Who’s Afraid of Milton Babbitt?

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.

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24 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Milton Babbitt?

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: This is exceptional. I will come back to write more, but I just wanted to write this, right now.

  2. angela says:

    Exceptional, indeed. I do not have time tonight to read the Babbitt link, but I will for I’m intrigued. This is my love/hate with academia – the ivory towers are still…well, quite ivory. I would go as far to say that this is not just intellectual snobbery, as women and minorities are still fighting for equal footing. That said, as I alluded in a post recently, I hope to start an online Masters in the Fall in Art History. It is not because I want the degree per se (though it may help with a future door if I wish to switch to museum work), but because it is a subject that I wish to approach with some type of framework and pedagogy. A true contrarian by nature, I will later be able to take that knowledge and expound without falling under the spell of the institution. Or, perhaps I am just lazy to delve into it myself…

    I do believe that Babbitt’s stance reminds me of Perloff on poetry. Is it warranted? This circles back to Modernism vs Post-Modernism that I still grapple with regarding the art, artist and audience. Does the artist ever create with an objective to exclude the audience? This is where I need to read Babbitt for in my mind I am envisioning this man who would ID you at the door to see if you even had the right credentials to listen, albeit understand what he is doing. This, of course, goes back to your question regarding serious art and who is it for….

    …I guess I remain a contrarian, for with my own work, yes, I would love it to have a universal language (not just writing, but any creative work), however, if it does not, that is okay, too, for in the end it was a selfish endeavor as it was first driven by the need to express the muse.

    (btw, I do apologize if I have interpreted Babbitt incorrectly – I should really read the link before I post…but, that could be days and I was inspired by your post. ~ a)

    • Are you referring to the Perloff article where she fell under the spell of Goldsmith and declared that the most original thing a poet can do is become a collagist? I think a lot of people were scratching their heads over that – I mean, it’s an old technique.

      You asked, “Does the artist ever create with an objective to exclude the audience?” Artists are like everybody else: they come in all shapes and sizes and personality types. Some want to be offensive or disruptive. But I’ve never met an artist that wanted to be ignored. There’s this idea that along the way avant-gardists turned their back on the public, but I don’t buy it. Artists have always wanted an audience. Babbitt wanted an audience too, albeit an exclusive one.

  3. Susan Scheid says:

    Ah, poor Milton, even from the grave, his article pursues him! You know, I realize that I have no quarrel with his right to compose in isolation from the listener—and even from the performer. Where I think he goes wrong is in his arguments in favor of university/financial support for serious music. I find your insights into the flaws in his argument subtle, perceptive, and, to me, spot on. For what does he do here? To advance his arguments about university support and funding, he sets up a “straw man,” pitting, in a typical binary approach to argument, the great unwashed listener on the one hand, and the sophisticated pure music innovator on the other, when we all know there are infinite shades between those poles.

    I do think there is sense to the argument that judgments about support for the arts need to be founded on more than merely pragmatic measures. The rub comes in how to judge which innovations merit funding. I think there’s no question but that for Babbitt, no “lay listeners” would be involved, even tangentially. But well beyond that, what I’ve learned in my explorations is that many, many talented, not to mention innovative, composers were locked out of university funding, and composers-in-training who did not hew to the serialist path were sidelined and discouraged at best. As Richard Taruskin wrote: “The nice thing about an ism, someone once observed, is how quickly it becomes a wasm. Some musical wasms—academic-wasm, for example, and its dependent varieties of modern-wasm and serial-wasm—continue to linger on artificial life support . . . “. [from his essay How Talented Composers Become Useless, 1996]

    I’m reminded of a book called “The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America.” I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic premise I think sound: not only can we not regulate away judgment, but we should not. Analogous to that, it seems to me that total serialist music created such enormous constraints of composition that it strangled creative innovation itself. Richard Taruskin wrote: “The twelve-tone method was invented precisely to produce the sort of maximalized motivic consistency and saturated texture that analysts look for . . . . But that does not make it any more pertinent or available to the listener’s experience. And promoting it into a primary musical value is the ultimate poietic fallacy, the one that led modern music into the cul-de-sac where absurdly overcomposed monstrosities by Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt have been reverently praised by critics and turned into obligatory models for emulation by teachers of composition.” [from his essay The Poietic Fallacy, 2004].

