Milton Babbitt and Contemporary Music

This being the centenary of the birth of Milton Babbitt, one expects that celebrations of his work and legacy would be in order. So why the silence?

Milton Babbitt is one of America’s greatest composers; and one of the most neglected in performance halls. While the Julliard School’s Focus! Festival recently celebrated the centenary of Babbitt’s birth (Babbitt taught there for 37 years) and pianist Augustus Arnone performed Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, there are few other celebrations of his works planned.

One reason is the fearsome reputation of Babbitt and his music. Babbitt is said to be a composer of ‘difficult’ music. That alone gives some pause. Many have strong, negative opinions of his work without ever having heard a single note. Then there are the essays, ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’ published in High Fidelity (1958) and ‘Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition’ (1955) where he famously argued that, ‘twelve-tone music suffers only slightly more than other ‘difficult,’ ‘advanced’ music — to the extent that the label itself supplies a basis for automatic rejection.’ One only has to replace ‘twelve-tone music’ with ‘serial music’ and one captures the feeling of most music listeners today toward Babbitt and his works.

That is unfortunate because Babbitt’s music is hardly difficult and its rejection says much about the state of contemporary musical performance.

Let’s take a look for a moment at Babbitt’s High Fidelity piece, one which is often pointed to as an example of everything that is wrong with Babbitt and with contemporary serious music. First off, the title was not Babbitt’s. It is, in fact, ‘The Composer as Specialist.’ The editors at High Fidelity wanted something more provocative. Without telling Babbitt, the editors changed the title. To this day, that title gives many the wrong impression of what Babbitt was arguing. Here is an excerpt:

The unprecedented divergence between contemporary serious music and its listeners, on the one hand, and traditional music and its following, on the other, is not accidental and- most probably- not transitory. Rather, it is a result of a half-century of revolution in musical thought, a revolution whose nature and consequences can be compared only with, and in many respects are closely analogous to, those of the mid-nineteenth-century evolution in theoretical physics The immediate and profound effect has been the necessity of the informed musician to reexamine and probe the very foundations of his art. He has been obliged to recognize the possibility, and actuality, of alternatives to what were once regarded as musical absolutes. He lives no longer in a unitary musical universe of “common practice,” but in a variety of universes of diverse practice.

This fall from musical innocence is, understandably, as disquieting to some as it is challenging to others, but in any event the process is irreversible; and the music that reflects the full impact of this revolution is, in many significant respects, a truly “new” music, apart from the often highly sophisticated and complex constructive methods of any one composition or group of compositions, the very minimal properties characterizing this body of music are the sources of its “difficulty,” “unintelligibility,” and isolation. In indicating the most general of these properties, I shall make reference to no specific works, since I wish to avoid the independent issue of evaluation. The reader is at liberty to supply his own instances; if he cannot (and, granted the condition under discussion, this is a very real possibility) let him be assured that such music does exist.

If one takes a moment to read these words carefully, one discovers that there is not much to disagree with. I am most in agreement with his argument that today’s composer is ‘obliged to recognize the possibility, and actuality, of alternatives to what were once regarded as musical absolutes. That there exists not a single set of agreed upon practices, but a variety of ‘universes of diverse practice.’

One of the challenges of modern serious music, especially at music that is labeled ‘difficult’, is that it requires listeners to abandon searching for recognizable tonal reference points. These points are ones that have been drilled into people’s ears and reinforced by repeated performances of agreed-upon important classical works. If one comes to a piece by Babbitt expecting to hear a composition in the style of Beethoven or to hear melodic motifs similar to what one finds in Schumann or Debussy, then one will be lost. That is not to say all that came before is abandoned, only that there are now other ways to compose works, new vocabularies open to the composer to use.

Babbitt’s music, as with much other serious music of the 20th century (atonal, twelve-tone, microtonal, electro-acoustic, etc.), puts these new musical vocabularies or ‘universes of diverse practice’ at the centre of the work; and places unique demands upon listeners:

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). Incidentally, it is this circumstance, among many others, that has created the need for purely electronic media of “performance.” More importantly for us, it makes ever heavier demands upon the training of the listener’s perceptual capacities.

I liken the demands made by contemporary serious music on the listener to that made by modernist literature on readers. If one comes to the works of Joyce and Beckett, or Gaddis and Gass, for example, or to the poetry of Paul Celan or H.D., expecting to read them in the same way, or to operate in a similar fashion, as 19th century novels and poetry, then one will be thrown for a loop. It is still common for people today to react negatively to modernist literature; just as it is common for people to have a similar reaction to ‘difficult’ music. How many times have such works been dismissed – with a great deal of anger in some cases – as elitist, the artist producing works cut off from the greater world and arrogantly asserting themselves above the common man.

