Sunday, May 14, 2006

Babbitt's Feast

Happy belated 90th Birthday, Milton Babbitt!

Not to everyone’s taste, this composer is nevertheless among the most important ones in America. Mr. Babbitt is also a very smart man, something not too common in this field. May he enjoy many more years filled with joy and good health!

A funny memory relating to the composer came to my mind. Years ago I was playing a ‘contemporary’ music concert. Of course most of the pieces had been written long ago, but in the audience’s eyes, and even in most musicians’, it passed as ‘new’ music. One of the works, perhaps the thorniest to play, was by Milton Babbitt. There was only a small orchestra playing and many of the members were old-timers and had never been put in a spot like that. They were sweating and shaking under pressure, and I swear I could see bulges of Depends and Attends sticking out of their concert outfits during the performance, which actually went okay. It was quite amusing to observe, but better safe than sorry.

Obviously not meant for everyone, nor played by everyone, Mr. Babbitt’s compositions can be very enjoyable when well done. They call for a listener to have an active role, as the music is not meant to be wallpaper. He is a ‘Star Trek’ composer: his mission always was to boldly go where no one had gone before. How future generations will treat his creations remains to be seen, of course, but that is true with everyone.

This brings me to a wisdom I just read today, by G.K. Chesterton: “By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece.” Well said, and worth thinking about.

The New York Times had a nice review on a concert honoring Mr. Babbitt’s birthday. It is worth reading.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers out there, especially the deserving ones!