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"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   January 31, 2007   next

This Babbitt thing just won't go away. It's been mentioned in these commentaries recently, and posted to the Orchestra List where the debate continues. One composer wrote, "When I was studying composition at UCLA, Milton Babbitt came to lecture. After the lecture, we were all joking about how we wished we had brought our slide rules. I think he's done more damage to the reputation of 'contemporary music' than any other composer." I replied with what follows...

Is that because you were all simply afraid to put in the advance work of understanding the topic before the lecture was presented? Did you shrink back from the efforts of other composers of the era -- Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, or even Cage, Partch, Cowell, etc. -- because you could not understand their theories or had insufficient preparation when you stepped into the lecture hall? Was the 'damage' perceived because of a room full of unprepared people, because of a lecture few people heard, because of music that was ill-performed by those very people, or because the music was bad? How can you tell?

This line of reasoning recurs. Among some musicians, there is an ongoing fear of the science of music, even though it underscores the artform. There is a science behind the order of notes throughout history, sometimes staggeringly inventive and confounding to contemporaries, and certainly to unprepared contemporaries. Most times theory and analysis follow at some distance in time, but sometimes theory and analysis precede or are parallel to the music's creation, particularly in the turbulent music times from 1925-1975, when creativity could hardly keep up with itself and computational science had opened new ways of thinking that could be experimented with -- to succeed or fail, but nevertheless to be given a try.

So why was anyone in that Babbitt lecture? Because they had to be there? Because they were anxious to learn and grow as composers or performers? Again, I would expect that anyone attending a lecture of early music tunings would have a grasp of the science of acoustics and the mathematics required to reproduce the tunings before they set foot in the hall. And how about full-blown orchestration à la Rimsky-Korsakov? Is it a lecture that would make sense without a solid background in the instrumental mechanics, even if an 'intuitive' one? Species counterpoint? Is that easy to grasp? Jazz theory, which is as dense as Babbitt in the hands of, say, Anthony Braxton?

As an educated musician, how do you listen to music? Do you use your gut alone, or does your mind play a role? How did your gut get that way -- through listening? Did you (do you) educate that gut to new sounds? Could you hear through to something as simple as a third-level triplet, or does it stop before the work of today's New Complexity composers? Could you step inside an electroacoustic studio in 2007 and work there? The long-gone slide rule has been replaced by sophisticated algorithms that are used from academia to Hollywood -- and no slide-rule-phobic composer can work in that environment, nor attend a lecture and make sense of it.

How did you all come to Babbitt's music and lecture? After listening to and practicing Mozart and Brahms and Elvis and Ellington, or from hearing and playing Stockhausen and Coltrane and Cowell and Luening? Were you surrounded by people working on Music of Changes or Klavierstück X or The Banshee, or did Alberti bass lines and Chopin Préludes fill the atmosphere of practice rooms? Were your tastes and distastes born from living, working composers, or from only dead ones?

Frankly, the claptrap invented to dismiss the era that some musicians simply didn't like is reminiscent of knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power. I may oppose it, but it embarrasses me to hang out in a demonstration by people who have little idea of the science enough even to make the most basic case for their own opposition. Gut-level speciousness is the basis for one of the books recently recommended here, a compilation of pseudo-science and amateur psychology that 'proves' the merit of one approach to music over another. It's Wagner's Artwork of the Future for dummies.

I'm sorry to sound exercised over this, but to demean this composer (and by analogy, the other mathematically intricate composers from the middle ages to today) is to assume and promote the concept of music as a dalliance, a Sunday-afternoon dilettante's realm. Art is not easy, and whether Beethoven's notebooks represent science or art in your mind, they are still the sorting of choices through a filter of meaningfulness. Whether that meaningfulness is expressed as blotches of ink or formulas, it does not reflect on the music.

Right here is the time for "if it sounds good, it is good" to be quoted, so I'll do it. Certainly so. I happen to think Babbitt and Xenakis sound good irrespective of their internal complexity, formulaic origins, and lack of easy reference to the body of classical music. For me, their work is good. It meets my needs and expectations and thrills and challenges me in ways that are enriching. At the other extreme might be someone in a church service deeply affected by listening to what I would hear as a cheesy, poorly composed anthem with wretched voice leading, awkward phrasing, incompetent harmonies and accidental modulations. Is it good? Certainly, for that listener.

This entire discussion is of great concern to me right now because, as some of you know, I'm in the first month of my "We Are All Mozart" project in which I am trying to put myself as a composer-craftsperson at the service of many people who would commission me to create pieces for them, day after day. In such a situation, I don't have the option of saying that I can't create an electronic piece, or a performance piece, or a lullaby, or an "ass-kicking" sax solo (as it was described by the commissioner). I have to be committed to each piece, and the process requires a grasp of and respect for styles and techniques from the past hundred years (and earlier, because many of them infuse what I write). Working with those techniques increases my respect for the composers -- especially those lonely total serialists like Babbitt -- whose work I found thrilling, but which I was (and am) continually incompetent to understand fully. Perhaps I should have brought my slide rule to Babbitt's lectures (and I still have my slide rule in its grey leather case).

One is welcome to despise the music, but glorying in a roomful of incompetence in its basic theory is simply embarrassing.

* * *

Ah. A new piece. And a tough one to write after yesterday's freakish polyrhythmic twister. Knowing Patricia Goodson, having met Ivan (before their wedding), and having spent a little time in Prague, I felt that the combination of night sky, the tower, and the dark passageways suggested a direct and uncomplicated surface architecture (silence to silence) and an enormous sense of stasis and stability. The tonal progression of the piece is from a free-floating chromaticism to a similar diatonic texture, and after that, it was a matter of careful choice of pitches to both meet and break expectations.

The middle section is intriguing from a compositional viewpoint. The original is carefully notated with complex tuplets in eight lines; the tuplet markings and separate lines are then stripped away, leaving apparent clusters of sounds. A careful backwards analysis will reveal the tuplets, but an accurate performance of the graphical layout of the notes will make the overlapping rhythms implicit -- and if it remains in near-aleatoric territory, so much the better. It is the mind that organizes the shapes into lines, and the starry night into constellations.

A copy of the score is here and a sterile but somewhat listenable Midi demo is here.

* * *

Tomorrow is a bass-cello duo for P. Kellach Waddle, a brilliant bassist -- no, really brilliant, no charlatan -- who commissioned and performed my nightmarish Northsea Balletic Spicebush a few years ago. When he asked for a duo, he reminded me not to make it quite so hard. We'll see.

Slide rule
Indeed I still have my slide rule. Would Babbitt have scorned? Your call...

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