The death of American composer Milton Babbitt Saturday at 94 was marked by an appropriately lengthy New York Times obituary by Allan Kozinn on Sunday and much sadness from all of those who love the meeting of mind and music. (Alex Ross writes and provides several excellent links here.)
The almost single-handed launcher of serialist music in the United States, in the 1940s, Babbitt was also a major electronic music pioneer, and, at Princeton for more than 70 years (!), at Juilliard for almost 40 and at many other formal and informal centers of learning around the word, a teacher and mentor of many, from Mario Davidovsky to John Eaton to Stephen Sondheim. His work in serialism paralleled, anticipated, and also influenced the works of such major European near-contemporaries as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luigi Nono. A brilliant man -- with training and real abilities in mathematics and philosophy -- and a lover of language(s), he was also a great controversialist and wit -- a unique figure in American cultural and musical life.
Babbitt lived a full and rich life and so my first thoughts at the news of his death, along with gratitude for his many contributions, were of my friend and colleague Robert Hilferty (left) who died tragically a year and a half ago in New York at just 49. Among many activities and accomplishments in a number of fields, Robert had been working for many years on a film on the composer, one of his great heroes whom he first became acquainted with while an undergraduate at Princeton. Even the title of this unfinished work had become something of a legend over time -- Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer. Now, I thought, we will never see Robert's film.
Instead, this part of Robert's story has a happy ending. It turns out that Robert's partner, costume designer Fabio Toblini, had asked composer and former Babbitt student Laura Karpman, for whom Robert had shown his most recent work on the film two years ago, if she might try to complete the project. She did so -- just now -- and today she generously placed it with NPR Music online. You can watch it, and Robert, and Sondheim, and, of course, Babbitt, absolutely free of charge in the 64-minute version she has fashioned from Robert's work here.
This is one of the things we look for in art -- a means of seeing that even in death there is life. Blessings on Laura, on Fabio, on Robert's soul, and on the music and art of Milton Babbitt.