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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

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By the time yesterday's composition was finished, it was one minute before midnight, and not enough time to write about it.

People ask about my titles, and the cello-bass duet Running the Traction Line is certainly one of them. The titles are descriptive inside the recesses of my mental rat's nest, and sometimes relate to the composition's content or an outside event. A traction line is a kind of trolley, and some ran in Vermont; I'd just been reading about them in a marvelous history called Railroads of Vermont -- amazing photographs. I'm not a hobbyist, but am a fan of railroads, as noted in the first few weeks of these commentaries.

Traction lines were often difficult to run. And when this new piece started coming together, that difficulty melded with the composition's challenges. It is so easy to fall into cliché with a cello-bass duet -- not that there are many of them, but rather that the deep-breathing bass sound draws one toward elegance and liquid motion (almost like January 21's In het Donkere Bos). The first 10 bars were written four times before the door opened and the piece could step through the lushness and linearity right into madness and instability. The thematic material is simple: the dropping slides, the resolving dissonances, and the pizzicato low A. Tightening them up instantly and creating a counterpoint propelled it forward, with an exchange of rhythm and faux-rock licks.

The rest was compositional variation, moving quickly and tumbling over itself. This is a showpiece, with no pretensions to theoretical significance. It's fun, and teetering on self-destruction many times. P. Kellach Waddle should do it handsomely, and you can see the score here and listen to a demo that Kel will certainly blow away when he gets to it.

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Wow, did this Babbitt thing trigger a storm. I'm going to blog-cheat and print some of my commentaries in the list exchanges here; if you want to read others' extended comments, join the Orchestra List and have a look in the archives.


You strike me as a very intelligent, mathematically inclined, and musically literate fellow, so if you can't understand Milton Babbitt fully, who can?

Understanding any deep topic takes lots of study. I'm not a music analyst, and so my approach to the non-listening part of Babbitt is a struggle. A few years ago a pianist called me in to consult on a Babbitt score because he was very committed to performing not only the notes, but the notes in context. As with, for example, "playing" the missing chords in a Beethoven sonata, playing the unhearable mathematics in Babbitt is important -- it provides a performer with a sense of how the music works that is not evident from the surface. With Beethoven, that's completely acculturated. With Schoenberg and Berg, by now it also is. But even with acculturation, consider, say, the Brahms E minor symphony -- what does it mean that 99% of listeners probably have no idea that last movement is a passacaglia? Do they need to know, or does it just work? On the other hand, do the performers need to know? As we get closer to the present, less and less is acculturated. So how do you know what's important in Babbitt (or any of the other composers of total serialism)? The only way is to plow through it all and then decide what you find important. We don't need to plow through the math of the tempered scale and examine it again to discover that the 12th root of 2 represents the interval from one semitone to the next -- we 'get' that from experience. But we might need to know that if we're tuning the piano (in the old days), or the number of cents involved if we are retuning a harpsichord to just or Valotti or Pythagorean or 19-tone meantone tuning, or whatever we think William Byrd might have used. So at some point there will be enough experience to grasp Babbitt & Co. without going back to the math every time. All of which is to say that one need not do the math to listen to Babbitt, but if one is going to express the work effectively, at this point in the culture, that level of understanding remains important. Can I do it? Sure, with work -- but not enough to be a Babbitt expert, any more than I could do effective analysis of the use of isorhythm in Ockeghem's masses.

It does seem impractical at best to write music that is so complex that even one's biggest fans can't grasp it.

I make a big distinction between intellectual understanding and listening. The former is for composers and performers of the music, not for the general public (unless it's their hobby).

Here's an example. For my soprano sax commission in the "We Are All Mozart" project (January 25th piece) nowhere is it evident from listening to the piece how the main material came about. It sounds good = it is good. But there's a big chunk of work built into it that a musicologist or performer might want to know. The choices made to arrive there are not entirely gut-level or arbitrary, yet the listener has no need to know that. Its coherency arises from it, but what does it matter? Even the performer doesn't need to know, unless there's something that just doesn't make sense. (Fortunately, the piece makes sense and sounds good without knowing how it is made, and will be premiered in Baltimore in March by the guy who commissioned it.)

I don't like pandering art, but neither do I care for art that is so personal, so complex that there's no way in for me without devoting hours upon hours of specialized study. Rather would I have art that grabs me by the ears at first listen and keeps my mind engaged throughout subsequent hearings.

I agree completely, and my reaction was triggered by the fact that the poster was a composer who was at a lecture for which he and his colleagues were entirely unprepared, and then mocked it. This has become a ritual lately with what I've been pointing out as "revisionist history". Many of those composers who dearly loved working in the Babbitt & Co. idiom now claim it was all an academic exercise at best and a hoax at worst. That's just a revisionist lie. I was there; I sat in those lectures and saw the amazement and excitement on those faces.