    I don’t have any quarrel with the idea that, as an intellectual challenge for the composer, and for anyone who understands the structures and enjoys the same intellectual challenge, “listening with the brain” to total serialist compositions can be a source of durable enjoyment. Here, though, I am and shall remain the “lay listener,” for I get nothing from total serialist compositions (here’s one exception that proves the rule: http://youtu.be/p-PJw2lqW7c). But that doesn’t mean I don’t know and value innovation in music—it’s just, for me, not the “bottom line.” I hew to John Adams’s formulation, “that music is above and beyond all else the marriage of form and feeling.”

    • So focused was I on his “straw man” that I barely noticed that it all boils down to a question of university support, logically. As an autodidact, I can’t be too concerned over what gets university funding in the sense that I have absolutely no say in the matter. I imagine all sorts of struggles – battles even – go on over it (seems to be all out war at Cooper Union right now). But they’re not mine to fight. I do realize that these battles must reach out in many ways to the wider world, and I’m very concerned with opportunities for artists in the real world. The world of poetry publication, for example, seems to be dominated by students and teachers – mostly teachers – of creative writing programs, and there seems to be a rather bland homogeneity in terms of forms and aesthetics being pushed in those programs, to judge by the work I’ve sampled over the past several years.

      I don’t feel that I have to submit to Babbitt’s terminology. I can’t play 3 chords. Does that mean I have been grooving to rock songs the wrong way all these years? Am I a lay listener because I don’t know music theory? Do I need a music degree to appreciate the difference between Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor? I just really hate the term. As a visual artist I have exhibited, sold work and won awards. Perhaps I can claim some measure of professionalism. I have never even considered thinking of any viewer as a “lay viewer”.

      I like Adams’ formulation. But I would add intellect. Art is perfect for me if it appeals to the senses, the emotions and also the mind.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        The financial issue didn’t dawn on me, either, other than subliminally, until I went back, in the context of your post, and read the article again.

        It’s interesting to draw comparisons across the arts, as Angela ventured, too. On the poetry front, I have the same concerns you’ve noted about the ubiquity of MFA programs. (Interesting to note that Perloff’s article, which has caused so much controversy, homes in on that to a certain extent: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/marjorie_perloff_poetry_lyric_reinvention.php. I look forward to Angela’s further thoughts; I don’t necessarily agree with all Perloff’s conclusions, but I think she makes some pretty good points.)

        Agreed, too, on adding “intellect” to Adams’s formulation. I don’t know if you headed back over to Nice’s blog in recent vintage, but I noted your post to him, and here’s what he wrote, which I think is along the same line: “Yes, he’s [meaning you] absolutely right, Babbitt’s criteria are out of touch. Much more needs to be written on the nature of what kind of audience the composer addresses. The Scylla and Charybdis are the elitists and the lazy listener who says ‘I know what I like, and that’s not music’.”

        • angela says:

          Susan has kindly offered the original link – there are now so many as it is almost a year old – but what I came across this week is something The Volta just published via Myles http://www.thevolta.org/ewc29-emyles-p1.html in response to Perloff. I admit, I need to sit down and Really Read it this weekend (scanned for the gist as I followed the whole brouhaha last year). I would be interested to know your thoughts on transparency as well (I first posed it to Susan on her blog).
          Interesting, I know Susan will see this link too since we are doing a bit of a roundtable, I found this link when Googling for Myles link ~http://scarriet.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/the-two-freedoms/ (again, scanned, but there was enough in it that I thought I would share).

          I do not mean to take the discussion away from the aesthetics at hand, but art is art when it comes to academia and elitism …which really could be one in the same.

