The Eulogizer: Avant-garde composer, earthquake researcher

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Milton Babbitt, 94, avant-garde composer

Milton Babbitt, an avant-garde composer who gloried in dense, intellectually challenging musical complexity and championed electronic instruments, but who also loved beer, baseball and jazz, died Jan. 29 at 94.

Babbitt was “one of the most eminent, and controversial, American composers of the 20th century,” the Guardian wrote. The New York Times said  he “referred to himself as a maximalist to stress the musical and philosophical distance between his style and the simpler, more direct style of younger contemporaries like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and other Minimalist composers.”

Despite not reaching a wide audience because of the abstruseness and difficulty of the music he composed, Babbitt received numerous awards and was held in high esteem in elite musical circles. His awards included the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University, two New York Music Critics Circle citations, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, membership in the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Pulitzer Prize special citation.

Princeton awarded Babbitt a doctorate in 1992, 46 years after his dissertation on the 12-tone system of modern composers was rejected.

“His dissertation was so far ahead of its time it couldn’t be properly evaluated at the time,” said Theodore Ziolkowski, dean of Princeton’s graduate school and a close friend of Babbitt. 

Much of Babbitt’s music was written for small groups or soloists, including six-string quartets. His work also included synthesizers, tape machines and other technological innovations. Among his last works was "Piano Concerto No. 2," which premiered in 1998 at Carnegie Hall, and his "Concerti for Orchestra" in 2004, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Babbitt was influenced by the 12-tone music of landmark 20th century modernist Arnold Schoenberg. Babbitt’s extension of Schoenberg’s music became known as "integral serialism."

"Milton has managed to do something that almost no other composer, except maybe Bach, has done to such an extent: the technique is the content of the music and the content of the music is the technique, a perfect symbiosis," composer and conductor Gunther Schuller said.

Babbitt was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Jackson, Miss. He studied music at New York University and began teaching at Princeton and then the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He helped found the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. (See link for photographs of the center’s main room, lined wall to wall with early-stage computers.) One of the most widely performed works from that studio was his “Philomel for Voice and Tape in 1964."

Babbitt also was known as a “wonderfully gregarious figure,” with an encyclopedic knowledge of beer and a love of baseball statistics, jazz and popular music. He also deflated his own intellectual airs with humorous, punning titles for some of his works, such as “The Joy of More Sextets.”

Leon Knopoff, pioneering earthquake scientist, 85

Leon Knopoff, a UCLA professor whose research into computers and seismology helped develop the science of earthquake forecasting, died Jan. 20 at 85.

Knopoff worked on the development of a comprehensive theory of earthquakes and did pioneering research in "how an earthquake works," said UCLA geophysicist Paul Davis. Among the discoveries from his research on the statistics of earthquakes was that most small earthquakes are not genuine predictors of subsequent instability on a major fault. He and his colleagues also found that large earthquakes cluster in space and time.

Knopoff’s research and interests ranged widely, though, and included musical perception and the dating of ancient pottery by thermoluminescence. He also made pioneering measurements of seismic wave velocities and tidal gravity variations at the South Pole.

Knopoff wrote more than 360 scholarly publications and was editor or co-editor of five books. His honors included membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Philosophical Society.

He received honorary doctorates from the University of Strasbourg and was named first honorary professor of the Institute of Geophysics of the China Earthquake Administration.

Knopoff, a native of Los Angeles, received a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology and taught at UCLA throughout his career. Along with teaching geophysics, he was a research musicologist at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music Department of Ethnomusicology. In 2001, Knopoff and his wife endowed a chair in physics and geophysics, the first in the basic sciences endowed by a faculty member.

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