Caesar Sant is a four-year-old child prodigy with a gift for playing the violin.
- Posted on Jan 31st 2011 11:14AM by Brian Voerding
Oscar White, Corbis
Babbitt was born in 1916 in Philadelphia, where he began playing the saxophone and clarinet at a young age and quickly became a talented arranger. He never planned on becoming a musician; his father was a mathematician, and Babbitt had every intention of following in his footsteps when he entered college in 1931.
He soon realized music was his primary passion, though, and left for New York University. There, he studied the famous Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and his contemporaries, who had immersed themselves in the creation of a new style of music that embraced atonality, mathematical functions, philosophy and other modern conceptions.
Babbitt found a way to meld those influences, as well as his own fascination with mathematics, into his own blend of avant-garde music he composed for a variety of settings, including duets, quartets, choirs and full orchestras. The rising star joined the Princeton University faculty in 1948 and later taught at the Juilliard.
In the 1950s, Babbitt, following the ethos of his contemporaries like John Cage and younger peers including Steve Reich and Philip Glass, turned his attention to electronic music. He signed on to work with RCA in their development of the Mark II, the first programmable synthesizer. Babbitt was fascinated with both the budding technology --previously, composers working in the electronic idiom had to painstakingly splice together single sounds using magnetic tape -- and the degree of control it allowed over his compositions.
"I love going to the studio with my work in my head, realizing it while I am there and walking out with the tape under my arm," he told the Times in 1969. "I can then send it anywhere in the world, knowing exactly how it will sound."
Many of Babbitt's early synthesizer works were instant classics. He soon pushed the medium into new directions, combining synthesized pieces with live singers and other performers. He continued to work within electronic music until 1976, when Princeton's studio was vandalized and the equipment deemed irreplaceable.
Babbitt was often filed into the minimalist camp, though he often rejected that comparison, jokingly referring to himself as a "maximalist." While he was best known for his more experimental explorations, Babbitt was also adept at several other compositional forms, dabbling in musicals, film scores and popular songs. He also wrote several orchestral works, though they were not often performed, given their rigorous complexity and odd melodies, rhythms, and scoring methods.
Babbitt also published numerous essays on his art and craft, the best of which were recently collected into a single volume that spans a half-century of Babbitt's thoughts on the progression of 20th-century music.
Like many of his contemporaries, Babbitt never received mainstream acclaim for his work, although he developed a large cult following that continues to champion his compositions worldwide. Among several other accolades, Babbitt won a Pulitzer in 1982 for his lifelong accomplishments and received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1986.
Babbitt is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren. His wife, Sylvia, died in 2005.