“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.
Buy Clarinet Quintets: Morton Feldman, Milton Babbitt from Amazon
Buy Babbitt: Soli e Duettini from Amazon
Interesting point. I’m not sure I agree that Babbit’s music treats listeners like colleagues. Only about half of what I’ve heard of his music is anything I’d consider friendly to an audience that isn’t well versed in what to expect. There is a difference between being open to new ideas and finding anything remotely recognizable.
Maybe, as you pointed out in my article, the audience should be engaged with the music (although, engaged doesn’t require it to be educated). Schoenberg also said (paraphrase) nothing is art is new, but is built on what has come before. While it is possible to analyze Babbit’s music to decode its roots, this is not necessarily possible on a first listen. His Piano Works (which you’ve linked above) sounds reminiscent of what my three-year-old grandson plays when he’s playing at the piano.
While the art of young children can be confused with great art, I don’t see it as accessible as I might listening to the work of a colleague or friend.
However, – this is just my opinion.
I think you put too much emphasis on what an audience can “understand” on a first listen. I agree that a piece has a better chance of connecting with an audience if it has some element that acts as a hook, something that draws an audience member to the piece, so that this audience will want to return to it.
Where we may differ is on what the nature of this hook can be, as I find Babbitt’s music to be immediately engaging in its sonic beauty. That’s enough for me to want to hear it again.