Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Occultism, farce and Milton Babbitt

Despite inhabiting the twilight zone between occultism and farce, my recent post on why live classical music sounds better than recordings attracted a gratifyingly large readership. The Rudolf Steiner inspired explanation came from Joscelyn Godwin's provocative book Harmonies of Heaven and Earth. It is very easy to dismiss a book with chapters titled 'Kepler's Planetary Music', 'Tone Zodiac', and 'Gurdjieff's Law of Octaves', as New Age babble. But that is a dualistic viewpoint. As another quote from this eclectic volume shows:
Milton Babbitt [seen above]... admits that totally serial music is and will always be a concern for the very few. 'Who cares if you listen?' is the title of one of his articles. Yet for those who have penetrated his music, there is a satisfaction akin to that of higher mathematics, in which a perception of order upon order, of realms of totally logical organization, reunites the cerebral intellect with the sense of wonder and the charm of scintillating tone. In Babbitt's composition the goal is reached of a musical microcosm, complete, balanced, and accountable in its every detail, obeying laws sufficient to itself.
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Unknown said...

It shouldn't be necessary at this late date to say this, but for the record: Milton never wrote an article and gave it the title "Who Cares If You Listen?". He wrote an article called "The Composer As Specialist", and the flashier title was supplied by the editors of High Fidelity magazine in which the article appeared.

Philip Amos said...

I've said this before, and I think it was on here that there was a discussion -- well, at least a post -- re university music departments churning out third-rate composers. That cited article by Babbitt was one thing he averred that caused this problem. He argued that composers should compose for other composers and in university music departments, in themselves a devilish development. He won the day, and thus, in a parallel of what happens in other university departments, whether compositions might appeal to the public was irrelevant from the get-go. What mattered was the opinions expressed in peer reviews and tenure committee meetings.

This is staggeringly naive, showing total ignorance of just what goes on in academe, especially the politics in departments, extending sometimes to the university as a whole. It is simply a given that those political shenanigans make a university office a more dangerous lair than an office on the executive floor of any multinational corporate conglomerate. And that's why, contra Babbitt, there's one hell of a lot more to the annual review of an academic than the quality of his or her output, from which it follows that Babbitt's notion of a friendly, cosy, objective assessment of compositions issuing from composers in academe is piffle. The result is that the third-rate may well garner the greatest rewards. Let us remember: there are fashions in serious music, and by God, you'd better be on top of them. It's largely a matter of where the preponderance of your colleagues are headed and if you are following. I find the paragraph quoted a touch confusing -- at least out of context, I'm not sure why that article is cited and if the author understood it correctly.

Pliable said...

More on the provenance of "Who Cares If You Listen?" here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Cares_if_You_Listen