Category: Criticism

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.

What Role The Critic

Books on a Shelf

No one has anything good to say about critics. They are a despised lot, of a lower order to that occupied by the artist. Brendan Behan called critics “eunuchs in a harem.” Kenneth Tynan said of critics, including himself, that they were persons who know the way around, but cannot drive a car. Nabokov’s disdain of critics was only matched by the contempt he had for editors, whom he described as “pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to ‘make suggestions’ which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!'”

Even the greatest of critics are more commented upon than read. How many today read Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare or his Lives of the English Poets? Or for that matter how many know of Sainte-Beuve’s What Is a Classic? or Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher? Or Hazlitt’s Lectures on English Poets? All are confined to the connoisseur or literary specialist. It is no better for more recent critics. How many people know of the work of Viktor Shklovsky whose Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar and his essays in Theory of Prose should be on any serious literature student’s desk, next to Auerbach’s Mimesis and Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel.

One reason why critics are so poorly thought of is that proper criticism has been much diminished. Take a look once more at the small list of names I mentioned. These critics situate their subjects and ideas within larger arguments of history, philosophy and previous and current commentary. They examine how artists work and explicate upon the various strands of thought, criticism, ideas and politics at play in their works. At the same time, these critics show why certain artists are worthy of such sustained attention. They exemplify Hilton Kramer’s argument for connoisseurship, “the close, comparative study of art objects with a view to determining  their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” Criticism today is reduced to statements of preference rather than discrimination, placing all works on the same aesthetic level. Joyce is in no way superior to Henry Miller, Pound to Maya Angelou. This is criticism reduced to Amazon’s starred reviews and comments.

When criticism works, it brings forward not only the aesthetic aspects of the work under study, but the mechanism by which that work makes its aesthetic claims and thereby allow a reader to see why its is aesthetically superior to other works.

William H Gass By David Shankbone (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

William H Gass is one of America’s finest novelist and critics. In many respects his novels and stories and his criticism form a continuous dialogue, building on and developing Gass’ evolving and deepening philosophical and aesthetic insights and arguments. From his earliest essays collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gass staked his esthetic mission on an argument that is difficult to refute, although many have tried, from his late and close friend and novelist John Gardner to most recently James Woods: “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves out of concepts.” (Philosophy and the Form of Fiction, pg. 4) Shortly thereafter, “The esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such a world, alive through every order of its Being. Its author may not purpose this — authors propose many things — but the construction of some sort of object, whether too disorderly to be a world or too mechanical to be alive, cannot be avoided.” (pg 7)

The art of fiction is, at it core, an assemblage of words, shaped by the artist who places them onto a page under mechanisms chosen by them in order to shape those words into a fiction. This can be the either be Joyce’s loose modeling of Bloom’s and Stephen’s wanderings about Dublin on Homer’s Odyssey and the creation of their interiors through various linguistics literary pastiches or to the pared-down prose of Beckett that seeks the clarity and weight of Heraclitus. The landscapes and destinies of characters, the worlds created are “indistinct from words and all their orderings.” (pg. 8) Even the realism so prized by James Woods in How Fiction Works is a mechanism, one of many that can be chosen, by which words are ordered by an author. And what is realism? It should not be forgotten that Joyce was attacked for writing about Bloom’s satisfying bowel movement and the wiping of his arse with bits of his morning newspaper. Joyce’s realism was a step too far, even among readers and critics of the time who read Zola.

Gass’ criticism pays special attention to how writers use words, to how words are ordered and what mechanisms shape that order. Gass is a master in teasing out how writers shape words and sentences to achieve the desired ends. Gass is one of America’s the great masters of the sentence. Take a look at his discussion of Gertrude Stein’s style in “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape From Protective Language.” Written as a review of “Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Works” by B.L. Reid, Gass does not so much review Reid’s book, but examines how Stein’s prose work and how Reid fails to comprehend what Stein is up to. Reid disparages Stein because she embodies principles that upset his notions of art. Gass points out that Stein has had that affect on critics from the beginning; and that is the very point of what Stein is trying to do with her prose. She wishes to challenge in the most direct way possible our notions of art and style, of or received opinions, and she will sculpt language to do so. Sculpt is the right word as I believe that Stein works with language as sculptor works with stone: “It requires us to consider again the esthetic significance of style; to examine again the ontological status of the artist’s vision, his medium, and his effect.” (pg. 87) The language of her early story Things As They Are seems to mock the title, for as Gass points out it is on the first flush or reading, pompous and vague, filled with circumlocutions and pedantic rhetoric.

One’s reaction is to give up and claim Stein a fraud. Many still do. But it is only on closer reading and looking at what Stein is trying to do with this language, especially as developed it in her later works, does one understand her strategies. She is challenging that common aspect of English writing toward what Gass calls protective language, where words — common words, phrases, social speech, simple nouns etc. — are used not as a way to confront the world, but to “gain by artifice a safety from the world — to find a way of thinking without the risks f feeling — is the source of the impulse to abstractness and simplicity in Gertrude Stein as it is in much of modern painting, where she felt immediately the similarity of aim.” (pg. 89) Protective speech is not about finding meanings, but cutting them off and limiting words to mere naming. A writer will say “John loves Mary.” It is a simple, declarative sentence. Only while the writer tells us that the character John, who may be young or old, a stock broker or a construction worker, loves Mary, possibly a teacher or a lunch counter waitress, the writer will never show them loving. Stein wants to show. Gass demonstrates how Stein’s language works to do exactly that: to show rather than to name. If we fail grasp that we fail to see how she works with words; for how Stein works with words, how she arranges them on the page, will show us how she accomplishes her goals. She will challenge how language should operate, how words should be used in order to break out of this protective language. If we fail to see how the writer does what they do, that we come instead with preset notions of what literature should do and how words should be used, then a writer like Stein will always stand as an effrontery. Take this passage from Stein’s The Making of Americans:

Disillusionment in living is finding that no one can really ever be agreeing with you completely in anything. Disillusionment then in living that gives to very many then melancholy feeling, some despairing feeling, some resignation, some fairly cheerful beginning and some a forgetting and continuing and some a dreary trickling weeping some violent attacking and some letting themselves do anything, disillusion then is really finding, really realising, really being certain that no one really can completely agree with you in anything, that, as is very certain, not, those fighting beside you or living completely with you or anybody, really, can really be believing anything completely that you are believing. Really realising this thing, completely realising this thing is the disillusionment in living in the beginning of being an old man or an old woman is being no longer a young one no longer a young man or an young woman no longer a growing older young man or growing older young woman.

