Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Thinking About the Musically Unthinkable

The High Fidelity Silver Anniversary Treasury, which I mentioned in another post, includes many fine essays. The most famous of these, which I just read again, is the February 1958 article by composer Milton Babbitt, a specialist in serial music. He originally called it "The Composer as Specialist," since his argument was that composers of "advanced" music, such as himself, had become specialists akin to advanced mathematicians or physicists. The editor, however, published it under the title "Who Cares if you Listen?" and that phrase, rightly or wrongly, has been associated with Babbitt ever since.

The thing is that the title, while inflammatory, doesn't really misrepresent Babbitt's argument. He is responding to charges that advanced music -- serialism, electronic music -- is unpopular with the general music-going public. The typical argument at the time was that it takes time for the public to catch up with new developments in musical language, and that eventually the "new" music would come to seem accessible, just as Berlioz or Wagner or Debussy did. This argument was getting harder and harder to make by 1958, when serial music had been around for years and still appealed primarily to a smallish group of enthusiasts and specialists, a small niche in what was already a niche audience. So Babbitt's argument was different, and refreshingly straightforward: he doesn't argue that his kind of music will become accessible. He admits that it is inaccessible to the non-specialist, and explains why:

Although in many fundamental respects this music is "new," it often also represents a vast extension of the methods of other musics, derived from a considered and extensive knowledge of their dynamic principles. For, concomitant with the "revolution in music," perhaps even an integral aspect thereof, has been the development of analytical theory, concerned with the systematic formulation of such principles to the end of greater efficiency, economy, and understanding. Compositions so rooted necessarily ask comparable knowledge and experience from the listener. Like all communication, this music presupposes a suitably equipped receptor...

Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

As one who has never thought that twelve-tone music is opposed to the laws of hearing (though the great Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote a long and unreadable book arguing exactly that), I think Babbitt's argument makes a lot of sense. By this argment, the reason the music of Babbitt or Boulez is difficult for me to understand is not because it violates the laws of music or sound, but because it follows those laws to their logical extremes, testing the limits of music and sound and discovering new harmonies, new sounds, new ways of organizing sound. But at some point, these discoveries become too complicated for the layman to follow. We look for repetition in music: reference points, things to come back to. "Advanced" music seeks to eliminate repetition and redundancy, creating, in Babbitt's words:

This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more "efficient" than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the "redundancy" of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener).

Babbitt's solution to the problem, controversial at the time and still pretty controversial, is that advanced music should be treated as a scientific discipline, removed to the universities, where musicians can pursue research and development of new musical ideas and methods. The problem with this idea, I think, is that it ignores the fact that even the "advanced" composer is going to find an audience, if his music is any good. We've heard about sold-out concerts of all-Stockhausen music; we've heard from people who have assimilated Boulez's musical language and think he's one of the great melodists of the 20th century. The fact that a composer does not appeal to the average listener -- namely me -- does not mean that he's not a public entertainer; it just means his public is different from that of Britten or pre-serial Stravinsky. And when you cut a composer off from his role as a public entertainer and make him into a research scientist, you risk having his work wind up as boring as that of the college professor who writes poetry.

That said, I have one other thought. It's often said that advances in music in the 20th century were in reaction to "the breakdown of tonality" or something like that. The reality, however, is that tonality hadn't broken down so far as the public was concerned (and still hasn't). What happened was that the discovery of new harmonies and musical organizing principles -- the musical equivalent of research and development -- had made it difficult for a composer to write tonal music while incorporating these new musical possibilities: you can't write a symphony in C major unless you ignore some of those musical possibilities. My question is, is this a case where the proper response would have been to cover up certain musical discoveries? Would music have been better off if composers had decided to ignore some harmonic possibilities as potentially leading to musical chaos? We often ask whether scientists should ignore discoveries that are potentially evil. I don't think advanced music is evil, but is it permissible for a composer to ignore a new development as being potentially harmful to music?

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