Take a moment to listen to these two early pieces by Babbitt:

These works showcase Babbitt’s extension of the twelve-tone idiom. What about them is exactly ‘difficult’ or elitist? Where are they ugly, as I’ve heard other claim?

When one listens to other Babbitt compositions, such as All Set, one hears not difficulty, but joy and sly humour. And the music swings!

Even knottier works such as Tableaux for piano from 1973 with its rapidly unfolding contrapuntal lines never feels forced or academic. It is engaging in the deepest sense of the word:

So why is Babbitt’s music not played more often in the concert repertoire?

The late Charles Rosen in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, makes a point that new music requires champions and repeated performance to become understandable to an audience.

Too often, today’s orchestra’s and chamber groups shy away from doing this. One is a fear of offending the audience. With many orchestras and chamber groups in the United States and Canada financially struggling, symphony and chamber music board members will insist on sticking to what is familiar. That is why every year one hears the same pieces and composers, the same operas performed. I had one board member tell me that if they were to program new works they were guaranteed to see about a quarter of their long-time subscribers cancel their support. Why risk such a financial loss?

And in those rare times when a new piece is performed, it is often done badly. New works need extensive rehearsals for the performers to understand what the composer wants to achieve, to familiarize the players with the new tonal language before them. And once mastered, those works need to be played often so that audiences can orient themselves and navigate these works.

Rosen remarks how he conveyed his excitement and wonder to Boulez at a performance of a chamber work by Harrison Birtwhistle that Boulez conducted. “Boulez explained: ‘We had thirty-five rehearsals.’” Later, when Rosen saw a performance of Alban Berg’s Lulu conducted by Boulez, and was fascinated by how the orchestra seemed to know the opera by heart and executed it with amazing confidence, again Boulez remarked that he was able to secure forty-five recording sessions. It was only by repeated rehearsals, by the orchestras and chamber groups working their way through the difficult piece before them, did the musicians achieve the mastery and understanding needed to make the works understandable to both themselves and the audience.

“Is it any wonder that the public finds difficult contemporary music so irritating. However, since Beethoven, it is the difficult music that has eventually survived most easily; originally unintelligible Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, and all the others that were so shocking are now an essential part of the concert scene. Some of this music is accepted because of its prestige; an average audience would find Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue for string quartet as annoying as Schoenberg or Stockhausen if they were not told the name of the composer.” (184)

Rosen adds that even up to the 1950s, there were towns in the United States that would cancel performances by the famed Budapest Quartet if they got a hint that the musicians might play a late Beethoven quartet.

Not much has changed. Few concert halls or chamber groups will invest the time needed to learn a new piece of ‘difficult’ contemporary music and risk the audience’s puzzlement or resentment; or to make such works a standard part of the repertoire and thereby help audiences become accustomed to such works.

But without the commitment in bringing new works to musicians and audiences, works by such composers a Babbitt – and many others, sadly – will remain rarely heard or given a chance to find an audience.

‘Listening’ to Music

Walter Benjamin By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CBC Radio recently aired ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ a history of the recording industry by Robert Harris. It ran through the usual suspects of why the recording industry has declined in recent years. What caught my attention was a moment when Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’ — or as it is often translated, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ — was referenced in relation to a work of art’s ‘aura.’ The program argued recorded music and its mass production and distribution offers a more authentic experience of music. Through recorded reproduction, listeners form a profound emotional attachment with a particular piece of music or with an individual performer that is not possible in a ‘live’ setting. Far from diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art, mechanical reproduction enhances that ‘aura.’

Benjamin’s essay is one of his most cited; and most misread around this idea of ‘aura.’ ‘Aura’ is today  argued to be  identical to the work of art — be it a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music: it is carried forward with each reproduction. The more accurate the reproduction, the more accurately the ‘aura’ is conveyed and the more immediate is the person’s experience of the ‘aura’ of the work of art.

What this misses is Benjamin’s argument that the ‘aura’ of a work of art is something more than the moment of a work of art’s creation. A work of art has always been reproducible. Replicas were often made by apprentices learning their craft or created for patrons seeking copies for their households. Roman commissioned copies Greek statues and vases to adorn their homes and master painters often made copies of their own work to sell. However, reproduction can only go so far: “In even the most perfect reproduction, one think is lacking: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in a particular place . . . The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological — and of course not only technological — reproduction.” Mechanical reproduction takes a piece of art out of its place in history, eradicates tradition and substitutes a mass experience. As consumers, we are all supposed to agree that this particular painting is ‘a great work of art,’ even though most will not be able to say why a work by Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Balthus, Freud, Newman, Bacon or Rothko is important, both in terms of the historical forces the artist worked within or the work’s technical and stylistic originality. It is enough that it is reproduced endlessly which in today’s consumer market speaks to its importance and ultimate value. Is it surprising that works that are not commonly reproduced and marketed, regardless of their quality or importance, are regulated to a lesser status? Why are El Lissitzky or Klimet Redko not more well known or more valued?

