Monday, January 31, 2011

Milton Babbitt: The Movie

(All Set - not bad, jazzy in the Ornette Coleman way)

NPR has posted what amounts to the World Premiere of a biographical film about Milton Babbitt. What instantly comes across is that Babbitt is an incredibly intelligent and personable man, and a brilliant teacher. The other quality communicated is that he is a composer who nearly destroyed all of his good pedagogical work. Babbitt wrote the ultimate ivory tower music, music composed by an unimpeachable godfather (in every sense) who ruled the roost of his own personal fiefdom for sixty years. When you have an endowed chair at Princeton, nobody in your field has enough gravitas to match your own. If Milton Babbitt says that a piece of music has worth, who are we to argue? And who are we to say that the music of such an intelligent man is over-rated? He's a Princeton Professor! Their first in music!

("Occasional Variations." His electronic music is his best. Sounds like Aphex Twin's rambling grandfather.)

Again and again, we hear all the same apologies for his music - the litany the music world hears all too often. 'It takes many hearings to appreciate,' 'the performances weren't good,' 'the music is actually beautiful if you learn how to listen to it,' 'he puts in little fragments of melodies,' 'the same things were said about Beethoven and Mozart in their day,' and jargonjargonjargonjargonjargon. History makes fools of us all, and all of these things might be true. But Milton Babbitt's music has been around for 65 years, and nobody but a musical insider's insider seems to have ever found genuine value in it. Professing to understand Babbitt, and a few others, is like an entry code into a musical club that demonstrates a rarefied level of musical understanding. Maybe it does, but I'm certainly not a member of that club, and nor would I want to be.

(Septet but Equal. I feel like I'm sharing these just for the titles, now we're getting into the stuff that sucks. Could even the best-trained musicians in the country discern any individuality in this music?)

Milton Babbitt's music is not terrible (some of it anyways...). It is, in its way, exquisitely crafted and sometimes quite entertaining. It's just not particularly original, individual or great. Pierre Boulez likes to complain about Shostakovich being a second or third pressing of Mahler. If that is true (and I disagree vehemently), then Milton Babbitt can certainly be seen as a second or third pressing of Schoenberg. I've listened to more serial music in my (admittedly rather young) lifetime than I ever care to admit. I've even enjoyed some of it (at least I think I did). But there is no denying that it is a musical dead end - an artificial system of creating music brought to us by people who can't bear the thought that music exists in ways the 19th century never dreamed of, and continued by people who are simply too untalented to write music that communicates something other than a generic mathematical process that can be done by anyone who understands (or at least professes to) the system.

(Fourplay. Funny title, lousy music.)

But the ultimate criticism of Babbitt is not to be found in his music, or anybody else's. It is in the thousands of music students who've ever felt intimidated by their professors into writing music in a style they hated. Students might protest that they didn't like it, but all the composition teacher had to do is to say that Babbitt (who probably taught them) or Elliott Carter was writing the only type of music worth writing in our era, everything else is crap. The professor assigns you the grade, so you're ultimately writing for him. But the losers in this bargain are everyone else. From all the potential composers who went through the rigors of atonal/serial composition, and then decided to sell insurance (a noble profession for frustrated composers), did we lose an American Schubert? An American Tallis?

We'll never know.

Dramatic 'Reading' of "Who Cares If You Listen."

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