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Archive for the ‘Paideia’ Category

Who Cares if You Listen?

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I was sorry to learn of the passing of classical music composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) last Saturday. His 1957 work “All Set,” scored for jazz ensemble and sampled above, is characteristic of his notoriously difficult style.

[Babbitt’s] Composition for Orchestra (1940) ushered in a structurally complex, profoundly organized style that was rooted in Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method. But Mr. Babbitt expanded on Mr. Schoenberg’s approach. In Mr. Schoenberg’s system, a composer begins by arranging the 12 notes of the Western scale in a particular order called a tone row, or series, on which the work is based. Mr. Babbitt was the first to use this serial ordering not only with pitches but also with dynamics, timbre, duration, registration and other elements. His methods became the basis of the “total serialism” championed in the 1950s by Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and other European composers.

Babbitt is most famous for his 1958 essay “Who Cares if You Listen?” which begins with a proclamation of his indifference to the listening public:

This article might have been entitled “The Composer as Specialist” or, alternatively, and perhaps less contentiously, “The Composer as Anachronism.” For I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music. This composer… is, in essence, a “vanity” composer. The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in his music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

Babbitt nonetheless contends that the “serious” music of the mid-twentieth century is an important field of experimental science. As such, its study deserves to be supported in university laboratories:

But how, it may be asked, will [a music world indifferent to its audience] secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that after all such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university, which-significantly-has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the “complex,” “difficult,” and “problematical” in music. Indeed, the process has begun; and if it appears to proceed too slowly, I take consolation in the knowledge that in this respect, too, music seems to be in historically retarded parallel with now sacrosanct fields of endeavor. In E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, we read: “In the eighteenth century the universities were not the principal centers of research in Europe. They might have become such sooner than they did but for the classical tradition and its understandable hostility to science. Mathematics was close enough to antiquity to be respectable, but physics, being more recent, was suspect. Further, a mathematician in a university of the time would have been expected to put much of his effort on elementary teaching; his research, if any, would have been an unprofitable luxury…” A simple substitution of “musical composition” for “research,” of “academic” for “classical,” of “music” for “physics,” and of “composer” for “mathematician,” provides a strikingly accurate picture of the current situation.

This vision of “serious” music as hard science has faded, and yet the gap between the general population and serious classical music is wider than ever before. Two weeks ago I attended a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert in which Marin Alsop attempted to bridge this gap by spending the first 25 minutes not performing music, but rather describing the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich, the evening’s featured composer. Unfortunately Alsop’s remarks were dull in the extreme; she presented information available to any casual reader of Shostakovich’s Wikipedia entry. This led to a great deal of consternation among my friends; our group was split between those who found this lecture tediously familiar, and those who found it tediously dull.

This tedium lecture was part of the BSO’s “Off the Cuff” series, a set of concerts intended for audiences new to classical music. For decades, American symphonies have struggled to reverse demographic trends – a fan base that grows older every year. The traditional notion that classical music is somehow good for you, like broccoli, has ceased to bring in new concertgoers. While I wish the BSO success in growing their audience, they might as well rename their lecture series “We Care Desperately that You Listen.”


Written by Peter

February 3, 2011 at 23:32

Don’t Fear the Reaper, or Predator

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Let’s say you know that a member of Al Qaeda’s leadership is in a particular house. What is safer — dropping a bomb from a drone aircraft, or sending a squad of Marines into the house?

I think this is actually a three-part question:

  1. What is physically safer?
  2. What is psychologically safer?
  3. What is morally safer?

My friend Leah writes that:

War today strives to remove soldiers from the battlefield, for the sake of their safety and, perhaps, the sake of their souls.  It is easier for a man to kill by pressing a button to launch a drone strike rather than killing with a gun, or, worse, a bayonet.  Culpability shouldn’t be expected to diminish, but soldiers do feel more disconnected from the consequences of their actions.

I doubt that war strives to do anything. The current drone campaign along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was chosen in response to the political impossibility of placing US combat forces on the ground in Pakistan, along with the extreme inaccessibility of the terrain.

In my hypothetical, it is clearly physically safer for US combat forces to attack the Al Qaeda leader by dropping a bomb on his house. At worst, the opponent shoots down the drone. I think the questions of psychological and moral safety are more interesting.

When a nation goes to war, heavy psychological and moral demands are placed on the combatants. As Leah describes, part of the training that soldiers and Marines receive is designed to psychologically prepare them for the experience of killing another human being. This training has been found to be effective; contra Leah, the firing rate of US soldiers in the Vietnam War was around 95%. An excellent book on the psychological effects of killing is On Killing, by LtCol Dave Grossman. The author, a professor at West Point who has interviewed thousands of police officers and military veterans, identifies a number of variables that shape the psychological impact of killing, including: physical distance, emotional distance, group absolution, level of exhaustion, and feelings of helplessness. These variables interact in ways that make simple comparisons difficult; two soldiers in the same Humvee might have dramatically different psychological reactions to the same event. However, in nearly every case the drone pilot releasing a bomb from an Air Force base in the southwest United States will enjoy greater psychological safety than an infantry Marine tasked with clearing a house room-by-room.

The best book I’ve read on the moral danger in war is Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay. A psychiatrist with decades of experience assisting Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD, Shay draws insightful comparisons between the actions of Achilles and other soldiers in the Iliad with the experiences of Vietnam veterans. Shay’s key message is that a “betrayal of what’s right” haunts a soldier long after he leaves the battlefield. While both our drone pilot and our infantryman face moral danger, the bluntness of his tool places the drone pilot in greater danger of killing noncombatants as collateral damage. This danger is not “hidden” from the drone pilot, but obvious to anyone with common sense: if you’re dropping a bomb on a house, there’s a good chance that not everyone inside is a terrorist.

Leah’s account of the training soldiers receive is quite different from the combat training I received. Training soldiers to fire at human-shaped targets is intended to lower the psychological resistance to target acquisition, not to erode the natural sympathy a soldier has for other humans. While I think training can build, or destroy, moral habits, time spent on the firing range is coupled with countless hours of instruction on the law of war and code of conduct, training designed to make soldiers more sensitive to moral issues on the battlefield. While I’m not sure why Leah links to Times articles that breathlessly describes a supposed rise in suicide rates among combat veterans, the fact that these rates are comparable to or actually lower than the suicide rates among 18-22-year-old men in the general population makes them unhelpful data points.

Given that Leah’s post falls under a series on the topic of sinfulness, I was surprised that she never identifies any sinfulness in her post. Does she believe that a soldier killing an opponent is sinful? Is a soldier killing a noncombatant sinful? Are voters and politicians sinful for insulating themselves from the true costs of war? If this last is true, then these civilians are in a situation entirely of their own making. There are millions of veterans they could become acquainted with or serve if they so choose. I’m curious to hear what Leah’s position on this topic is.

Written by Peter

October 9, 2010 at 10:01