How serialists can deny the basic physics of the overtone series is pretty weird...and would certainly amuse any scientist. Schoenberg became increasingly aware of how hard one has to work to deny its natural pull. By now most of us know how to move around it when we wish...and I certainly do at times...but why should we insistently fight one of the basic scientific realities of the universe? To me, it's all there to use.

As you suggest, art has always had a dicey relationship with reality. Sometimes physical laws were a matter of interest, but the very act of making music (or painting or sculpture or...) creates something that is partially outside the natural course of events. It gives us pause to perceive the world differently (otherwise I'd listen to the lovely brook outside all day, or be satisfied with the rhythm of my heartbeat).

Art may parallel science or buck against it. Leonard Shlain's Art & Physics is a terrific book that helped me grasp what it is we think we're doing intuitively when we're actually thoroughly entwined in culture and science in ways unknown to us. My personal conclusion is that knowing is better than not knowing, but I'm a Western guy fer sher.

As far as the overtone series goes, exploring its virtues and curses has been the basis for some pretty amazing composition, including the spectral composers (who now have the academic grip and will probably be reviled in 25 years) and much electroacoustic music.


To be told that I just don't "get it" or that I'm closed-minded because I don't wish to devote hours of study dedicated to that music and the underlying mathematical principles is patently unfair. The inability of their music to move me, however, rests with them. To get back to a statement I made earlier in this thread, while a lot of music has a lot of intricacy which repays further study, it has to have something of interest on first listening in order to make me want to spend whatever time is necessary to gain whatever level of deeper understanding I feel I wish to enjoy.

Things tend to get conflated in these discussions, including taste for the music, whether one finds the music compelling, if one can or wants to acquire a taste for the music, the obscurity of the music in the culture itself, the content of the music, and the presentation, explanation or description of the music's content.

The "interest on first listening" is personal taste and experience. I found Babbitt and Stockhausen interesting from the first instant, yet in all these years can't abide Schubert, whose music I've studied but loathe hearing. One can find all sorts of explanations -- my personal take is that because I came very late to music and discovered pop and nonpop all at the same time, I had been taught no prejudices and came to expect music to be new. We each have reasons in our backgrounds and personalities which drive us toward or away from some art. And unlike you, I also am moved by Jackson Pollock's work. At fourteen, I saw his "Autumn Rhythm" for the first time -- in real life. There was this, this, this giant thing and I just sat on the little bench in front of it and couldn't stop looking. It was magical.

So far as I can recall, no one wrote anything about not "getting it" or being closed-minded based on insufficient study. Study is overrated for listening. Study opens some doors and closes others. Study has made me intolerant of badly formed music, and there's a lot of it. Study has made it possible for me to listen through the thousands of hours of nonpop we used to get at Kalvos & Damian and choose the interesting stuff -- and say to myself "this is extraordinary" and find it vindicated by, say, the 'sudden' ten-years-later attention to Linda Catlin Smith. Study has also made it impossible to enjoy pleasant but insubstantial composition, music with little beyond cleverness, or music cobbled together purely for entertainment. (Begone, André Rieu!) Study means one can perform music sensitively and idiomatically, to engage seriously in the practice of music. But no, if you don't hear it, you won't "get it" from study alone. Sometimes, like Joyce and Eliot, it takes living with.

Then there's the culture, particularly here in the U.S. I had the good fortune of coming of musical age when public radio actually played new music. WUHY (now WHYY of "Fresh Air" fame) used to sign off with Webern (if I recall correctly; maybe it was WXPN, both in Philadelphia). Public radio is where I first heard Gruppen. Who would program that today? Even commercial radio is where I heard other thrilling new pieces. I was sitting with a tiny radio in a corner at a relative's house while the adults partied on (that unsociable kid! look at him!) struggling to hear the Carnegie Hall premiere of Ives's Fourth Symphony under, who was it, Stokowski? That was WQXR, I believe.

In a culture based on popularity, including in the last vestiges of alternative broadcasting, there is no chance for new composition (other than "American Commissions": 10 minutes, 3 rehearsals, immediately 'accessible'). However -- and it's an important however -- the internet has changed the ability to find new composition; the ultimate effect on the larger culture is yet to be known. There is a wealth of YouTube resources (pieces I've only heard about but heard there for the first time) and my own music has received more exposure online than I could have hoped in my lifetime.

The irony in this discussion for me is that I'm defending a stylistic approach that I myself stopped using twenty years ago. The reason I'm defending it is because of the fantastic music that is being dismissed based on old prejudices and the "study first, listen later" strawman.


The modern concertgoer attending a concert for the Bach, Brahms, and Debussy - or even the Scurria, Amrhein, or Higdon - and encountering Babbitt is rather like an audience of ancient Greeks - accustomed to the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides - suddenly confronted by the works of James Joyce. Neither able to understand English, nor familiar with the "stream of consciousness" style of writing, the Greek audience hears only gibberish. Should the Greek be expected to learn English and modernism before attending the theater, or should the theater producer have selected the work of someone who writes - with an individual voice, by all means - in the language of the audience?