In the realm of serious music, technological reproducibility has made this detachment from tradition and mass effect even more pronounced. Today, a person has many versions of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg etc. to decide which to invest in, from recordings using period instruments and playing styles, to ‘historic’ recordings of works from the early part of the 20th century. One can even become a devotee of certain styles of performance or a particular interpreter’s approach to a composer. Cults accrue around Callas,Gould and Karajan, with devotees collecting every recording no matter how questionable the approach or the quality of individual performances.

Whatever reputation certain performers may have in the general public and the ready availability of modern recordings, it does not escape the fact that today most persons lack any practical knowledge of music as art. Few today can play an instrument and most have little or no knowledge of musical theory or solfege. Music is a mass produced item made to be part of one’s aural landscape, but without really having to ‘listen’ to it. Adorno warned of this. When music stopped being a part of one’s being, requiring space and silence in which one can devote close attention to, then a deep disconnect happens between music as art and background noise. Music becomes difficult to distinguish from the clatter of spoons in a cafe or a conversation on a street corner.

Can one today recognize the harmonic or rhythmic differences in Mozart, Berg, Schoenberg, Carter and Messiaen, Birtwistle, Ligeti and Schnittke? Can one place each of these composer’s works in their historic context or how they revolutionized the harmonic and rhythmic templates for those who followed? Without a knowledge of music, to read the written score or to play individual pieces to understand how it is constructed and works, that depth of understanding is impossible to do exclusively through listening to recordings.

Like the plastic arts, the fidelity of reproducibility is mistaken for the ‘aura’ of their originality. The emotional attachment one develops with a particular piece of music is not the same as understanding what makes that piece of music unique and important; more critically, why one piece of music is more important than another. Discrimination of taste and knowledge comes to an end with mass production.

Charles Ives: Still Waiting To Be Discovered


Charles Edward Ives 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ives is still not welcomed in the concert hall. One of the most significant American composers of last century is without a place among listeners and performers of serious music. His symphonies, string quartets and piano music are performed rarely, and recordings tend to be sporadic. Labels such as difficult, uncompromising and incomprehensible are often attached to his music. Even during his lifetime, Ives’ passionate followers and supporters were outnumbered by those who claimed his music was either mad, juvenile or, if more kindly disposed, just plain weird. Musicians often said his music was impossible to play.

He has not been helped by attempts to make his music more ‘normal,’ smoothing out the dissonance and anarchic qualities, his juxtaposition of high and low, of combining the most rarefied of classical traditions with American folk and popular music of the time. Or by attempts to make his music a precursor to the modernism of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The reality is that many of the ‘modernist’ elements of Ives’ music were attempts to capture the political and social events of his time. David Wooldridge’s neglected and now sadly-out-of-print study, From The Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, makes the explicit argument that Ives was a man deeply influenced, even when in opposition, to the American political and social landscape, to its literature and most profoundly to the ideals set forth by the American Transcendentalists:

“Ives had a comprehension of America’s seers and poets . . . Among these: enormous respect for Emerson, enormous admiration for Hawthorne, enormous affection for Alcott, total identification with Thoreau — these were his favorites . . . Yet more than any other it is Melville who foreshadows Ives in the use of an extended rhetoric to American man. The progressions of Ives’s music, like Melville’s prose, are born on a living speech rhythm, not on someone else’s verse. But with Ives, a Yankee speech rhythm. A collage of musical vernacular transfigured.” Wooldridge, pg. 5.

When Ives writes in his Alcott piece in Essays Before A Sonata, quoting Emerson’s son, E.W. Emerson, on how Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to the United States Court House in Boston to rescue a fugitive slave, Ives is clearly evoking that incident in the Alcott movement of his masterpiece Concord Sonata. Ives says of the incident that “helps confirm the theory — not a popular one — that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues . . .” Wooldridge, pg. 278.

To fully understand Ives and to grasp his achievements, one has come to an understanding of his engagement with his times and the works that formed the core of his being. It goes some way to explaining his neglect in concert hall repertoires today. Ives is a man clearly trying in his music to grasp and understand what is happening in his country and to evoke other paths set out by the Transcendentalist who provoke his deep admiration and influence his own sense of self and purpose. I would argue that to fully grasp Ives one needs to fully grasp Emerson Divinity School Address or later wrote “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” or Thoreau who writes “American liberty has become a fiction of the past — as it is to some extent a fiction of the present . . .” What may make Ives’s music difficult for some is this ceaseless questioning of the ‘myth’ of liberty. The too easy invocation of liberty today would likely have offended Ives deeply, seeing it as an empty term thrown about by all sorts of political and social elites. In a 1923 letter to Gilbert Seldes of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Ives writes he is not disappointed in America, but that America “is a vast unreal intermediate thing intervening between the real thing which was Europe, and the next real thing, which will probably be America, but which isn’t yet, at all.” Wooldridge, pg. 310.

