The editor of High Fidelity magazine undoubtedly did Milton Babbitt a disservice by changing the title of his article Off the Cuff to Who Cares if You Listen? The latter title, according to a 2002 interview with Babbitt, was never his. He found it offensive and insisted that he did indeed care if you listened; specifically, he cared how you listen. The problem with this protest (other than that “Off the Cuff” is a terrible title and deserved to be changed) is that within the article Babbitt does not make the argument that how one listens matters. He argues, rather, that music of his kind is made for specialists, and that “lay listeners” have their own music and need not bother with his.
The origins of the article are further complicated when you consider that it came from a lecture Babbitt was asked to give by Aaron Copland in 1957 on “what it was like to be a composer in the university”. It began then from his stance as a composer within the university, because that is the question he was asked—whether to describe it, define it or defend it, at the very least to talk in general terms about it. So Babbitt was addressing from the first the question of what it was like to be in the position he was in. The inflammatory title, Who Cares if You Listen, is a provocation that the author did not necessarily intend. And there’s a certain irony in the reception of the article—which continues to be cited, as Anthony Tommasini put it in 1996 in the New York Times, “as evidence that [Babbitt] and his ilk are contemptuous of audiences”—an irony in that Babbitt was not properly educated in the details and nuances of being published in a popular magazine. He should have known that certain modifications to the text were required. Instead he asked that nothing be changed.
Be that as it may, I came to the text through Susan Scheid, who writes about music from the point of view of what she herself describes as a “lay listener”, lacking the kind of technical expertise extoled by Babbitt. Scheid has been subjected to the well-meaning charge by some of her readers that she is being unfair to herself, that her knowledge is indeed sufficient to write about music. She, in turn, has explained that she is not putting herself down, but, on the contrary, is engaging in a positive project: “I hope I can stand as an example of the notion that it’s not necessary to have any technical knowledge to engage with, understand, and above all, to love classical music. All that’s necessary is a pair of ears that can hear and the desire to listen.” Or, as she put it in a public facebook post, she is “claim[ing] a space for the non-musician listener as, to borrow John Metcalf’s words, part of the musical continuum, rather than being seen as an “outsider,” as some call non-musician listeners from time to time. I take seriously my responsibility to give music close attention and to keep my ears open.”
So I read the article, and it seemed to me right away that Babbitt’s big mistakes are misappropriation and exaggeration. He misappropriates the function of technical knowledge for the listener (it’s not necessary, as listeners prove every day), and he exaggerates the problem of poor listening such that he reaches the conclusion of sequestering a composer/researcher such as himself in academia, which, it might be argued, does not further the survival of serious art, but only helps to entrench an attitude of elitism with regard to serious art in general. Of course I can only say this from my point of view, as an independent artist and researcher outside academia, someone who, from Babbitt’s point of view, does not even have a stake in the issue, even though he published his article in a popular magazine.
Two big problems emerge here: 1) what exactly is serious art, and who is it for? and 2) what are the distinctions between serious art and the various discourses on it, and what significance might those distinctions have in terms of the first question?
I don’t propose to be able to answer the question of what constitutes serious art. But I’m willing to contend that Milton Babbitt’s music is an example of it. Moreover, I’m willing to contend that Babbitt has a perfect right to insist that his music should be listened to with the proper care and study that he outlines, even that it cannot be properly listened to otherwise (I have listened to some of it and find it engaging but very cerebral, so perhaps there’s something to be said for listening to it with one’s brain). I would suggest however that there are examples of serious music other than Babbitt’s, and that they make different demands on the listener—emotional ones, for example. A lack of technical knowledge has never impeded me from enjoying a profound engagement with the music of Arvo Pärt or Pat Metheny, two contemporary composers who might also be said to make serious music. If I were to pursue this line of argument, I would suggest that seriousness is not equivalent to Babbitt’s notion of technical complexity, but that simple forms of music can also be considered serious. However, for practical purposes we’ll have to allow the question to remain open.
It seems to me a matter of common sense that listening to music is not the same as talking about it or writing about it. Someone should be able to tell me why they like Bob Dylan, but I am not in a position to tell them they don’t really understand Dylan if words fail them or if I consider their response to be unsophisticated. Babbitt argues as if the degree of one’s articulation is equivalent to the degree of understanding. That’s not necessarily the case for the simple reason that music is not a verbal art. The discourse on music is a form of music appreciation distinct from, or in addition to listening itself. Babbitt might argue that I am not in position to judge our Dylan fan only because he has not given me anything to respond to. And here, I think, is the crux of the matter in terms of Babbitt’s frame: I might decide that this so-called Dylan fan is an idiot, not worth talking to; after all, they have nothing intelligent to offer. This is really the kind of person that arouses Babbitt’s ire-when ignorance and arrogance meet, when someone says, ‘I don’t know jack about egg-headed notions on art, but I know what I like and that’s good enough.’ It’s the type of person who doesn’t stop there, but feels qualified to judge art as good or bad, worthwhile or garbage based solely on the criterion of their first gut reaction. Artists of all walks have had, at one time or another, to put up with this repugnant combination of ignorance and arrogance.
Babbitt’s position that a sophisticated form of art requires a sophisticated “receptor” is perfectly reasonable. But there are different ways of acquiring that sophistication. The university is but one of them. Moreover, his solution—that the serious artist sequester himself in the university and say to hell with the public—can only deepen the division. The layperson is uneducated in many ways, but sometimes they know when they’re being screwed. What you get is an ivory tower intellectual on one side of a fence and a working Joe or Jane on the other side, each saying the same thing to the other: a great big middle finger. I have found in my own experience that the uneducated listener/viewer is not always as close-minded as they at first seem, but that if you point out something interesting about the art they have been quick to dismiss they are sometimes bemused, sometimes amused and sometimes they are even thankful that you gave them the credit of having a brain. What does Babbitt teach, and to whom?
I’ve decided I don’t like Babbitt’s term “lay listener”. I think its use (necessarily, structurally) connects to an architecture of elitism that I find as repugnant as the ignorance/arrogance dyad it opposes. It’s the same kind of architecture of elitism of the dealer: a work of art is only valuable because they have chosen it. Or consider the status of the self-taught artist. Their work is valuable only insofar as it has been recognized by experts with a certain type of formal education. Oh, the art’s great, but the artist doesn’t know why it’s great. Those with the knowledge hold the power. Like it or not, to some extent one must fight on their turf to take back some of the power. This does not necessarily mean going to university, but it does require becoming familiar with the discourses and rhetoric academics favor. Only then do you know when they’re blowing a lot of hot air. And that, my friends, is power.