Friday, 23 September 2011

Minority pursuits

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Minority pursuits
I.M. Milton Babbitt, 1916-2011

The world has been making do without Milton Babbitt since 29 January this year. I came to Babbitt far too late: his music first caught my attention little more than a year ago, which illustrates how careless and unsystematic my listening has been. To some extent I can plead a natural progression of interests: five or six years ago I realised that I had the material capacity to explore and develop my longstanding fascination with electronic and electroacoustic music; since then I’ve been attempting to train myself in just about every aspect of music-making, and the study of serial composition techniques came up along the way. From Reginald Smith Brindle’s 1966 text Serial Composition I eventually ended up at Milton Babbitt’s critical writing and started to explore his musical language. I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover how engaging, lively, and profoundly satisfying Babbitt’s music is, but I was, because I had allowed myself to cultivate a relatively narrow field of musical interests. I grew up listening to radio programmes hosted by people who had been (as I can see in retrospect) profoundly influenced by the neoclassical and nationalist strains of twentieth century music: who had ‘been through the Boulangerie’, as Babbitt once put it. The notion that one could describe serialism with words like ‘engaging’ and ‘lively’ never crossed my mind until I began my own study of the stuff. This, too, ought not to be surprising: most music tends to sound better once you become aware of what it’s doing, either by long exposure, your own musical practice, or a certain amount of specialised study.
Those familiar with Babbitt’s career – and specifically with the aspect of it that was most visible to the general public – will recall that he got into trouble over the notion of specialisation. Any time someone offers a summing-up of his ideas about music, there’s always a mention of the article he wrote under the title ‘The Composer as Specialist’ but that High Fidelity magazine published (in 1958) as ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ – a tag-line that followed him around for the rest of his life. The point behind Babbitt’s preferred title was simple enough: why not look on advanced musical composition as a specialised activity like advanced physics or engineering – something that naturally requires a certain amount of familiarity with the field on the part of a potential audience? His ultimate goal in the essay was to argue for an ‘academic’ music based in the university system, analogous to pure research in the physical sciences: something of little obvious practical utility, which most people will find obscure and irrelevant to their lives, but which contributes to the sum of knowledge in the field, and without which no real innovation or development is possible. Babbitt’s 1958-vintage faith in the university system is probably no longer tenable (not least because the university system as it was in 1958 no longer exists), but the basic conception of specialised activity as being something one must prepare both to perform and to receive is well worth remembering. It also happens to be one possible way to conceive of taste and sensibility, neither of which comes into being without effort.
In his 1958 essay, Babbitt wrote about withdrawing from the arena of public performance: about pursuing the music itself without being concerned about ‘the public and social aspects of musical composition’. That said, he did not go so far as to suggest that advanced music need not be performed at all: he simply located the ideal venue of performance in a semi-private, cloistered space. Babbitt was forever being accused of being an elitist, but to say he was by virtue of the nature of his work a member of a more or less involuntary and beleaguered elite would be closer to the truth. By writing deliberate, serious, and thoroughly composed music, he naturally fell to the side of what a mass audience probably wants – or rather, what the people who curate the idea of a mass audience chose to conceive as being the wants of this audience: an audience in no small measure invented by the said curators as the object of their own professional and commercial interests. The experience of hearing Babbitt’s music is much like that of hearing Babbitt himself conduct a conversation: not in terms of what he said, but in the structure of his speech. He spoke in long, flowing sentences, branching and diverging, taking up minor points and running them to ground before re-establishing what he originally had to say. Babbitt sentences were, as he spoke them, intricate structures that seemed to spread out beyond what one breath could contain, but which ultimately demonstrated cohesion and direction. The past tense is a concession to the tragedy that there will be no new Babbitt sentences, just as there will be no new Babbitt compositions, to read or hear; but what he left behind will remain a powerful evocation of the composer’s unique sensibility and taste.
The same commercial media that give us easy opportunities to write and publish blogs also make it very easy to write our own music, and realise performances of it in electronic form, and people are taking up writing and composing in droves. At the same time, neither writing nor composing is as easy as it seems; and as the managers of our new media delight in serving the markets they create, how-to publications and do-it-yourself kits abound. In terms of music, much of this advice involves the latest versions of common practice tonality; as well it might, because tonality is everywhere around us, in popular music, in the music that serves as a soundtrack or background to everyday life, and even in the chirruping of telephones and other electronic gadgets. It’s always faster to plug into something ready-made than it is to develop a language from scratch, and it sounds nice, too. In this respect, tonality is like the super-glue that comes with a plastic model kit: given the right bits and pieces, if you get the chord progressions right, you’re writing music. The forms of electronic music that currently enjoy mass appeal can be built up at home from an ever-expanding supply of made-to-order sounds meant to ease the kit-building process: synthesisers and sample-based instruments pre-programmed with timbres, rhythms, and fragments of melodies ready for use in producing one’s own version of the most popular styles and genres. Here we should recall that the early appeal of electronic music was not in the novelty and timbral richness of the sounds it could produce, and certainly not in the medium’s ease of use, but in the degree of control the technology allowed the composer to have over the finished work. Such control was particularly important in Babbitt’s approach to serial techniques, where every aspect of a composition could be approached via a set of organizing principles that had been devised uniquely and exclusively for that piece of music. The great achievement of this form of serialism is the understanding that each work can be made utterly unique, referring to nothing outside itself: that each musical composition involves the creation of a new world. As distinct from music that relies on traditional practice to support itself, his is a music that relies on its own structure, its own underlying principles, to develop: music that is as much itself as it can possibly be, and that contains as much of itself as it can. This kind of music demands exhaustive work put in by the composer, so as to determine what a specific piece can be. What are the possibilities inherent in a particular combination of intervallic relationships? The composer’s role is to discover as much of this potential as can be found, and to give the music as much development as possible. Ultimately, the virtues of such music grow from the force of personality that went into making it: the composer’s sensibility has been brought to bear on every aspect of every sound. Babbitt’s sentences are difficult to understand if one only half listens to them, and his music is difficult to understand in much the same way. This is music that should be experienced in toto: to allow its systems of internal relationships to unfold and draw us in; and to listen for what the music has to say about itself. Each piece is an essay in being, expressing its own intrinsic shape, which is itself a reflection of the mind that created it: a very pure form of minority pursuit, in that the composition pursues the mind of the composer, as the composer pursues the composition; and the listener’s own experience as the composition unfolds becomes the best possible guide to interpreting the music. As we listen, as we read, as with all experience, only a constant process of refining our own taste and sensibility can help us to bring a sense of order to what we perceive, as each of us become minorities of one.
I wager that it’s fairly rare for people to actively seek out the minority position: most of us end up stumbling into it, and being by degrees surprised and dismayed by what we find here. Interviews with Milton Babbitt conducted in the past ten or twenty years present us with a man who always worked passionately for what he understood to be the things most worthy of commanding his interest and attention – and he was passionately interested in a very wide range of things indeed, including beer and baseball, popular songs of the 1920s, and the combinatorial potential of tone rows. He was a thoroughly grown-up intellectual, who had the misfortune to grow older in the context of a culture that had come to value youthful instincts more highly than mature refinement. But that, of course, is just what happens to people – not to all people, and perhaps not even to most people, but to the fascinating and endlessly stimulating minority that until 29 January of this year included Milton Babbitt as a living eminence. He seemed to accept the minority position more or less gracefully, while being a clear-eyed and properly strict critic of the sillier things the majority gets up to. All in all, his was a condition to admire and to aspire to.