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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Babbitt's Semi-Simple Variations

A new video has just started making the rounds on the Internet. Everyone who has a "new music" blog seems to have a link to this piece, and I can see why.

It's a YouTube of a musical arrangement (with dance) of Semi-Simple Variations (1956) by 12-tone composer - and modern music legend - Milton Babbitt.

Have a look...

Great job guys! "The Bad Plus" play Babbitt's highly complex serial piece with real swing on this video. The tune can also be found on their album "FOR ALL I CARE."

Babbitt (b. 1916) grew up in Mississippi, and played jazz saxophone in dance bands during his youth. There is a natural bebop-like swing to his work which probably stems from his early roots in jazz and popular music. It is said that Milton can sing any Cole Porter song from memory, and not miss a word. But his "serious" music is DEEP. I mean really DEEP.

It's quite possible that Babbitt has written the most complex music ever composed in the history of civilization. I'm not kidding. Some composers and music theorists refer to Milton's early piano piece Semi-Simple Variations and other works from the 1950's as "Baby Babbitt." Although we mortals can piece together the construction and design of his early work with the aid of scholarly articles (such as the 43-pager that Christopher Wintle published on this short piano piece for "Perspectives of New Music"), later works by Babbitt defy formal analysis by non-specialists.

That's why I picture him in outer space. He is not of this world. Babbitt, as down-to-earth and friendly as he can be, would probably serve as our best hope for communicating with an advanced alien civilization. If it turns out that aliens communicate using the science, mathematics and language of sound (as in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") - then Babbitt would by default be Earth's best hope as an Ambassador.

Klaatu barada nikto

Here is Babbitt with yours truly at Tanglewood in the summer of 2005 (photo on right). He has been a supporter of mine over the years, including with the practical matter of recommendations. Babbitt wrote the following in support of my orchestral work "Tone Poem."

“I agree with my colleagues that your ‘Tone Poem’ is a remarkable work, and I already had decided to nominate it for an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters…”

- Milton Babbitt, Composer, The Juilliard School & Princeton University (Emeritus)