Bach, Brahms, and Debussy spoke with individual voices within a common language (tonality), the serialists discarded that language and began speaking in one all their own. In other words, rather than working to find their own voices within a language with infinite expressive possibilities the serialists arrogantly declared the "end of tonality" and invented a new language with no way in for the concertgoer (generally lacking a degree in advanced mathematics), who blithely assumes that music should be pleasing to the ear. 75 years on, the audience has declared to the composer: "Who cares if you write?"

Though it makes a case passionately, it seems to me that the analogy and history are both extreme.

The number of elements serial music has in common with other forms of nonpop are as many as its differences. It uses the same orchestrations, forms, concepts of thematic variations, gestures, and textures. It differed increasingly (but not instantly!) in areas of melody, harmony, and eventually texture. It's as if, over a half-century, those Greeks had their own Joyce in their native tongue, increasingly inventing manners of speech -- but rarely appearing on stage, and always couched in a surround of The Old Plays. Each time that Greek Joyce appeared, the presentation seemed more foreign to an audience who could by now lip-sync the words they already knew.

Which gets to the history. Music separated very slowly into several paths at a time when recording made it possible for lay listeners to live exclusively in the past if they so chose. This period lasted (if you think of Riley's In C as the end of it) somewhat more than fifty years -- certainly not taking place abruptly. Consider that simultaneously working were Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich, Barber, Webern, Cage, Sibelius, Hovhaness, Thomson, Menotti, Poulenc, Copland, Prokofiev, Bartók, Respighi, Carter, Harrison, Varèse, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Seeger, Messiaen, Milhaud, Martin, Cowell, Britten, Stravinsky, and Partch, overlapping with Richard Strauss, Puccini, Lili Boulanger and Rachmaninoff on one end and Penderecki, Babbitt, Xenakis, Wuorinen, Zappa, Stockhausen, Nono, Bernstein and Boulez on the other. That's just a handful of the big names during a very, very, very long fifty years.

It was not at all a monolithic time, and there was no arrogant declaration -- unless you consider Schoenberg's Suite für Klavier to be that declaration, or the declaration that serialism is arrogant not to be itself an arrogant of the opposite point of view. :) And do read the Babbitt article in context -- it's much more considered than it's made out to be. (Our postmodernist era looks at predicting the artistic future with bemusement, but it's a long tradition in music. If predicting one's own theory as the future is arrogant, then so be it. It ain't ending any time soon.)

Likewise, Schoenberg did not himself snap into some contagious madness. Familiar approaches to composition truly were at a breaking point and had been since Wagner and Mahler, and composers dealt with that break very differently. For Schoenberg, it was nearly a quarter century and almost 70 compositions from Verklarte Nacht in 1899 to the Suite für Klavier in 1924, through the Five Orchestral Pieces in 1909 and Pierrot Lunaire in 1912. And that's Schoenberg alone, who remained at heart a Viennese romantic in all of his writing.

If you consider the abbreviated list of composers above, you can see how each made their break with the past, and which elements from the 'common language' you speak of that they kept and discarded. The tonal Messiaen is not like the tonal Respighi is not like the tonal Poulenc is not like the tonal Copland. The serial Berg is not like the serial Dallapiccola is not like the serial Boulez is not like the serial Babbitt. Stravinsky and Seeger worked in multiple ways, including atonality and serialism; Stravinsky's serial Anthem: The Dove Descending is exquisite, as my erstwhile and very hard-to-convince church choir would tell you. It's all in the listening and experience. At what point does it cross the line into unacceptable?

I'm not saying that the composers were all pleasant about it, whatever approach they took. Neither were Haydn or Beethoven or Wagner, the latter an ultimate example of arrogating artistic power his own way. And the opening eight measures of the choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth or the "Chaos" section of Haydn's Creation are hardly 'pleasing to the ear,' yet perfectly accepted in their context. We are contextual beings. If the music is far from our context (total serialism in its late stages, for example, dismissed by both capitalist culture and marxist theory, or Gwen Stefani dismissed by an aging Eagles-saturated rocker), then no appeal to either intellect or patience is going to make a shred of difference. And there were and are enough bruised egos to go around to create a great political morass as well.

That history is not a simple one, a with-us-or-against-us proposition.


And finally, this from composer Mary Jane Leach:

I happen to like Babbitt's music. The problem is (and was), that it's just easier to talk about the objective things in music, and that is a handle on his and other's like him that is easy to grasp (easy, that is, if numbers are easy for you). Unfortunately, not everyone had the subjective/artistic side together as well as he did, so that type of music suffered in reputation (to say nothing of suffering from bad, inflexible performances). If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, perhaps dodecaphonic music was the refuge of unartistic composers. ;-)

Take that, you fraudsters!

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Tomorrow: A piece for four-mallet marimba. Gotta sleep to do that!

Amtrak in snow
Amtrak in snow a few years ago, at the crossing a few hundred feet from our front door. I love trains.

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