--Miles Davis, in response to a woman who complained
that she didn't understand what he was playing
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Does it matter if we care if you listen?
Over fifty years ago, In February of 1958, Milton Babbitt wrote an article discussing the role of the composer in society. It was originally titled "The Composer as Specialist" which his editor apparently thought was a snooze, and changed it to "Who Cares If You Listen?" The article seems much more reasonable in tone than that title suggests, and brings up several good points, but it is a troubling article from a troubled period nonetheless. Babbitt came to the conclusion that it was of no special concern whether or not composers of 'serious' or 'art' music got a hearing from more than a few of their colleagues and that their music did not owe anything to a larger public. There have been and of course continue to be those who disagree. Indeed, much of the musical discourse from the middle of the twentieth century concerned whether or not music ought to be (easily) comprehensible by the man on the street or if the man on the street ought to apply himself to an appreciation, even enjoyment, of whatever the composer dished out. In the Soviet Union, composers like Shostakovich and Prokoffiev got themselves in official hot water for writing music that was too advanced and difficult for their public--words like 'formalism' and 'insidious western influences' are, in some respects, code for going their own way rather than seeing music as primarily a tool for propaganda. Propaganda is only effective if it works its charms on large numbers of people without any specialized knowledge, and yet, like curious specialists in any field, these composers would often apply the latest musical ideas and experiment with them in their works. Music that stayed simple and could be whistled and hummed was more likely to serve the interest of Soviet officials, and they made sure their artists knew it. And in the United States, the gulf between the composers who worked in academia and those who were commercial successes was felt to be growing wider. Any number of movies from the postwar period play some variation on the theme that Chopin is okay and all, but give me something I can dance to. Elitism is out and populism is in (was it ever any different?). And yet Milton Babbitt felt that there wasn't really any problem with that. Unlike many composers who believed that the public needed to get with their programs, Babbitt was of the opinion that such a chasm was inevitable--even desirable. Let's look in on a few paragraphs. We'll start with this one, which sums up the situation in which composers of the last century seem often to have found themselves:
"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....The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in his music....Towards this condition of musical and societal "isolation," a variety of attitudes has been expressed, usually with the purpose of assigning blame....It is my contention that...this condition is not only inevitable, but potentially advantageous for the composer and his music. From my point of view, the composer would do well to consider means of realizing, consolidating and extending the advantages."
Babbitt's tone is far less polemical than many of his predecessors. Nowhere does he say 'damn the public, full speed ahead!' In fact, he is going to spend a good portion of the article letting the public off the hook. There is a reason that music is not understood or treasured by vast armies of ordinary people these days, he says. In the previous half-century, so many changes and innovations occurred in music, "revolutions" as he calls them, that it is no wonder the general layman can't keep up.
"Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me to be indefensible."
This, unfortunately, would deprive much of humanity of its inalienable right to criticize (without understanding). And it would rob the situation of controversy, if, let us suppose, the two sides, the specialist composers, and their uninterested public, simply decided to go their separate ways. Even Babbitt's editor, sensing he was making peace with the situation, decided he had better fan the flames a bit by providing a mocking title.
Babbitt could be content to allow this apparent rupture to continue, however, for some interesting reasons. While many were bemoaning the 'retreat to the ivory tower'--composers who taught at universities, and whose music did not filter beyond those outposts of thought and experimentation--Babbitt was not only a university professor, he was a professor of mathematics AND music. Which called to mind for him this interesting parallel:
"Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on "Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms." At the conclusion, he announces: "I didn't like it." Social conventions being what they are in such circles, someone might dare inquire: "Why not?" Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer's voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is undisturbed."
Then Babbitt wonders what would happen if the same situation were to occur involving a musical concert of similar difficulty to the average mind. His layman again is unable to critique the substance of the material presented, he is simply displeased by the general effect of the experience he has just had, and decides it is the fault of the music. His example may seem petulant or condescending, but Babbitt is not castigating the layman for his failure to understand. Why should he? The music in question represents some of the most advanced musical thinking of human beings. In a field like mathematics it is common, he observes, to come across statements in newspapers to the effect that only a handful of minds in the world are capable of comprehending what is being discussed among its leading figures. But in music, it is assumed that each new musical development should be presentable, and intelligible, to everyone. This is a double standard he finds unacceptable.
