Thoughts on Babbitt’s "Who Cares if You Listen"

or The Composer as Specialist from Hi Fidelity, February 1958
Bach, Beethoven, Brahms…. Jump ahead, jump ahead and there’s Babbitt. But there’s also obviously a lot in between.
Last week’s post was a simple, straightforward one explaining some of the basics of sonority and consonance vs. dissonance, using a famous example, a sonata of Beethoven. We’re coming off a pretty big series of piano concertos in celebration of the first year of FFT, and we’re jumping back to symphonic works. As the antithesis to last week’s post on Beethoven and consonance, we have this.
Why Babbitt? To be honest, it was more the fascination with the compositional process of serialism, the twelve-tone row, atonality, and all of that that got me reading up on all this to begin with.
For someone with only a tenuous grasp of harmony and melodic progression and the nuts and bolts of diatonic music, I must say the allure of “atonality” is strong. That’s not to say it’s an excuse to write music that doesn’t exhibit harmonies. I would like to say I feel like I understand the concepts of sonata form and diatonic harmony and cadences and voice leading and all that, but it’s still a far cry from putting that knowledge to use practically and creatively to make interesting music.
I am awful at math for the same reasons. I understand the general idea, the concepts and the relations between the elements, but when it comes down to getting elbow deep in calculations, I am quickly out of my depth.
It is perhaps surprising then that I am interested in a form of composition that is based entirely (or at least in part on, depending on who it is) math. It’s nothing complicated, but it’s still called a matrix,

and it’s still tons faster to let an online calculator like this one do the work for you.

