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Vol. LXV, No. 6
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
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Soundscapes and Mosaics: Milton Babbitt’s Empire of the Ear

Stuart Mitchner

Then music, the mosaic of the air,
Did of all these a solemn noise prepare;
With which she gained the empire of the ear,
Including all between the earth and sphere…

Andrew Marvell, from “Music’s Empire”

People began to hear things that they had never heard before.

Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)

It was a Princeton moment.

“Milton Babbitt!” the nurse called. We were in the waiting room of the Princeton Medical Group. I looked to my right and there he was. The only other time I’d seen him had been in Richardson Auditorium at a May 2004 Seminar on Beauty, his presence amplified by the astounding piece of music he’d set loose in the hall with, in effect, the push of a button. Then, as if he were moderating a musical version of the old anthropological panel show What in the World, he asked the rhetorical question “What was that?” and told us that we had just heard a recording of the first three measures of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan. I don’t remember his exact words, but his point was that the Tristan chord represents the opening salvo, the first stroke, the beginning of 20th-century music. The same note is sounded in Milton Babbitt: Words About Music. “Of course Schoenberg knew Tristan full well. Everybody knew this piece cold. It was their ‘Melancholy Baby.’ Just in the first three measures, things are already beginning to develop.”

By casually transporting Wagner and Schoenberg to Tin Pan Alley with that reference to the classic night club drunk’s all time favorite request, Babbitt is implying what he admitted in a 2002 Modern Mavericks interview, that his “early influences were largely in popular music” and that he “began writing pop songs by the carload” when he was “about six.” He also confessed to knowing “popular song lyrics of the period from 1926 to the early 1930’s that you wouldn’t believe.” On a 1972 WQXR broadcast he portrayed himself as “a walking encyclopedia” of theater music from the same period by virtue of “playing it, writing it, and living it.”

Babbitt was also, in the words of a February 3 Los Angeles Times tribute by Mark Swed, “one of music’s great wits,” and no wonder, with that allusion to “Melancholy Baby” and with compositions titled, “Four Play,” “The Joy of More Sextets,” and “Swan Song No. 1.” As if to counter the accepted wisdom that Babbitt’s music was remote and cerebral, Swed quoted the composer’s former student Stephen Sondheim, who said “the revelation in studying with Babbitt was learning that the way to the heart was through the head.”

The Milton Babbitt I saw in the waiting room that day looked not unlike the man in the photo accompanying the Los Angeles Times tribute, same snowy hair, same glasses with black frames. Except that the photo shows the composer in his glory, at the 2005 Boston Symphony premiere of his Concerti for Orchestra, where he’s being congratulated by a bearish, beaming James Levine while the violinists stand by like members of the court, their bows upraised in a sort of orchestral salute, as if a royal moment were being enacted. Summoned by the nurse, the man in the waiting room looks fragile and wary, just another patient enduring the same lifelong succession of doctors offices, lab tests, and “procedures” we all have to submit to sooner or later.

Who Cares?

The obituaries give the impression that Babbiit’s music is difficult, intimidatingly complex, and beyond the reach of, as Babbitt himself puts it, “the layman,” “the normally well-educated man.” Nor is music such as his to be included in “the whistling repertory of the man in the street,” and “the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture.” The public, after all, “does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by.” Those edicts are from Babbitt’s most quoted piece of writing, one in which he defends the serious composer’s right to be an “anachronism” operating in a realm incomprehensible to that concert-going “consumer” who yet feels qualified to express definitive opinions about it, “secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated ‘I didn’t like it’ from further scrutiny.” A two-part cartoon illustrating the fallacy Babbitt’s contending with would show a person beaming, with the caption, “I just love the quantum theory!” and frowning, with the caption, “I simply can’t stand all this business about ‘Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.’“

Babbitt’s “The Composer as Specialist” appeared in 1958 in High Fidelity magazine, which, without asking the author, retitled it, “Who Cares if You Listen?” While Babbitt had reason to feel offended by the changed title, the editors were only improvising on the overstatement he’d employed to make his point. “Of course, I do care if you listen,” he says in the Modern Mavericks interview, “above all I care how you listen!” The article concludes by noting that if difficult music is not “supported,” it “will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”

Music in Motion

What I care about is knowing that while there are no CDs of Periodic Homeomorphisms I could put in the car stereo or on the Bose Wave, even if I wanted to, I can go to the library, check out a CD of Milton Babbitt’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and listen to it while driving my Honda CRV through the winter-blasted streets of Princeton. Driving to Babbitt’s music has its advantages. There are times when what’s going on in the music seems strangely and excitingly in synch with what’s happening in the moving picture of reality the listener and the car are traversing. The designedly unpredictable nature of Babbitt’s soundscape stimulates the eyes and the ears simultaneously, until it almost seems that he’s created an equivalent for every random tangent and distraction, the ebb and flow of the living world, whether it’s a pretty girl jogging on your left, her ponytail dancing, or the sudden swift flash of a low-flying bird on your right, or the way the sunlight shines on the frozen snow banks lining Witherspoon Street. Whatever their mathematical provenance, Babbitt’s maneuvers seem closer to the actual flux of life, its quirks and imperfections, than something more familiar and emotionally accessible, such as a love song or a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, an overture by Wagner.

“This is Scary”

The extremes of response to Babbitt’s music can be seen in the messages posted by You Tube bloggers. For Philomel (1964), the vocal piece with libretto by John Hollander combining live and recorded soprano with synthesizer, the range goes from “This is scary and I hate it” to “You are all idiots. This is fantastic music.” In between, the comments are visceral, silly, obscene, and enlightened. While some bloggers live up to Sondheim’s notion of learning from Babbitt that “the way to the heart was through the head,” a fair number of entries on the voluminous blog bypass head and heart and had to be deleted according to a consensus (“this comment has received too many negative votes”).

Quoted in the Princeton University release on Babbitt’s January 29 death, his former student, Princeton professor and composer Paul Lansky, offers this advisory: “It is not the kind of music that you slide into easily. Its surfaces are dazzling and brilliant, and always sparkle,” and “it’s not always easy to apprehend the story that he is telling — it’s a complicated story, full of twists and turns and odd diversions. You don’t sit back and relish in the sound world — you have to lean forward and take it moment by moment. But when you do, it’s very exciting and quite brilliant.”

Besides Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (New World 1987), with Alan Feinberg on piano and Charles Wuorinen conducting the American Composer Orchestra, the library has The Joy of More Sextets (New World 1988), with Rolf Schulte on violin and Alan Feinberg on piano. As usual, the most direct route to the music is by way of YouTube.

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