          As for the MFA… I think one would have to go in with a very big ego to not be broken by the pedagogy of that department/institution. Could you imagine trying to be a poet if Perloff was dictating what was considered “good” poetry? I know that is not her shtick, but really, that is what one is facing. Again, there is a love/hate with academia for there is some merit to understanding the art to help you to grow within your own art. I, however, would rather study the intellectual history than workshop my creativity until I fear my own voice.

          • Susan Scheid says:

            I’d better confess here to saying that I generally enjoy Perloff’s analyses, even when I don’t agree. I find her cogent and thought-provoking and thought she had many useful and insightful things to say in the “Brink” article to which I linked. For purposes of the discussion here, the big problem, isn’t it, is when a single school of artistic thought gets hegemony in a way that stifles/squashes other approaches. Mark got right to the heart of the fallacies in Babbitt’s argument in a way I hadn’t seen before and hadn’t been able to put words to myself. I agree that Babbitt did want an audience, but a very select one, and I think he recognized that the audience for his work was so specialized that university funding was probably essential to its survival. I don’t think he made the case for that, as Mark so ably points out, yet for a long period, detrimental, I think, to the survival of classical music overall, he seemed to have won the argument. I’m glad that time has passed.

            I don’t see Perloff as operating in the same way, but I don’t know what goes on inside university departments–who gets squashed and who rules, that is. I saw her “brink” article as an intelligent and thoughtful statement of the problem she cites at the outset, “What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety. The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity.” ( I confronted something similar during the period when I was writing short fiction. ) Now, we may disagree with her focus on Conceptual poetry as an “answer,” but I’m certainly with her when she points to Susan Howe’s work as a powerful, fulfilling poetic strand. In contrast, I have to say, I’ve read the Myles article three times now and find it fairly incoherent with rage. Now, her rage may be justified, I don’t know, but I think she might have been better off observing the maxim that revenge is a dish best served cold.

            • It’s fascinating that we have another publishing blunder here resulting in another controversy: Perloff originally planned the “brink” article for another forum which provided more context. By changing her mind and putting it in Boston Review that context was lost and the article appeared more polemical than intended. Be that as it may, if you look at my response to Angela, I find the “everyone is a poet” line offensive. So to some extent I identify with Myles’ anger. Also I couldn’t help but smile at Myles’ sarcasm here:

              “Conceptualism I think is the first school of poetry that has appropriated previously known tools (like appropriation)) to tear the veils from the eyes of (I guess) of other poets who already knew about these things. Maybe Conceptualism is not for other poets. Conceptualists (I mean the ones that call themselves that) might finally and actually be making the avant garde accessible to the masses. Because the masses are not about reading and neither is conceptualism. Yay.”

              OK, it’s not quite accurate, but I find it odd that Perloff says “appropriation” has been going on since the 1960’s. Try the 1860’s. It’s that old. And even older, when you consider the so-called “primitive” art that inspired the early modernists. Conceptualism is not fresh at all. She doesn’t understand Donald Judd either. But despite all that I agree that she has written a good article on poetics. She makes a compelling argument for the poets she likes, many of whom I like. And of course I agree with her on the poor state of publishing. She put it best in her LA Review of Books article: “The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry in the commercial and media world, and to look closely at the alternatives.” But something tells me that if Walt Whitman were playing the game today, sending his manuscript out and hoping for the best, he’d get an answer like: ‘Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately….’