If you are familiar with Babbitt and his music, it might not be difficult to know why the article had its critics. Babbitt's music is a kind of highly developed atonality which is about the last thing the public has any sympathy for. Some composers were pushing back against it, too, among them a man named George Rochberg. He believed Babbitt's position was an extension of the idea of science for the sake of science, and in a far more strident article, spoke out against the consequences of pursuing knowledge without worrying about where its application might lead. Babbitt had suggested that composers ought to be free to pursue their musical research without the necessity of being able to immediately apply their findings, much as the sciences are able to do. Being divorced from the general public and the demands of a profit motive, a composer would be free to pursue original musical thinking which might, or might not, be influential on the subsequent course of musical history.
These ideas might also, in time, filter down into more public channels. Babbitt does not develop this theme, but it is fascinating to observe how the ideas, musical and otherwise, of original minds eventually become the common property of large segments of humanity. A composer might use harmony in a way never before heard, be denounced by critics and shunned by the public, and yet, fifty or a hundred years later, those ideas, usually in greatly simplified and less concentrated form, are present in the techniques of composers who write for more public consumption.
For instance, cluster chords. I've recently had two experiences where a choir of amateurs has serenely ended a composition with a major chord containing an added note which did not belong to the chord--the second degree of the scale. They were singing wrong notes in both cases--the composers had not asked for the harmonic intrusion, but they seemed unaware of this fact, so accustomed were their ears to the phenomenon of these 'modern' chords. We have, in the last few decades, come to accept harmonic complexities that would have been unacceptable a short time ago. I can go back to a time when any choir guilty of singing what did not resemble a pure major chord at the end of the piece would have immediately corrected itself or stopped singing. But, having finished pieces in this contemporary way on several occasions, composers have trained their singers to accept this more ambiguous ending. Perhaps a few of them even enjoy it.
Other harmonic innovations have had a rockier road. The modes give amateurs difficultly, even though they are among the friendlier innovations. The modes actually go back to antiquity, but, having disappeared from the musical vocabulary in the 17th and 18th centuries (and mostly from the 16th and 19th as well), their reemergence over a hundred year ago counts, in recent times, as an idea that was at first the practice of only a few specialist composers. This music with what sounds like altered notes in various parts of the scale to most ears is most often unconsciously refashioned into the more familiar major or minor by an amateur singer, who seemingly has not allowed their ubiquitous presence in movies and on television to affect his or her music making habits.
Chromaticism has never really taken hold, though it was perhaps the greatest project of European composers in the 19th century. The half-step is difficult for people to sing, and too many of them together still seem to fill people with suspicion, or dread. It is no accident that the Phantom of the Opera's primary theme is a series of half-steps. Unfortunately, this means that a whole order of musical innovations and types is off limits to some ears. What has become second year music theory to students--all those lovely chords that allow us to pass from one central pitch to another, that deepen and broaden the emotional response to a melodic turn, that give music a richer vocabulary--all those wonderful harmonies are still unknown to the greater bulk of mankind; perhaps they will have to wait their turn to gain broader acceptance, like other 19th century ideas (such as evolution). Most popular music makes do without them.
Which means that, when composers decided in the twentieth century that the tonal system, rich and complex as it had become, was no longer adequate, and forged ahead with an idea for a music in which all tones were forcibly equal (along with dynamic, rhythmic, and coloristic schemes), it was like dabbling in differential calculus among a people who were still not sure algebra was such a good idea. No wonder that people were not interested. And, given that we are a species that funnels vast amounts of data through small filters (i.e., stereotyping) and give our attention to those things which cause the most controversy, it is not so surprising that when people think of 'modern music,' as varied as it is, they often think of the type that Babbitt and his colleagues were exploring, and seek to have as little to do with it as possible.
Babbitt did not choose the path of the bully: others have, and whether or not they have been successful in improving the musical diet among their fellows is up for debate. It is never a popular thing to tell some section of the public that they are inadequate in some area. An influential critic named Dwight tried it during the 19th century in Boston. He was convinced that Beethoven and his ilk stood for what was finest in music, and believed that the public taste must be improved until they agreed with him. By Gallup poll standards at least it didn't work, and he had many enemies, some among professional musicians (Gottschalk was one of them; somewhat like a 19th century Liberace, he was too much matinee idol and not enough explorer of the musical profundities for Dwight, though he protested that he would play more advanced music when the public was ready for it).
