Milton Babbitt: Synthesized Music Pioneer

Performing with a pre-recorded electronic track is an increasingly popular demand on the modern flutist. Such works by Steve Reich (Vermont Counterpoint), Eve Beglarian (I will not be sad in this world), and JacobTV (Lipstick, The Garden of Love), just to name a few, have made a significant mark on the contemporary flute repertoire. The content of these pre-recorded tracks ranges from multi-tracked instruments to the composer’s own voice to digitally manipulated sound bytes and synthesized sounds. The live performer must learn to interact with these unwavering electronic counterparts.

Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was a pioneer of the synthesizer and an important figure in American serial music.  Electronic serial composers experienced significant backlash for removing the human element of performance in favor of complete compositional control. Babbitt’s composition, Philomel (1964), was one of the first compositions to combine live performance with a tape part created by a synthesizer, thus helping to create a new performance medium. This genre has since expanded and found its own place in the modern repertoire. The following is a discussion of the collaboration that produced Milton Babbitt’s seminal 20th century composition, Philomel.

In the years prior to World War II, advances in sound film technology were widespread in the United States and abroad. Unbeknownst at the time, these landmark achievements served as a catalyst for one of American composer/theorist Milton Babbitt’s most memorable works: Philomel (1964). The ability to inscribe sound directly onto film inspired Babbitt to approach Radio Corporation of America (R.C.A.) and discuss the musical potential for this new technology. The final product of their collaborative efforts was the R.C.A. Electronic Music Synthesizer, the instrument that Babbitt used to compose the synthesized portions of Philomel.  This one movement work in three parts is scored for live soprano, pre-recorded soprano, and synthesized sounds. John Hollander, an American poet, used the fable of Philomela from Ovid’s Metamorphosis as the inspiration for the text. In this tale, Procene, the wife of King Tereus of Thrace, wishes to see her sister, Philomela. Procene sends Tereus to fetch Philomela, but on the return trip, Tereus rapes Philomela in the woods of Thrace and cuts out her tongue. Unable to speak, Philomela weaves her story into a tapestry for Procene, who immediately seeks revenge against Tereus. She murders their son and feeds Tereus the corpse. Tereus chases the sisters through the woods of Thrace, but before he can catch them, the gods transform Procene into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe bird. The text of Hollander’s poem begins as Philomela regains her voice. The Ford Foundation commissioned Philomel via soprano Bethany Beardslee. Thus, the collaborative efforts of Milton Babbitt, R.C.A., the Ford Foundation, Bethany Beardslee, and John Hollander all contributed to the creation of this innovative composition.

Milton Babbitt, born on May 10, 1916, grew up in Jackson, Missisippi and studied a variety of instruments through high school. Babbitt’s father largely shaped the intellectual home environment due to his professional involvement with mathematics. Upon graduating high school in 1931, Babbitt entered the University of Pennsylvania to pursue mathematics, but his father second guessed this decision. In an interview from July 2002, Babbitt recalled,

…my father said to me ‘Why don’t you go to a music school? …You spend all of your time practicing and writing music.’ I told him that I wasn’t interested, because I had been around Philadelphia relatives long enough to know what Curtis was like and to know what happened to those poor people—there’s no future in that… So I went to college and forgot about music for two years—I just studied—no music.*

After spending two years at the University of Pennsylvania, Babbitt decided to return to his musical studies. He transferred to New York University and graduated with a B.A. in music in 1935. Following graduation, he studied with Roger Sessions and enrolled in graduate school at Princeton University. In 1938, he became a member of the Princeton music faculty, and he received his M.F.A. in music in 1942. During World War II, he divided his time between Washington, D.C. and Princeton, primarily focusing on mathematical research. After the war, he rejoined the Princeton music faculty and eventually became a member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard school. His affiliation with Princeton University and his connections in New York City afforded him the opportunity to become the director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center while collaborating with R.C.A. on the development of the Electronic Music Synthesizer. Babbitt was most commonly known as a serial composer inspired by the work of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. His development of serialism through the electronic medium, however, allowed for the realization of compositional ideas that would not have been possible through live, human performance.


Babbitt first contacted R.C.A. in 1938 to describe European advances in sound film technology, including the ability to inscribe sound directly on to film. Regarding this technology, he stated,

Everything that you heard there was reproduced without the intervention of a human, except the human hand. Well, they got very interested in this, and we began working on it.*

R.C.A. abandoned the project at the beginning of World War II, but research resumed in the mid-1950s with Babbitt serving as composer-consultant.