          • Angela, you asked specifically about transparency, and it seems to me Perloff and Myles both use it in the same sense: a clear plainspokenness of ‘what you see is what you get’. Myles’ disagreement with Perloff seems to be about her perception that Perloff is attempting to dominate the discourse on what poetic modes have relevance or potency today – that she’s being masculine, pushy, “macho” etc. I find these comparisons distasteful, even though I have some sympathy for her point of view. I think she’s spot on, for example, in pointing out the ridiculousness of the “everybody is a poet” comment – a terrible way for Perloff to have started her “Poetry on the Brink” article. She really made a Babbitt-style mistake there, because that comment pisses off all outsiders from the start and stinks of elitism. The poor state of published poetry is not an outcome of everyone being a poet (as Myles rightly points out, poetry is the most devalued and ignored of all the arts) but of the hegemony of the teachers of creative writing programs, all publishing each other. I think Perloff has described their aesthetic pretty well. That doesn’t mean I would submit to her tastes though. You are very wise, in my opinion, not to waste your poetic soul in one of these programs. Stick to studying history.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    I’m writing here only because the replies have moved over into such narrow columns it’s a little hard to read. So interesting about the change in forum for Perloff’s article! I’ll have to say I found it impossible to find a single meaning for transparency in reading the Myles article, but “WYSIWYG” makes sense as a definition. I still don’t know, however, what value to place on transparency thus defined. What captures me in poetry is the poems that keep unfolding, seemingly without end. That’s why I love Stevens, and why I love Ashbery. I’m not so sure transparency thus defined results in that.

    I’m also finding it interesting to realize that the “everybody is a poet” didn’t leap out at me in Perloff’s article. Perhaps I share Perloff’s view (though of course the statement is hyperbole). I think I could get into hot water here, but I’ll have to say I see an awful lot of folks who write poetry who don’t bother to read it, let alone learn anything about poetics or poetic tradition. (Now, I’ll confess that I’m surely guilty of the opposite–I read one poem, then I want to read everything about the poet and about the poem, before I move on to the next.)

    As for Myles, Mark, you’ve managed to pull out some statements that seem reasonably cogent out of what appeared to me, despite three attempts at reading the article, to be an incoherent rant. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t taken with Myles’s article, any more than I was, BTW, with a discussion on volta that Ron Silliman posted here:http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2013/05/blog-post_4.html. I really do think Perloff deserves better than what I see, in both of these, as ill-thought-out diatribes. It’s not that Perloff’s conclusions, particularly, shouldn’t be questioned, but it doesn’t seem to me that Myles has the chops to do it, based on that article, at least. Perloff presents a challenge, no question, but she’s a real, bona fide thinker, and I respect that. Myles hasn’t so far given me anything to respect.

    On another note, I’m struck by this comment from you: “The poor state of published poetry is not an outcome of everyone being a poet (as Myles rightly points out, poetry is the most devalued and ignored of all the arts) but of the hegemony of the teachers of creative writing programs, all publishing each other.” I don’t agree that poetry is the most devalued of all the arts, and I suspect that Myles hasn’t examined the issue, but just states it from her band of experience. (I think contemporary classical music is in even worse shape than poetry, but there’s certainly no need to be in a competition. The serious arts are likely all beleaguered, and certainly under-supported.) But I do absolutely agree with what you’ve stated about teachers of creative writing programs all publishing each other as a central problem. That, it seems to me, creates a climate very similar to what happened in university training of composers in the heyday of Babbitt and Boulez. Thank goodness there are people like YOU and Angela, who persist without the comfort of academic position. It’s a hard, hard row, but people like you are the ones who keep hope alive when it comes to creative work.

    • Susan Scheid says:

      Hmmm. I see a couple places at least where, if someone wanted to come in behind me and saw off the limb I’m standing on, they surely could! One of them is the phrase “ill-thought-out diatribes.” I would stand by ill-thought-out, but I think “responses” might be the better noun. (OK, I guess that’s not much of a concession!) Anyway, I’ll stop going ON myself. I can’t describe in words how much I’ve been enjoying this multi-dimensional conversation.

    • I apologize for the tardy response; I’ve been on vacation for a week and decided to go completely offline. Sue, there aren’t many readers like you. In fact, I’ve never met another reader like you. From what I’ve seen most of the readers of poetry are people who write it. Bad poets read each other and better poets read poets who are better than they are.