This could very easily become a long, drawn out (well, that it probably still will be) explanation and discussion of my tastes in different styles of music, etc. but I really just want this to be a simple article in response to (or perhaps rather prompted by) Babbitt’s article in the context of me trying to assimilate serialist music into my brain and at least appreciate what the actual hell is going on with it all.
I should perhaps open by saying I’ve listened to very few of Babbitt’s works, and the only one I’ve really listened to more than once in full is his piano concerto (I think his first, from 1985), and don’t have the slightest comprehension of it. At all. But then again, I haven’t looked into it a lot. It’ll be another half century before the score is up on IMSLP. I did, however, watch a documentary (included above) about Babbitt, and it was almost…. confusing.
Many people tend to hear atonal music (composed in whatever fashion with whatever method) and think of it as some angry dark form of witchcraft and that to compose something like that, you must be an angry, dark, mad scientist type. But he wasn’t. In the documentary, he is an articulate, polite, incredibly intelligent, humorous man, someone who seems like the kind of person who you would love to have at dinner parties or invite over for a drink. There seemed almost to be this disconnect between the man and his music, but perhaps that’s only because I really can’t understand his music.
That all being said, I’ve mentioned to a few people that I had been planning on writing this article, and the general response was one of indifference and even some spleen. I am not here to defend Serialist music from the standpoint that I enjoy it (or would pick it out on my iPod over any old Chopin etude I’ve heard a thousand times). No, but I would like to address a few things:
  1. The general “emperor’s new clothes” issue that’s going on in some circles where people are too worried about seeming uneducated or inferior to acknowledge that something sounds like pigs being slaughtered in a tub of percussion instruments. That’s an opinion, and it doesn’t mean anyone is less intellectual for having one. The “you don’t understand it” argument may be a solid one, but it’s not because of any lack of intelligence.
  2. Babbitt makes some points. I can appreciate his alternative title (or the original one that the editor decided not to go with in favor of something more shocking) The Composer as Specialist for what he expresses he and his ilk are trying to do. And in some ways, that really is none of our business.
Let’s address these individually. I’m not sure which one to start with. Let’s go with number one.
Schoenberg is often credited with shattering the glass ceiling of the last few hundred years of classical music tradition with his twelve-tone technique, and others took it even further with “total” or “complete” or “integral” serialist techniques (Schoenberg’s owns students Berg and Webern, and then people like Boulez, to name a few), but in the past century, it’s been taken up by oodles of composers, either in passing, or with the devotion and strictness of a religion, by some.
I think it’s safe to say that nothing truly innovative or earth-shattering is immediately accepted, sometimes taking generations to process. Whether it’s Liszt or Mahler or Stravinsky or any number of Soviet-era composers, it took them all some time for the general public to process and digest, and even now, some of it is still kind of ‘coming into its own.’ That being said, something as radical as intentionally atonal music, something that bucks the system we’ve had in the west for centuries, couldn’t have gotten its fifteen minutes of fame without some kickback… And maybe those fifteen minutes still haven’t come yet; it depends on who you ask. That being said, every person is entitled to their own tastes in music and the arts in general. I can understand how that opinion or point of view may be less respected if that someone comes from a generally ignorant standpoint or is that “I love classical music” because they’ve heard an excerpt of a Wagner opera or listen to “O fortuna” when they want to feel dramatic. But for someone with an understanding of classical music, a well-read individual, you may say, their insights may carry more weight. That all being said, what Schoenberg did, and what Babbitt took even further, was not just pushing some proverbial envelope a bit, but really branching off and creating a whole new….. Language of music, without the conventions and limitations of diatonic harmony, in fact, in many cases, actively avoiding them.
All languages use words to communicate. It just so happens that every language has different words used in different ways. You can’t compare one to the other, nor can you criticize someone for not speaking a language (in most cases). I am confident that I am an intelligent human being (I’m at least bilingual), but I speak no Hungarian at all. That doesn’t mean I hate Hungarian, or that I’m an inferior human being. It may mean that I haven’t had any necessity to study or be exposed to the language and that I haven’t ever had any interest in learning it, perhaps for the aforementioned reason. But I don’t have anything against it.
Diatonic music is based around the ideas of harmony, with orchestration, and the rest all kind of revolving around it. I tend to believe that in dumbing something down to an almost inaccurately simple degree, you can be left with the general principles, or the big ideas, before all the exceptions and additional rules obscure the big picture. I have realized as a result of explaining many a complicated idea (in Chinese) to good friends with no background in or prior knowledge of the topic (quantum theory, medicine, history, linguistics), like music theory. The way I explained it to a friend the other day was that most classical music sounds “good” because it too is based on ‘rows’ or rules, but they’re rules of chord progressions and leading tones and voice leading, and that V7-I resolve is so satisfying. I compared those ‘rules’ of diatonic music to the rules of progressions in dodecaphonic music (or just use of the tone row), and my audience seemed to understand the oversimplified comparison.
So the focus is different.
And it all has a lot to do with your feelings and the purpose of the audience. Some chefs and food critics despise the recent trends in molecular gastronomy where everything has to be emulsified or foamed or powdered or somehow manipulated or molested or hidden or reinvented. These men and women are doing fantastic, complicated, advanced and scientifically delicious things with food. But to a layman who wants to sit down to a huge pot roast with mashed potatoes and collard greens (or whatever), he wants it to look, sound, smell, and taste like pot roast. My grandfather would be extremely perturbed were he given an artfully plated dish of such gastronomic creation- a perfectly sous vide chunk of beef with mashed collard greens and weird potato or whatever, a teeny portion on a weirdly shaped plate. He’d be furious.
It’a just a different audience. I have apparently transitioned to my defense of what Babbitt and his kind are doing. It is experimentation, extremely advanced rule-breaking by means of creations of new ones. That’s not to say I like it all. Some of it truly frightens me (Berio’s Synfonia), but for those who are willing to go beyond the tradition of the past four hundred years (or more) of music and experiment with new things, who are we to judge? Let them do their thing. Enjoy it from the perspective of novelty, enjoy it as beauty, a curiosity, as a horror show, as an experience, or criticize it, but know that art is subjective, and everyone has their own opinions.
Babbitt used the example of advanced mathematics. No one’s offended when they’re told that a mathematical concept is beyond them (even Einstein needed help with some of the calculations in his theories on relativity), but we somehow take it personally with art. Just as with mathematics, it doesn’t have to be above you, but there may be a lot more studying to do before you can get there. It’s enjoyment in a different way, for a different audience, with a specific purpose.

 

So, I suppose my conclusion is, you guys, keep writing. And I will applaud you for it, I just probably won’t be in the audience at one of your performances to do so.
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