 1949 (on Bartók's string quartets) and 1999 (on Schoenberg's context and legacy). One of the first things that will strike the reader is Babbitt's articulate, highly-cultured and fully-referenced style. Having taken in the multiple and always apposite allusions and references to other thinkers (some of them obscure, but whose relevance is quickly made obvious by Babbitt's perceptive and honed logic, and his marshaling of arguments), one is tempted to sit back and be swept along by the forward movement that invigorates and brings alive most of these essays.

Generally, more work on the part of the reader is required, though. Babbitt's world inevitably became very rich over the years in which he was working. The range of musical and cultural milieus in which Babbitt is not merely competent but usually downright inspiring is huge… "Structural Hearing", Musical Time, the R.C.A. synthesizer, Varèse, Past and Present Concepts of the Nature and Limits of Music, Robert Miller, Ben Weber, Wolpe, Keller, Babbitt's American context, responses to others' writings, technique and the most exact and exacting technical areas of mostly atonal theory.

If you infer from this partial but representative list of topics that Babbitt's essays will be of greatest use to those reasonably familiar with the course that twentieth century music has taken and that merely a casual understanding of the issues would be likely to leave a gap in appreciating the thoughtfulness and penetration of Babbitt's thought, then you'd be right. Although blessed with a sense of humor, a wit, ability to use irony and wry judgements that cause you to change your appreciation of the writer's arguments as your reaction to them matures, Babbitt is not incidental or light reading. Nor is it meant to be.

On the other hand, Babbitt's arguments are always cogent, clear and successful. Not that it's all, or even substantially, polemic. But the music of the last hundred years has developed against many backdrops, the different understanding and acceptance of which have always competed with one another. What's more, the composer knew and/or worked with the bulk of those about whom and whose work and own contributions he writes. There is necessarily (and happily) much of the personal. The professionally personal to be sure – but personal interaction, assessment and often admiration. So Babbitt's essays are not textbook exposition. Where necessary there are musical examples, tables and score extracts. Remembering that Babbitt's thinking was essentially mathematical (the composer's father, Albert E. Babbitt, was a mathematician), you should expect much mathematical exegesis, explanation, speculation even; and illustration. Indeed, (material in) Babbitt's books stand(s) as loci classici for a variety of axioms of set, pitch and post-tonal theory now accepted as fundamental.

A declared aim of this collection – given Babbitt's influence and importance outside the world of (contemporary) music – was to provide documentary "evidence" of the quality of Babbitt's thinking to cultural historians and those interested in the wider context in which he worked. So dissertations, essays otherwise unavailable and material from some unlikely sources not usually associated with the musical world have all been included. Indeed, Babbitt's work in history, linguistics and literature are all relevant and strikingly original and useful. To have treated Babbitt's essays as "historical documents" [page x], as the editors have done, is rightly to present them with minimal glosses and commentary.

Textual changes have been made in accordance with the dictates of informed, scholarly "intervention" though… punctuation and corrections to already published versions when Babbitt's own typescript or (first) copy indicates. It is in the annotations that the editors have judiciously indicated local, contemporary and often now lost allusions, without an understanding of which the reader's appreciation would be the poorer. In places – though perhaps fewer than the editors suggest – Babbitt's style is "difficult". Here we readers have been rightly assisted. This extends, necessarily, to Babbitt's humor in places. But little is lost. The immediacy and novelty of his thought is left in tact; a reading from start to finish does indeed leave us with a telling impression of the thinker. Seasoned Babbitt scholars may learn a thing or two and the "uninitiated" will find that the editors have erred in the direction of lending them as steady and strong an arm as they would wish for.

So this is not a book to act as a "memorial" for Babbitt aimed at the casual listener or reader who wants additional background. Nor – frankly – is it a viable substitute for close study of his scores in order to understand how his music works and why his theories have the traction they do. But in order to get a sense of what makes Babbitt Babbitt, in order to pick up on specific musical topics, at the description and discussion of which Babbitt excels, in order to explore areas such as "Recent Stravinsky (1964)", or computers and musicological research (from the following year!), The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt is an excellent source.

It's a well-produced book, notes at the end of each essay with nearly 30 pages of global indexing. Musical examples are clear, though the reproductions of the score extracts is maybe a little on the small side (as is often the case). This is a comprehensive collection. Its subject matter is consistently stimulating. Babbitt's style and presence as a writer are evident and gratifying – particularly when his music is often misunderstood and/or cited as epitomizing the inaccessible. It could hardly be claimed that to read the essays in this book will remedy that. But to start by choosing subject matter that he treats with which one is familiar, and be guided to that about which his enthusiasm perhaps outstrips one's own knowledge could certainly help. We need such a book, of such proportions, for such a major figure. And here it is, reasonably priced and of real and lasting value to listeners and composers, educators and those assessing music of our time. Recommended.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.