      I thought some good points were made in that conversation – an informal conversation on a formal essay. For example I think they were right to laugh at the notion that too many people write poetry. And the question was raised as to “what she wants” ie she states in her LA Review article that she can’t consider the work of poets who aren’t well known – it’s at about the 16 minute mark in the audio and I think it’s a good question.

      It’s not a point worth debating, but I guess we’ll have to disagree on the devalued and ignored issue. In terms of earning a living there’s no such thing as a poet who does not have another job. Even Ashbery, the most lauded American poet today laughed when asked if he earned a living from the sale of his books. But there are indeed composers who earn a living and not just composers but conductors, musical directors and musicians. You’re very kind to have said what you did about me and Angela, but I can’t imagine who we offer hope to, unless it’s you. One of Dickinson’s friends told her that she did not have a right to hide her poetry away if one single person derived inspiration from it. I have to remind myself of that constantly.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: Welcome back, and I hope you had a wonderful, restful vacation. I break “radio silence” because I wanted to acknowledge that you not only make a good point about the plight of poets, but so many other good points as well. I think I did overstate my case more than a wee little bit, and you, as always, lead me to step back and reconsider. I’ll look forward to a continuing conversation once I’m truly back online.

  5. angela says:

    Thank you both for addressing my question regarding transparency. It seems that as I research this word more, the definition seems less clear. I do not wish to overstay my welcome on Mark’s blog – but will pose one last question just for understanding – would Ashbery’s writing be considered transparent?

    As for Perloff (shall step lightly here for I am the minority) I do not like her. It is not for her lack of genius ( I will never have her knowledge), but there is something unnerving about her ability to dominate the convo regarding what is considered today’s important poetry. It is not that she is wrong or right, but the very fact that she feels that she (and only she it seems) has the finger on the pulse of what constitutes poetry now is nauseating, not to mention detrimental to poetry…or any art form. It makes me think of Judith Butler’s thoughts on inclusion vs exclusion and the need to be recognized. This type of hegemony actually quells the creative output of those who are moving beyond Conceptualism. Tomorrow is still to come, ergo, who knows how we will need or desire to engage.
    (Sorry, Mark, I shall get off my box on your blog ~ a)

    • Angela, don’t apologize, I completely agree with you – Perloff is part of the problem. There are scholar/critic/educators who simply want to explore their passion for the material and educate others, and then there are those who are maneuvering for a stake in defining the canon. You were right to bring Perloff into the discussion because issues are at stake here similar to those raised by the Babbitt article. The problem with Perloff’s article is not it’s main body, which I agree with Susan is excellent. The problem is how she has framed the argument. And she can backpedal, like Babbitt did, and say it was not intended to be so polemical, but it is polemical because of the way it’s structured. It’s elitist and exclusionary. So distasteful was it to me that I had to force myself to read it carefully just to be able to have this conversation with you and Susan. It’s not that there should not be standards of excellence, that everybody is indeed a poet and it’s all good. One should argue for one’s values, standards and tastes as eloquently and confidently as one can, and at the same time recognize that it is but one discourse mingling with and competing amongst others. Babbitt wanted to define the terms as well as the locus of the conversation – and then had the hubris to announce it in a popular magazine. I don’t see Perloff as significantly different.

      On transparency: No, I would not describe Ashbery as transparent. But I would not use that term at all. Raising the issue of transparency creates murk. You have to ask: ‘Transparent according to whom?’ And what exactly does Perloff mean by a “feigned transparency”? Myles didn’t take it well – as if she were being accused of disingenuousness or playing games with the reader. it’s a word that encourages polemics of a kind I don’t find productive.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark & Angela: While I do seem to have a different “take” on Perloff, I want to HIGHLY endorse Mark’s statement that “One should argue for one’s values, standards and tastes as eloquently and confidently as one can, and at the same time recognize that it is but one discourse mingling with and competing amongst others.” There are many people I respect who see Perloff as Babbitt-like, and I can see why. For some reason, I don’t experience her that way, or as foreclosing debate–perhaps I’ve just not had enough exposure to the debate to know. But I’ve got my ears and eyes open on the issue, thanks to this conversation, one of the best I’ve had on the web or off. Fond regards to you both, and I will be back . . . after stepping back a bit. PS: I met a local composer at Garapic’s recital and just listened to a piece of his I thought quite lovely. I’ve popped it up on my blog sidebar, if you’re curious (but don’t feel obliged, of course)!

