Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Steven Stull, Milton Babbitt

Baritone Steven Stull will sing Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer Sunday with the Bryn Athyn, Pa., Orchestra. My interview with him is linked at left. I take no responsibility for the headline.

And, before too much time goes by and it is no longer news, I note with sadness the passing of composer Milton Babbitt, who died Saturday, January 29, at 94. I've been honoring his memory the way one should honor any composer's memory — by listening to his music. Over the past week I've played my CD recording the Second String Quartet, Correspondences for orchestra and tape, None but the Lonely Flute, Around the Horn, Occasional Variations, and perhaps one or two other things. The music is, I have decided, attractive and engaging, and through repeated exposure, I am learning to pick out the incidents, if not follow the story. More listening will follow.

Other bloggers have paid more personal tributes to Babbitt, and I recommend you seek them out online. I heard him speak only once, back in the 1990s, when Orchestra 2001 performed his Transfigured Notes for string orchestra at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (This was the score that, a couple of years earlier, the Philadelphia Orchestra had commissioned and then rejected as unplayable. It has been played, and recorded, quite well since by other ensembles that actually seem to care about it.) I remember only one thing from the composer’s pre-concert talk: Babbitt said he did not use folk material in his music and he drew his inspiration instead from the likes of Schoenberg and Webern because, he said, "These are my folks."

Like everyone else in the modern world, composers are living much longer than they used to. I find it a disorienting trend. In Beethoven's day, no one was even guaranteed a "late period," and if he got one, it would last at most ten years. Now it can last up to sixty. Careers are now heavily end-loaded, and the late period is the career.

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