Hector Berlioz was another who dared to tell the public that if they didn't like something it wasn't necessarily the composer's fault. In a famous review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony he suggested that the problem might with their own lack of understanding. (he was impressed with the young Gottschalk, by the way)
The fact that both of these fellows come to us from the 19th century reminds us that the strain between the advanced, specialist composer, and the vast musically unlettered public is not very new; and that the tension has been building since the end of the 18th century. It seemed to most participants in the mid-20ths century incarnation of the debate to have reached a new strata, however. Part of that can be traced to the new role of the composer as an independent entity, and a public impresario. Before the 19th century most composers worked for various royal personages, who had their own private orchestras and did not share its productions with the public. But even then there were possibilities for conflict. Haydn censored himself at least once while writing a symphony, crossing out a modulation he decided was too clever and writing: "This was for too learned ears!" Bach, whose congregations would not be comprised of musical cognoscenti, was sometimes on the receiving end of complaints that his music was too complicated. Most of the general public today still does not touch the music of either of these with a ten foot pole, though the musically literate class has decided they are to be celebrated.
So when Babbitt suggests a retreat behind the walls of the university, he is in some respects suggesting a return to an earlier era, before Mozart, who was largely supported by a small band of rich and relatively knowledgeable patrons, but also depended on the larger public for the success of his operas. Mozart attempted to straddle these worlds, once writing proudly to his father that a piano concerto of his could be appreciated both by the musically knowledgeable and the untutored layman. Mozart needed public approval to thrive, if not to survive. Once a politically changed Europe and America created a class of people who could demand with their money based on their own middle-class expectations, the era of the commercially successful or unsuccessful composer was born. Ever since most artists are faced with a choice: be marketable or do something else.
This atmosphere has created the diversity of attitudes that Babbitt mentions in his article. When there is a lack of musical satisfaction among the public, is it the fault of the composer? Or the public? Or even the critics? Rather than assign blame Babbitt advocates for the separation of public and composer. Politically, it is impossible to return to the days of powerful and theoretically well-educated patrons among the ruling class, although a quick glance at an orchestra program's list of sponsors with show that they are still there, of a fashion. Instead, it is the natural province of intellectually advanced persons and their productions, in music or anything else, to gather at the university. There the composer can investigate peacefully wherever his muse takes him, and the public can breathe easily knowing they won't be bothered. Case closed.
Is it? For some composers that would never be an acceptable option. In whatever way and to whatever extent, they are there among the public at large, whether motivated by desire for fame, or money, or the desire to communicate something of value to more than a handful of brilliant colleagues. And it can certainly be argued that the removal of the musical brain trust does not do a favor for society. Education is not something that is accepted without struggle, and without possessing dissatisfaction about our current level of knowledge, or being forced to develop our minds in some way (how many children would go to school if we didn't make them?) Perhaps we need our bullies: someone has to hold up a yardstick and tell us we aren't there yet. A few of us will listen, anyway. The rest, determined that the customer is king and that the royal realm is in no need of expansion, will probably excuse themselves on the grounds that their 'accusers' are just a bunch of pretentious, cheerless souls who suck the joy out of life.
The practical results of this collision are that advanced, or serious, music is still, and probably always will be, a minority interest: the concert hall is barely filled, and it seats far fewer than the football stadium. But there is a curious relationship between the serious composer and the public: many of the ideas of the musically bold, the original, the seekers after new methods, end up in the public stream many years after their discovery. Composers for movies and television seldom make any innovations themselves, but they do study the works of the 'investigators' in their field, and, to some degree, appropriate their findings. It isn't any accident that the music from Star Wars sounds in places like Holst, or Prokoffiev, or Mahler. (and not just because Williams imitates his classical forebears generally in his scores: in this instance George Lucas played various classical pieces for him and told him to imitate them, using his own "Star Wars" themes!) I can hardly go to a movie without hearing the echoes of 'serious' composers of the past. Usually it takes about 50 years or more for the composers who write for the public and for money to begin sounding like those pioneers whose busts adorn the halls of the conservatory. But it is an almost inevitable process, if a slow one.
Meanwhile, at a university or concert hall near you, a small number of composers are pursuing their musical researches, lending support to the elite members of their guild in every generation, the musical giants who are truly original and whose musical gifts and discipline enables them to see farther and to travel further than their colleagues. Each of them contributes his or her own voice to the musical discourse, one that sounds like no other, while at the same time building on, and being indebted to, the musical 'scholarship' of the past. Eventually their 'findings' will translate into the musical language of their fellows and make their way, in filtered form, to the broad stream of the public, which will slowly come to accept what was once too radical for the common ear. This curious negotiation is helped in part because the edges are softened, the more cohesive elements are lost (meaning that less careful listening is required to 'get the point'), and the music does not demand lone billing but is mostly part of a multimedia experience. Still, whether the public knows it or not, it is, in some small way, listening to Beethoven at the box office. In droves.