January 30, 2011

IF I CAN'T UNDERSTAND YOUR PHYSICS, YOU WON'T UNDERSTAND MY MUSIC:

Milton Babbitt, a Composer Who Gloried in Complexity, Dies at 94 (ALLAN KOZINN, 1/30/11, NY Times)

[A]lthough colleagues who worked in atonal music objected when their music was described as cerebral or academic, Mr. Babbitt embraced both terms and came to be regarded as the standard-bearer of the ultrarational extreme in American composition.

That reputation was based in part on an article published by High Fidelity magazine in February 1958 under the title “Who Cares if You Listen?” The headline was often cited as evidence of contemporary composers’ disregard for the public’s sensibilities, and Mr. Babbitt objected that it had been added by an editor, without his permission. But whatever his objections, the article did argue that contemporary composition was a business for specialists, on both the composing and listening end of the transaction, and that the general public’s objections were irrelevant.

“Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity?” Mr. Babbitt wrote. “The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.”


The problem is not that he and his peers were contemptuous of the audience but that they held Art itself in contempt. Rather than trying to express universal ideas about Creation they withdrew into themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2011 7:54 PM
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