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Posts Tagged ‘Milton Babbitt

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