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Milton Babbitt, 94, composer who developed synthesizer

Milton Babbitt blended electronic music with vocal performances in works such as “Vision and Prayer’’ and “Reflections.’’ Milton Babbitt blended electronic music with vocal performances in works such as “Vision and Prayer’’ and “Reflections.’’ (Keith Meyers/New York Times/File 1982)
Associated Press / January 31, 2011

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PRINCETON, N.J. — Composer Milton Babbitt, who was known for his complex orchestral compositions and credited with developing the synthesizer in the 1950s, died Saturday. He was 94.

Paul Lansky, a composer and Princeton University colleague who was once a student of Mr. Babbitt’s, said he died at a Princeton hospital. Lansky said he did not know the cause of death.

Mr. Babbitt was born in Philadelphia. He earned degrees from Princeton and New York University. He joined Princeton’s faculty in 1938 and became a professor emeritus of music in 1984.

In the 1950s, RCA hired Mr. Babbitt as a consultant as it was developing the Mark II synthesizer. He became a founder and director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where the synthesizer was installed.

He blended electronic music with vocal performances in compositions such as “Vision and Prayer’’ and “Philomel’’ in the 1960s and “Reflections’’ in 1975.

Princeton awarded Mr. Babbitt, then 75, 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,’’ Theodore Ziolkowski, dean of Princeton’s graduate school and a close friend of Mr. Babbitt, said at the time.

The music department then awarded doctorates for historical musicology, not composing. Ziolkowski said faculty members weren’t satisfied with the honorary doctorate Princeton awarded Mr. Babbitt the previous spring.

“We thought it wasn’t right that such a distinguished composer and music theoretician who has contributed so much to music in this country should not have the degree he had earned,’’ Ziolkowski said then.

Lansky said Mr. Babbitt felt strongly that music should be “an advanced subject that’s open to study and contemplation the way philosophy or mathematics is.’’

“It was something he stood by his whole life,’’ Lansky said.

Mr. Babbitt received a special Pulitzer citation for his life’s work in 1982, won a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1986, and was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988.