Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Cares If You Listen - Milton Babbitt

Last week my brother came home to work on an assignment for his general music class.  He and his friend had to give a report on Milton Babbitt's "Who Cares If You Listen?" and Christopher Palestrant's reply.  I thought this would be a good chance to revisit this article and consider how a current composer might view this seminal article.  Both the original and the response are found at the following website:

Babbitt intended the article to be titled, "The Composer as Specialist," but it was published under its better known and more reactionary title.  I believe Babbitt's title better illustrates his point.  Palestrant's article irritates me from the outset and he has clearly missed the point entirely.  He begins by criticizing Babbitt's choice of a title, accusing him of negligence for his art and work.  I find it hard to believe he would begin an argument without even a minute of research, which is about how long it to me to find out that Babbitt had different ideas about his publication than did his editors.  From the first sentence of Palestrant's article, I have already chosen sides.  I have little patience for an unfounded rant and incredible respect for Babbitt, a better established composer, and apparently with a better ability to write and craft a thoughtful essay.

Babbitt begins by illuminating the state of new music during his time, which echoes the state of our own new music.  Except for those of equal compositional endeavors, the music remains largely unheard and unplayed.  Now I regress already, coming from a school like UB where new music is a common occurrence.  Perhaps it is more common these days, but still resigned to a small academic community.  Babbitt refers to this as isolation, although it may not seem so isolated to those of us immersed in it everyday, intent on earning a degree and then remaining in an academic setting for the rest of our professional lives.

There is no doubt a giant rift between this "serious" music and popular music.  Amateur musicians used to play the latest compositions by composers around the home, but today amateur musicians are far less common, playing the music of composers from centuries ago, or simple guitar tabs from the internet.  I am drawn to Babbitt's comparison of his music to the studies of science, mathematics, philosophy, etc.  There are theories, problems, and ideas in each of these academic fields which we learn through high school, but the majority lies beyond the grasp of anyone without an advanced degree in this field.  This seems like a valid argument.  It is only because a great deal of music lies in the popular realm that the general public, or perhaps even composers like Palestrant, cannot accept that some music may be about concepts beyond 4 minutes of dancing or commiseration on the radio.  This music finds a refuge and a means of existence in universities, much like what Babbitt is calling its comparative programs of study, for specialists.  It is here that the composer can explore new modes of communication, description, and exploration without concern for public opinion influencing the path music will take.  While new music may begin largely unheard and unappreciated it has the possibility to influence and even leak into the popular music realm, for example, consider how different popular music was one hundred, two hundred and even three hundred years ago.  Who knows what we will be listening to in the years to come.

I believe Palestrant has missed the basic essence of Babbitt's article. He argues, as I understand it, that music should reflect the human perspective and transcend analysis; music is objectified in its performance and therefore cannot be alienated from an audience and performers.  He is calling for composers to cater to the preferences of these two groups so that music may continue to exist.  Palestrant seems unwilling to stretch the boundaries of music.  He is limiting it to a static existence, and it is in fact this, and not alienation which will kill it.  While audience and performers as a whole will prefer more established works, there are always those which will push for new music, a new means of expression, one current and reflective of the world in which we live.  The human experience is ever-evolving and and such composers, performers, and audiences should not complacently deny this fact and live in the past.  These works they rehash are no doubt great works of art, as evidenced by their longevity, but they at one time were viewed as unpleasant and their authors had to fight for their existence.  That's my thought on the matter anyway.

Speaking of new music and popular music and the boundaries between them, Northwestern University is holding their Music Marathon April 30th - May 1st (

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