Because today we can hardly grasp this sentiment, where Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne are hardly read (does anyone read Emerson today?) Ives’s music continues to remain outside of the concert hall today.

Wagner, The Enigma

Wagner Image

Richard Wagner, Munich 1871, via Wikimedia Commons

One cannot be neutral with Wagner. He provokes both unreserved praise and passionate devotion, and severe condemnation. The piety of ‘Condemn the man, not the music’ founders when it comes to the monumental scope of his mature works and the monstrosity of his personality and anti-Semitism. Debates about the extent to which anti-Semitism pervades his works, how deeply inscribed into the artistic texture of the works, grows voluminous. Each time his works are performed, the debate rages once more: Is Wagner Bad for Us?

This is the fascinating title of Nicholas Spice’s talk where he tackles this question. Wagner’s music and its ability to both embrace and repel a listener, is what gives his music both its power and its uneasiness. Take Tristan and Isolde, what many consider Wagner’s most supreme achievement. Spice points out how the famous Prelude avoids final cadences that one finds in most tonal music. This avoidance holds “the listener in a state of unrelieved alertness,” and that the opening 17 bars lead to an “interrupted cadence that gently forbids us to leave the musical line.” This tension is embodied in the story of Tristan and Isolde themselves; their illicit love played out in the second act where they long for the night to continue so their lovemaking will not end. Daylight will bring about the end of their love. The only thing in their fierce delirium that will sustain their love is death. No wonder that many early listeners found this opera unsettling, even some to declare it degenerate and unhealthy. Those of weak nerves were told to avoid this opera. No friend of Wagner, Nietzsche complained of the pernicious nature to the nerves of Wagner’s music and how it attracted the weak and exhausted.

This tension, as well as Wagner’s ability to organize and composes large-scale works that  combine in ways still unsurpassed of music and drama that moved simultaneously, is what makes his music so powerful. The problem comes when the music becomes tied to Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism and reactionary politics. Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’ makes the argument that Wagner’s betrayal of the revolutionary spirit of the 1840s, of his dismissal of bourgeois politics and his adoption of biological anti-Semitism in his later writings on art and music is embedded in the very fabric of Wagner’s operas.


ADORNO by LGd, via Wiki Commons

The troubling paradox is these same tensions and his musical genius also point to a more politically and philosophically positive outlook, side-by-side with Wagner’s gross politics and anti-Semitism. Zizek, a passionate Wagnerite, has written several times on the emancipatory kernel in Wagner’s work.  

Parsifal with its declamation “Enthuellt den Graal!” is an announcement of a new social order, one where the Grail is to be revealed at all times and not as an object for a select, closed community and order. “As to the revolutionary consequences of this change, recall the fate of the Master figure in the triad Tristan-Meistersinger-Parsifal (King Marke, Hans Sachs, Amfortas): in the first two works, the Master survives as a saddened melancholic figure; in the third he is DEPOSED and dies.

Even the ending of the immense Ring cycle can be seen not as a loss but as something necessary, where the world of the gods now corrupted by avarice and materiality, falling into what Marx would call commodity fetishism with the taking of the Rheingold,  must come to an end. Man is now free, standing before the spectacle, to forge a new world. Even the elements singled out as showing Wagner’s anti-Semitism (Alberich, Mime, Hagen as figures of the Jews  who bring lust for power and corruption to the universe) are more complex, embodying  the social and political antagonisms that existed in the society Wagner lived within: “An appropriate reading of Wagner should take this fact into account and not merely “decode” Alberich as a Jew, but also ask the question: how does Wagner’s encoding refer to the “original” social antagonism of which the (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” itself is already a cypher?”

Zizek does not downplay Wagner’s anti-Semitism or the reactionary and disgraceful aspects of his politics and person. He does not indulge in that typical liberal compromise of defending the music and making Wagner’s anti-Semitism some private quirk; or worse, as some have done, seize on some bit of kindness to say, “See, he was not all bad. . . etc.”; nor does he reduced Wagner’s works to mere proto-fascist pamphlets, so they can be safely dismissed in a kind of morally superior waving of the hand. This is sometime the case with other critics of Wagner, as if his work is simply the Horst-Wessel-Lied on a larger scale.

To approach Wagner, one must take the monstrous with the sublime. To fully appreciate and understand Wagner’s music, to truly embrace it, one has to come in contact with that which makes it troubling in order to find its revolutionary core. One can’t detour around either or pretend they are not there.