Electronic composition. Its an odd contradiction: Impenetrable, inaccessible, yet highly influential. A notoriety built partly on his personal view that reinforced a belief that contemporary music was for an elite cognoscenti. His supporters of his twelve tone theories, including Stephen Sondheim, helped it gain a toehold in academia and in concert halls. Though he had many detractors, his supporters, countered with the argument that his complex music required greater involvement, intelligence and commitment from listeners than they may have been willing to implicate themselves with in the past.This helped set him up as an archetype of the impenetrable creator of music audiences aren’t supposed to like.
His famous article from which much of his notoriety developed was “who cares if you listen” , kind of a musical rhetorical question similar to what physicist Richard Feynman must have thought when he wrote his book, “What Do You Care What Other People Think”, the screw you version for science nerds. But, the typical facile appraisal of a composer whose music is far more human than we would like to admit becomes facile when the general population is asked to render judgement. Remember babbitt composed cabaret music and string quartets.
Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares If You Listen (1958) :This article might have been entitled “The Composer as Specialist” or, alternatively, and perhaps less contentiously, “The Composer as Anachronism.” For I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music. his composer expends an enormous amount of time and energy- and, usually, considerable money- on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value. e is, in essence, a “vanity” composer. he general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in his music. he majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. t best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists. Read More: http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html a
“Much of his output was for small-scale forces (partly out of necessity, as few orchestras could stomach his works either musically or financially). However, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra did give the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra in January 2005. Despite the severity of his music, Babbitt had a mischievous sense of humour, as titles such as Sheer Pluck (1984, for solo guitar) would suggest….
While he opened up many fascinating ideas, critics said that Babbitt – who described himself as a maximalist to differentiate from the minimalists – found himself in a musical cul-de-sac. As John Adams wrote: “Atonality, rather than being the promised land, proved to be nothing of the kind. After a heady first planting, the terrain [its] composers discovered was unable to reproduce its initial harvest.” —Read More: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/music-obituaries/8296854/Milton-Babbitt.html a
Milton Babbitt, 1958: 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. Read More:http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html
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….
…First. This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more “efficient” than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. 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. Read More: http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html a
Second. Along with this increase of meaningful pitch materials, the number of functions associated with each component of the musical event also has been multiplied. In the simplest possible terms. Each such “atomic” event is located in a five-dimensional musical space determined by pitch-class, register, dynamic, duration, and timbre. These five components not only together define the single event, but, in the course of a work, the successive values of each component create an individually coherent structure, frequently in parallel with the corresponding structures created by each of the other components. Inability to perceive and remember precisely the values of any of these components results in a dislocation of the event in the work’s musical space, an alternation of its relation to a other events in the work, and-thus-a falsification of the composition’s total structure. Read More:http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html
MILTON BABBITT: You know why. I don’t have to tell you, I don’t have to tell anyone why it’s an inaccurate term; it’s an historical term. It describes a certain chronological period at the end of the eighteenth century and so it defines something. Well, after that it becomes normative; it becomes a kind of music; it becomes qualitative, quantitative, and it’s misleading. I rather like Wiley Hitchcock’s term. It sounds elitist, so I won’t offer it to you yet. I’ll tell you my anecdote about this. Many, many years ago at the Smithsonian in September, there was a huge, huge, huge congregation on the subject of American music. We were there for three or four days (I’ve forgotten now) and the Smithsonian decided to recognize every kind of music. There was ethnic music; there was non-ethnic music; there was music from every little corner of every little forest in North Dakota and I’m not exaggerating. Little groups who had their own kind of music, which they invented on their own kinds of instruments were all there. And something they called classical music was assigned to a tiny corner. The three people involved were a historian, a music critic, and I was the composer. And then there were people in the audience and Wiley Hitchcock was one of those, I tell you, I mentioned him for a reason. So we were there, talking and immediately the historian, who was Richard Crawford from Michigan, said “Look, I can’t stand this being classical, we have to do something with the word. It just offends me as an historian.” I said, “Fine. It offends me for other reasons. What are we going to use?” So then the discussion began—you can imagine what the discussion consisted of. It consisted of, first of all, the assumption that we were calling ourselves serious musicians. But then other musicians would say, “We’re just as serious as you are.” And of course, I don’t take a composer seriously just because he takes himself seriously, but there was nothing I could do about this, so we can’t call it serious. And then there were people that would call it concert music, which is what the Performance Rights Societies were calling it and then saying, “Well, we can’t call it a concert because every little rock group now gives concerts and they get 50,000 people and we’re lucky to get 50. So who are we to use the term concert?” So it went on like that quite literally and tiresomely for a long time, then finally one of Hitchcock’s terms, I said, “I don’t mind one of Hitchcock’s terms, which is cultivated music.” Well, you can imagine what that induced: the scream of elitism and we just gave up. But the best example of that is a magazine that likes to consider itself (I hope I’m not offending everybody), likes to call itself sophisticated, The New Yorker, just did an issue on music, did you see it? Read More: http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=1554