Concurrently, the Rockefeller Foundation approached Babbitt about the formation of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City. The center acquired the completed R.C.A. Electronic Music Synthesizer, and Babbitt began his compositional work with the machine in 1957. In its completed form, the R.C.A. Synthesizer was a “digitally controlled analog computer” and it was the “first electronic music synthesizer in which a large range of sounds could not only be produced and sequenced but also be programmed by the user.”** The composer had to assign values to five separate components in order to produce an “event.” These components were frequency, time rate of change of the intensity (envelope), timbre (spectrum), intensity, and duration.*** Once the composer set these parameters, the machine punched the representation of this code onto a roll of paper. Babbitt described the remainder of the process as such:

When [the composer] is satisfied, he turns on the motor which drives the roll under the brushes at a selected speed in ‘real time’, and the result is heard through a loudspeaker and, simultaneously, recorded on tape.***

Additionally, the composer could feed external signals into the synthesizer and manipulate them freely. Babbitt noted,

In my composition, Philomel, a pre-recorded soprano part was so treated, transformed, modified, and combined with other forms of itself and Synthesizer-produced sound.***

Babbitt studied and refined these new musical capabilities, and the R.C.A. Synthesizer became an integral part in the creation of Philomel.

Another equal contributor in the creation of Philomel was the Ford Foundation. Established in 1936, the mission of the Ford Foundation is to support “visionary leaders and organizations on the front lines of social change worldwide.” The Ford Foundation specifically awarded a number of humanities and arts fellowships in the 1960s, and one of these awards included the commission for Philomel. The Ford Foundation charged soprano Bethany Beardslee with the task of commissioning a new work, and she asked Milton Babbitt to compose a twenty minute work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Babbitt recalled the collaborative process in an interview in April 2000:

[John Hollander] wrote a piece for me where I would know exactly what the condition would be- it would be for solo soprano, there would be at least four sets of speakers around the hall and that it would be a work in which I would record her voice and fabricated and modulated through the synthesizer…  John wrote the libretto for me and the piece was basically commissioned for a soprano, Bethany Beardslee… He also understood that the synthesizer could do anything.  It was no longer a question of whether it could be played or whether it could be heard.  So he kept very close to me, to what the surrounding singer would do and how I laid it out.  So it was very much a collaboration between the two of us.****

The story of Philomela had inspired John Hollander long before the commission. He discussed the collaborative process of Philomel in his 1967 article for Perspectives of New Music:

The words of Philomel, which I wrote for Milton Babbitt to set and Bethany Beardslee to sing, are a cantata text…the possibilities of a synthesized accompaniment for dramatic purposes seemed enormous, and when the Ford Foundation commissioned such a piece and Babbitt asked me for a text, the metamorphosis of the nightingale seemed an obvious subject… A long acquaintance with Bethany Beardslee’s singing allowed me to feel that I could proceed without fear of the singer’s limitations. The Philomela story now seemed inevitable.

The final result was a work that set a new standard for live performance. Babbitt recognized in 1958 prior to composing Philomel that musicians no longer lived in a “unitary musical universe of ‘common practice,’ but in a variety of universes of diverse practice.”‡ Combining pre-recorded sounds with human performance deviated from the listener’s assumptions of music established by historically solidified genres such as the symphony or the popular song. Additionally, the synthesizer perfectly realized the composer’s intentions with no limitations, a task that was not possible with human performers. This caused a shift in the responsibility of the composer. While discussing the potential of the R.C.A. Synthesizer, Babbitt was careful to note that “The constant self-question of the composer of the past: ‘Does what I have written exceed the capacities of the performer?’ is now replaced by: ‘Does what I have produced exceed the perceptual capacities of the trained listener?’”*** He did not expect the layman to understand the specialized genre of electronic music. He stated,

The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in… mathematics, philosophy, and physics.  Advanced music… scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive that his background in other fields.

Babbitt viewed the isolation of his specialized music as an opportunity to succeed in the private sphere of trained listeners rather than a condemnation to fail in the public world. The combined creativity of Milton Babbitt and John Hollander, the innovative thinking at R.C.A., the artistry of Bethany Beardslee, and the financial support from the Ford Foundation all convened with the mutual intent to foster new ideas in music. These individuals and entities collectively produced Philomel through an exercise of collaborative effort and artistic exploration.

*Milton Babbitt, interviewed by Gabrielle Zuckerman, American Mavericks, July 2002, quoted in Gabrielle Zuckerman, “An interview with Milton Babbitt,” American Public Media, (accessed June 7, 2013).

**Robert Morris, “Listening to Milton Babbitt’s Electronic Music: The Medium and the Message.” Perspectives of New Music 35, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 87.

***Milton Babbitt, “An Introduction to the R. C. A. Synthesizer.” Journal of Music Theory 8, no. 2 (Winter 1964).

****Milton Babbitt, interviewed by Jason Gross, Perfect Sound Forever Online Music Magazine (April 2000), quoted in OHM-The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, “Milton Babbitt Interview,” Perfect Sound Forever Online Music Magazine, (accessed June 7, 2013).

†John Hollander, “Notes on the Text of Philomel.” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 6, no. No. 1 (Autumn-Winter 1967): 134-135.

‡Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?” High Fidelity Magazine 8, no. 2 (1958).


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