How Milton Babbitt Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know.
The mention of his name usually turns people into owls; ‘who?’ ‘who?’. So let me explain.
In February this year, MOOT (Music of our Time) in Brighton put on a Discovery Concert of the work of American Serial Composer, Milton Babbitt. The music is complex, cerebral and many find it inaccessible. A more comprehensive look at his life and works can be found in an article by Allan Kozinn of the New York Times NYT
I had never heard of him before (I was an owl) but was curious and put myself forward to review it. I went straight to YouTube to listen and came across a piano piece called Reflections. It was over 10 minutes long, more than twice the length of anything I was used to listening to. There was no repetition, no discernible rhythm, no melody and everything seemed to be happening at once. I lasted one minute. Max.
I was about to sit through an hour and a half long concert and began to dread the prospect. The live music experience, however, was a revelation. For the following reasons, it was an enriching and magical experience:
It was Unique.
A one-off event that happened moment to moment in real-time.
It Engaged all the Senses and so Engaged Emotion.
I watched the musicians inhabit the music. Their facial expressions and jerky movements to the unusual rhythms conveyed certain emotions that a recording could not. The lighting, smells, and the way the sound echoed off the walls of the old church created an atmosphere you could only appreciate by being there.
It Brought a Sense of Belonging, Community and Love.
The music was the invisible thread that brought the audience together. We were on a journey together and afterwards we exchanged conspiratorial looks. Something great had just happened and we were all in on it. It was good for the church too. Live music has the added benefit of bringing in revenue for the community as discussed by Feargal Sharkey (yes!, Feargal Sharkey! Where’d he go?) in the Guardian
It Increased Understanding of the Music and Increased Appreciation of the Effort Involved.
To prepare us for what was to come, we were told to listen as if it were music from a distant land. After a few pieces, it became more and more familiar and even, dare I say, enjoyable. A musician had flown in from New York just for the night to play the organ for us. This music was worthwhile.
The dedication of the musicians, the man himself, Milton Babbitt and the people who helped make this event happen made me realise what was possible.
It Supported the Artist
The concert was dedicated to the life work of someone who did not enter mainstream consciousness due to the nature of his music. He did not pander to the tastes of the masses and yet he was still being celebrated. There were many people who came out to show they cared.
Would I listen to Milton Babbitt on my MP3 player? Nope. Would I go and see another concert of his music? Absolutely. Don’t be an owl.