Milton Babbitt has had a lasting influence on contemporary musicians, popularising serialism through his writing and music, and attaining distinction in twelve-tone composition. He also renowned for his grasp of jazz and American popular music. Born in Philadelphia on 10 May 1916, he studied mathematics before turning to music, learning composition privately with Roger Sessions at Princeton. In addition to teaching, he is founder and member of the committee of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, and recipient of many awards and honours.
A well as writing for traditional classical instruments in compositions for piano and string quartets, Babbitt did pioneering work with synthesisers (helping RCA to develop one of the first) and taped performance. Soprano, taped soprano and synthesiser perform together in Philomel, considered his best electronic piece, and in Sounds and Words nonsense sounds are sung against tones from a piano or tape.
Babbitt is notable for his total serialism - the way he derives every component of a composition from a single premise. Influenced by Schoenberg and Webern, he controls every aspect of his compositions by allowing himself twelve tones, twelve note values, twelve dynamic levels, twelve instrumental timbres, and twelve time intervals. This rigid structuring has led people to call him a mathematical composer, with no room in his work for human feeling or creative interpretation. Babbitt himself is more interested in exploring the nature and complexity of musical structures than writing to please an average audience, but his uncompromising stance only increases the rewards of adventurous listening.