The Max, or, the Milton Babbitt Hook

Milton Babbitt (above, center), my fellow Jacksonian and one of the greatest of modern composers, died Saturday at 94.  He will be remembered as a “maximalist” who went as far as anyone could ever go in thoroughly organizing all the variables in music—pitch, timbre, volume, inflection, duration, tempo, rates of change . . .

A great way to insult a maximalist composer would be to pick out a short portion of one of the works and say “I really like this bit.”  But that is exactly what I am going to do, because, as you know, there is no other way to honor anyone or anything on the HOOKS site.  Fortunately, Milton Babbitt was a certifiable Neat Guy and would appreciate my gesture.

The Milton Babbitt hook, which I propose to call “the Max,” must press an unsurpassable density of musical information onto an overmatched-yet-delighted ear.   The listener must grasp enough of the structure to realize there is much more to understand.  But there is no bogging down.  The music dances and whirls the listener along.  You can probably tell that this much is going on (though only dimly suspecting the design) in just the first few seconds of Three Compositions for Piano (1947):[1]

If I, down at my level, wanted to create a maximal density of musical information, I might rapidly play arpeggios on the keyboard (that’s playing the notes of chords in sequence), or even layer some arpeggiated chords on top of others.  That way I could produce a flurry of notes with a certain interesting harmonic structure and maybe even some interesting rhythm and dynamics, depending on how smart my fingers are.  I would still only be doing one percent of what a flurry of Babbitt notes does.

I’m sure there are noteworthy rock analogues to the hyperorganized, super-articulate sublimity of Babbitt’s music, but at the moment I’m unsure where to look for the Max, thus defined, in rock.  While I ponder, what do you think?


All right, here’s a Max, but it’s not in the Babbitt vein of control freakery—the relevant precedent is the raging pluralism of Charles Ives, who would throw a gospel choir or a Sousa band piece in with anything else orchestral, just to test our powers of listening.  So I justify this inclusion by its instructive contrast.  It’s the opening track of The United States of America (1968) by a wonderful band of the same name that vanished almost without a trace.  Listen to how layers of musical American life pile up right to the limit of intelligible synthesis, and beyond:

“The American Metaphysical Circus” start

It’s not so unusual for a song to carry lots of extra sonic baggage after Sergeant Pepper’s, but in this one the initial saturation of information determines the meaning of all the sounds to follow as a kind of lived maximum.  We understand that the singer is inching along with the whole American Metaphysical Circus on her back.

“The American Metaphysical Circus” end


Here’s an interesting case where Sufjan Stevens clearly intends to take us to a Max but without giving up his gentleness.  Like the frog in the fatally heated water, you may never realize you’ve been brought past the saturation point such that excess music is dripping out of your ears:

“They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Muskegon)”


For an extremely lucid rock max, how about this splendid fanfare by Gentle Giant:

“The Boys In The Band”

[1] Thanks to Lynn Raley for the lead to this piece.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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