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He has been called "America's most important composer of 12-tone music," generally regarded as the most serious of musical disciplines. Yet Milton Babbitt admits he was being playful when he came up with a title for his lecture this week at the University of Utah.

"The Thoroughly Modern Music" is the subject of his David P. Gardner Graduate Lecture in the Humanities and Fine Arts, to be delivered Thursday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts - "a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek title," the 75-year-old Babbitt acknowledges from his office at Princeton, where he is professor emeritus. (He also teaches at Juilliard.)"It seems that other people have lectured there on modernism, where the term has been applied not only with some tradition but also having been well-defined many years ago. But it's never really been applied that way in music, as opposed to the literary or visual arts. And I adopted the term `thoroughly modern' to suggest that the reason it has never been applied was because it smacked of something like a passing fashion or a fad."

Interestingly that is what some would say is happening to 12-tone music, or serialism, itself after decades of dominance in academic compositional circles. Indeed its reign almost exactly parallels that of Marxism in eastern Europe, right down to what many see as its ultimate collapse.

Babbitt does not share that view. An early advocate of serialism in this country, he, unlike many of his colleagues, has shown no inclination to abandon it or let himself be straitjacketed by it.

Born in Philadelphia in 1916, Babbitt grew up in Jackson, Miss., where his primary interests were mathematics and popular music. "I know the lyrics of every popular song between '26 and '35," he has been quoted as saying, and is proud of the fact that earlier this year when a colleague challenged him to recall the verse of "Tea for Two" he was still able to do it.

Later that interest would impel him to collaborate on a musical with Richard Childs and Richard Koch (for whom he also turned out a film score). The resulting Three Theatrical Songs (1946) will be included in a concert of Babbitt's music to be presented Wednesday, Oct. 23, also at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.

A decade earlier, however, the budding composer wangled an introduction to the founder of the 12-tone school, Arnold Schoenberg, shortly after the latter's arrival in New York. The effect on Babbitt was enormous. Here was a system in which mathematical logic could be applied to music and by 1948 he became, in critic Kyle Gann's words, "the first composer to structure rhythm the way 12-tone composers structured pitch."

That kind of "total serialism" has governed his composition ever since and will be in evidence in the other works to be included on Wednesday's program: the Composition for Four Instruments (1948), "Partitions" and "Post-Partitions" for solo piano (from 1957 and 1966 respectively), the lighter "Minute Waltz" and "It Takes Twelve to Tango" and a pair of electronic-influenced pieces, the "Reflections" for piano and tapeand the "Images" for saxophone and tape.

Performers will include singer Marina Tichotsky, pianists David Holzman and Aleck Karis, saxophonist Mark Ely and, in the Composition for Four Instruments, flutist Carlton Vickers, clarinetist Jaren Hinckley, violinist Joseph Evans and cellist Karen Cardon; Brian Clarence Hulse will conduct.

The Composition for Four Instruments earned Babbitt the first of two New York Music Critics Circle Citations, to be followed by a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and a McArthur Fellowship - commonly regarded as a "genius award" - in 1986.

But while acknowledging that the complexity of his music has tended to limit its appeal to a specialized clientele, Babbitt insists his lecture Thursday will be directed at a more general audience, focusing on those things that, in his words, "have made music the very pluralistic thing it is today."

At the same time he points out that if music is more difficult to talk about than many other disciplines, it is largely because people today "are not musically literate. Oh, they have looked and read, but most often they haven't listened and can't describe what they've heard. Also they do not realize how little they've been taught about music, particularly in this day and time. I can't speak for Utah, but in the rest of the country music is usually the first thing to disappear from the schools, and contemporary music the first thing to disappear from music."

Even in the supposedly remote environs of Mississippi, Babbitt recalls having been taught to read music in elementary school. "We had music instruction one hour a day," he says, "and that wasn't being told Mozart was a Wunderkind or having records played for us. We were singing, reading and playing."

Even in higher academic circles, he maintains, "most of my colleagues haven't the slightest idea what's going on in contemporary music, or what has been going on the last century."

He cites a symposium he was involved in two years ago along with a number of other McArthur fellows. "What I did was play a tape of works that might be regarded as more or less the cornerstone of activity, like the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and the Bartok Fourth Quartet. And nobody had ever heard these pieces. Not that they were in any sense antagonistic, but afterward some came up and said, `The demands in our own fields are so great, we just don't have time to listen to music.' "

Which gives the lie to another title that has ended up haunting the composer. In 1958, in an essay called "The Composer as Specialist," he argued that advanced composition merited a place in the scheme of things comparable to that enjoyed by advanced scientific research, whether an immediate audience for it existed or not. Only after many years was its true value likely to become apparent to society as a whole. Courtesy of an enterprising editor, however, that essay was published under the title "Who Cares If You Listen?"

"I was horribly offended by that," Babbitt reflects, "because I care very much who listens, and how. I was simply describing the condition of composers who were teaching at universities and writing for a very small audience, and I wasn't reveling in that either - I was just describing it."

At the same time he acknowledges that his prophecy, and those of others, has yet to be fulfilled. "Years ago in New York, when I was a student, we were told that these works were not all that different and that one of two things would happen - that in time people would go around whistling them or they would be totally forgotten. Well, neither of those things has happened. Instead we have this fragmentation of the repertoire."

To some extent it's evident in his own students, who run the gamut from the extraordinarily complex Donald Martino to, believe it or not, Stephen Sondheim. Which perhaps brings the theatrical songs full circle.

Babbitt doesn't mind. "To be honest," he says, "I would hope this pluralism would continue. There are so many musical domains now, I see no reason why one can't experience them all. Certainly I have no desire to offend an audience - that's not the function of music to me. Instead I like to write music I would most like to hear and have never heard before."

Which may be your option this week as well.

Admission to both events is free and the public is invited.