by Steve Hicken
“I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”
In 1958, Milton Babbitt (who died January 29, 2011 at age 94) wrote an article for High Fidelity that he called “The Composer as Specialist.” When the magazine ran the article under the title “Who Cares if You Listen?” (not approved by Babbitt), it immediately became one of the most notorious articles ever published by a composer. The title alone—often the only part of the article people read—is frequently used by enemies of Modernist music to allege artistic bad faith on the part of Babbitt and anybody else who was in the process of being slagged.
Before unpacking this passage, I think it’s important to add the sentence that comes before it:
I say all this not to present a picture of a virtuous music in a sinful world, but to point up the problems of a special music in an alien and inapposite world.
This sentence is extremely telling, because it shows Babbitt’s understanding of the musical world as a whole, and the relationship of a composer of “advanced” music to it. Earlier in the article he explains the relationship between advanced music composition and scientific research. He sees a very close relationship, and it’s easier to understand that when you realize that he was writing in the era when electronic sound synthesis was just getting started, and that a scientific study of the nature of sound was an absolute necessity for synthesis to work. It was natural for a composer working out the implications of his project (for Babbitt, the project was huge—the application of the ideas behind the 12-tone method to other “parameters” of musical sound, including rhythm, volume, and tone-color) to think and speak in the language of a researcher, and to see his desk as a lab table.
Science didn’t have to deal with a public rendering judgments on its findings (though in our current conservative postmodern environment, it really does have to deal with thumbs up or down from the audience), and Babbitt was clearly frustrated that music wasn’t taken as seriously. I’ve always believed that with these pronouncements, in “Who Cares if You Listen” and other writings, Babbitt was overstating his case in order to underline his point about artistic integrity.
His own music, when played well and received in good faith, belies any idea of inexpressive mathematics. From the punning titles (Whirled Series always gives me a chuckle) to the airy, almost swinging feel of the pointillist rhythms, Babbitt’s music is simultaneously challenging and inviting. It treats everyone, listener and performer alike, seriously and humanely. Like a colleague.