Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)
Arie da Capo (1974)
for Flute, Clarinet (doubling Bass Clarinet), Violin, Cello and Piano
The Group for Contemporary Music; Harvey Sollberger
I have often heard musicians speak of Babbitt’s music as music composed of fragments. If one hears the music as fragmented, one will certainly produce fragmented sounds. Each sound could be compared to a bolt or screw or sprocket in a great machine, having no awareness beyond its immediate function. In complex music such as Babbitt’s, which is filled with an enormous amount of local detail, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. […] The work is a polyphonic web of independent lines, but the lines all work hand in hand to create a flowing and graceful piece of music.
- Scotto, ‘Preparing a perfomance of Babbitt’s Arie da Capo’, Perspectives of New Music, 1988.
It often has been remarked that only in politics and the “arts” does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated “I didn’t like it” from further scrutiny. 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 left undisturbed. If the concertgoer is at all versed in the ways of musical lifesmanship, he also will offer reasons for his “I didn’t like it” - in the form of assertions that the work in question is “inexpressive,” “undramatic,” “lacking in poetry,” etc., etc., tapping that store of vacuous equivalents hallowed by time for: “I don’t like it, and I cannot or will not state why.” The concertgoer’s critical authority is established beyond the possibility of further inquiry. Certainly he is not responsible for the circumstance that musical discourse is a never-never land of semantic confusion, the last resting place of all those verbal and formal fallacies, those hoary dualisms that have been banished from rational discourse. Perhaps he has read, in a widely consulted and respected book on the history of music, the following: “to call him (Tchaikovsky) the ‘modern Russian Beethoven’ is footless, Beethoven being patently neither modern nor Russian…” Or, the following, by an eminent “nonanalytic” philosopher: “The music of Lourie’ is an ontological music … It is born in the singular roots of being, the nearest possible juncture of the soul and the spirit…” How unexceptionable the verbal peccadilloes of the average concertgoer appear beside these masterful models. Or, perhaps, in search of “real” authority, he has acquired his critical vocabulary from the pronouncements of officially “eminent” composers, whose eminence, in turn, is founded largely upon just such assertions as the concertgoer has learned to regurgitate. This cycle is of slight moment in a world where circularity is one of the norms of criticism. Composers (and performers), wittingly or unwittingly assuming the character of “talented children” and “inspired idiots” generally ascribed to them, are singularly adept at the conversion of personal tastes into general principles. Music they do not like is “not music,” composers whose music they do not like are “not composers.”
- Babbitt, ‘Who cares if you listen?’ in High Fidelity, 1958.
My title for the article [cited above] was ‘The Composer as Specialist,’ not thereby identifying that role of the composer in which he necessarily revelled, but in which, necessarily, he found himself. The editor, without my knowledge and - therefore - my consent or assent, replaced my title by the more “provocative” one: ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ a title which reflects little of the letter and nothing of the spirit of the article. For all that the true source of that offensively vulgar title has been revealed many times, in many ways, even - eventually - by the offending journal itself, I still am far more likely to be known as the author of “Who Cares if You Listen?” than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen.
- Babbitt, ‘A Life of Learning’, Charles Homer Haskins Lectures, 1991.
ed: Interestingly, Babbitt also admits to having met Albert Einstein on a number of occasions and having taught an analysis of the popular jazz standard All the Things You Are to a harmony class.
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