(Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw. One of the most terrifying, and moving, pieces of music ever written. Wagnerian Grandiosity tied to serial technique. It cannot be denied, this is extremely human music.)
Boulez always likes to say that Shostakovich is like a third olive-oil pressing of Mahler. I disagree vehemently with that statement, but if there's any truth to it at all, then Babbitt can be said to be a similar third pressing of Schoenberg. After listening to Babbitt, Schoenberg sounds downright coherent. I don't think Schoenberg was even one of the greatest talents of his own generation (those would be Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg). He was not the great genius the world touts him to be, nor was he the monster of little old ladies' imaginations. He was simply a very good composer who developed a single, extraordinarily powerful, idea that served him extraordinarily well. His music is the beginning of the very dark conclusion to the Austro-German line. In Schoenberg's music, I hear the disintegration of a civilization very clearly. This is by no means mechanical music. It is extremely human, and what it communicates is despair. When musicians are being honest with themselves, I'm sure they wouldn't disagree.
(Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments. His music contains the most pure interrelationships between notes since the early Rennaissance. It can be chillingly beautiful, but how can you figure out the interrelationships by listening? Because much of his music, at least the serial stuff, doesn't give you much else to concentrate on except to figure them out.)
It's one of the ironies of music that atonal and dodecaphonic music, the most hyper-controlled music ever put to page, sounds as chaotic as any unorganized noise. It produced some very human music, but it did so through an anti-human process. For a thousand years, the primary way of communicating music was to write it in a score, and like a cathedral the greatest scores were built cell-by-cell, brick-by-brick, each cell intimately related to what came before, what comes after, and what it overlaps with. Small four-note cells ('motifs') are turned upside down, backward, upside-down backward, modulated, transposed, and everything in between in an infinity of possible combinations. Perhaps it was inevitable that eventually, some composer would focus just on the inter-relationships and not on making them sound at harmony with one another. Once you stop caring about coherance of the inter-relationships to the human ear, there is an infinity more of relationships between the notes to explore. It can turn into a kind of weird fetish, fascinating in its way, but divorced from the reality of human expression. If Schoenberg's music can perhaps sound like an aural equivalent to the horrors of World War, Fascism, and the Holocaust, then perhaps Milton Babbitt sounds like the aural equivalent of Dr. Strangelove.
(look at Babbitt's score. Every note is hyper-controlled. Would you ever know how much effort goes into it without the score? I think I can hear the interrelationships - though I'm not sure. But now that I do hear them, why do I care?)