Stein loves words, their sound and even their look upon the page. Protective language and criticism banishes this simple fact. Gass in his fictions as with Stein revels in words, in their vitality on the page and in ones mouth when spoken. Gass and Stein should be read out loud, the mouth savouring as one will a fine wine or as once chews a piece of meat. Gass’ criticism forces one to look anew at words and how artists work with words. We may say that characters come alive when we read them. Gass reminds us how the artists is there behind them.

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport At Poetry Collections (http://collectionofaphorismsandpoetry.blogspot.ca/2015/05/guy-davenport.html)

Guy Davenport is another critic and writer where the dialogue between his fictions and his criticism is constant. Many of his essays and stories should be ready side-by-side to see the sinews between them. Like Gass, Davenport is one of the masters of the sentence. Davenport’s are instantly recognizable. No one writes like him or brings the full weight of learning, lightly worn but ever present, to the sentence.

Davenport said of his stories and novels that they resemble not so much traditional fictive forms but “assemblages.” His is a collage of styles and techniques, calling attention to how the object in question, in this case his fiction, is assembled. It is closer to the Pound’s argument that master artists are those who combine a number of processes together and into a new whole. Davenport’s assemblages, whose closest parallel are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, calls attention to how he creates and assembles his work; at the same time, because of how he assembles the various object trouvés  that make up his works, he forces new ways of reading as well.

One sees the same in his essays, collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves and Form and The Hunter Gracchus. His essays and commentaries force one to look anew and more closely at how the works of certain artists are put together and how they forge new strategies of reading.

“When a density of learning began to appear in English literature, there came with it the understanding that the author would teach us what we needed to know as we read along,” Davenport write in “The Critic as Artist (Every Force Evolves a Form, pg 99-100) By the time we reach the modernist movement in literature, with Pound, Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Olson and Joyce and Beckett, the artist is asking for more careful and attentive reading than what many are often willing to give. Most don’t and complain bitterly at the work required. “Everywhere we look in modernist writing, we can see the writer trying to get us to pay attention, to wake us from some sleep into which literacy itself has lulled us.” (102)

Take the opening from Louis Zukofsky’s immense poem “A”:

A round of fiddles playing Bach

Davenport makes us pause over this simple opening. It only reveals its complexity once we begin to understand what Zukofsky is doing throughout his monumental poem, one of the great 20th century works that almost never makes it onto university syllabuses of modern poetry, much as Olson’s Maximus Poems and Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and for good measure Pound’s The Cantos are left off. Davenport tells us that to understand what Zukofsky is doing, we need a new way of reading. We must read the line as: A round of fiddles playing a work of Bach’s, with an appreciation that “playing the fiddle is work for musicians . . . These musicians playing Bach are working at Carnegie Hall in 1929 (both Passover and Good Friday that year), and they are working because union fiddlers are on strike and would not play. Work, said Karl Marx, the tutelary spirit of this part of the poem (before Thomas Jefferson take over later), should be as engrossing as play (an idea from Fourier, an evocation of whom will close the 23rd part of the poem).” (102) The task of the critic, according to Davenport, is to show how to read Zukofsky’s  poem, the techniques used by Zukofsky to explicate his themes and his images.

Each work of art brings with it its own set of rules for reading. How one reads Proust’s double images and symbolism is of a different sort than how one reads Ulysses, which needs its own set of reading mechanisms. Davenport’s great contemporary Hugh Kenner realized that the 20th century’s literature was an complete overturning of the aesthetic direction of the 19th century. We need new ways of reading Beckett, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Olson and Zukofsky. We cannot bring how we read Dickens, Thackeray or Austin to these writers.

This is from Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr:

He slouched and ambled along, neglecting his muscles: and his full-blooded blackguard’s countenance attempted to portray delicacies of common sense and gossamer-like backslidings into the inane that would have puzzled any analyst unacquainted with his peculiar training. Occasionally he would exploit his criminal appearance and blacksmith’s muscles for a short time; however: and his strong piercing laugh through ABC waitresses into confusion. The art-touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable.   

One cannot approach this without knowing something of Lewis’s quarrels with Chelsea and Bloomsbury artists, of his Vorticism and his relationship other European avant-gardes and Marinetti’s Futurism, along with his Lewis’ own critical works such as his immense Time and Western Man. Without those, Lewis’ prose will flummox most readers.  Lewis demands a new kind of reading. The same for Olson’s “The Kingfishers”:

I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumiere”
                    but the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
                    but the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
                    he got the color of his breast
                    from the heat of the setting sun!

 

Davenport’s essay on Charles Olson in The Geography of the Imagination shows what kind of new reading is needed for Olson’s poem: “It cannot be avoided that we as readers are asked to become Leskenoi along with the poet, to leave the polychorme images and finely modulated rhythms of the poem, learn some things, and then return as a worth participant.” (Olson, pg 89) The critic makes the reader a participant in reading.