        • angela says:

          Shall visit your blog in the next couple of days for a listen, Susan…had to work today and am trying to play catch-up. I concur with Mark, you are a remarkable reader of criticism and poetry. I guess I did not know that you do not write poetry. Actually, to sound a bit like Perloff, everybody is writing poetry these days, so, to not write poetry, but appreciate it at the level that you do is quite wonderful. I consider Mark a poet – the best kind, a reader of the best poets, and an artist of visual and literary arts. I’m part of the problem – unschooled and undisciplined, that is why I only write in blogland.

      • angela says:

        Thank you for not caring that Susan and I took over this blog post, Mark. I do hope that you had a wonderful vacation – glad that you were able to disconnect. Really appreciated your response regarding Perloff. It had me digging for a book last night that I have yet to crack open (used bookstore find) regarding Poetics and Polemics – you’ve got me wonderous about polemics now. Agreed that it is not the correct word for Ashbery’s poetry. ~ a

  6. Michael says:

    I am sorry to say but the above article contains a lot of misinterpretation of Babbitt’s statements. He often said that one needs to have memory capable of following the four polyphonic forms of the motive. That is not an extreme demand from the listener. In fact, such memory is a prerequisite for appreciating the music composed by Bach or Renaissance composers, although most listeners find the latter more accessible, as it is framed in tonal idiom. The essential part of that music, however, is very much the same; the interrelation between polyphonic lines.
    “The technical knowledge” probably came up when he was repeatedly asked why, considering his high reputation among composers, the reception of his music had been so poor. He was put in a position to account for it as a music analyst. The problem of the reception of advanced music is by no means new. In the 14th century music writers of the time noted that the common man (having no musical learning) would fail to appreciate fully the complicated polyphony of Guillaume de Machaut. Popular culture is not an alternative to Babbitt. Dylan, interesting as a bard of his time, in terms of music would be archaic and simplistic 300 tears ago or even earlier. The notion of popular music is nothing new, it has existed concomitantly with spiritual, videlicet, classical idiom since 14th and 15th century.
    There is always the question of what is music for; to explore, discover, learn or just to entertain.

    Michael Filosek
    a man of no musical background

    • You seem to be arguing points that I’ve admitted. I may very well be able to follow “the four polyphonic forms of the motive”. I don’t know, because I don’t know what that language means. That is the point I’m making here: the discourse on music is a thing apart from the experience of listening to music. If someone were to contend that I cannot enjoy Bach because I don’t know what this language means, I can only laugh in response, and then go right on enjoying Bach. I’m not sure what the “lot of misinterpretation” is on my part here, unless you are arguing that Babbitt was not requiring the listener to know what his language means. But in reading ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ it is clear that Babbitt argues for consolidating the serious listener and the lay listener into separate camps based on the former’s ability and the latter’s inability to understand serious music according to Babbitt’s terms. It is reasonable to ask 1) Whether it is possible to appreciate serious music without the “understanding” that Babbitt defines and 2) What is serious music? That is what I have done here.

      I do not offer popular culture as an alternative to Babbitt. I think there is room for everything. But I’m not sure I agree with what you say about Dylan here:

      “in terms of music would be archaic and simplistic 300 tears ago or even earlier.”

      I’m not sure I agree with you on what “in terms of music” means. As stated above, I do not think that the degree of music (quality, profundity, fullness) is equivalent to complexity of composition or performance. Dylan could not sing like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau if his life depended on it. But for me his music is of equal value. It’s different, for sure, crude when put up against a standard that it never intended to compete with (apples and oranges), but it’s just as powerful, just as expressive, just as serious as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretations of Bach and Mahler.

      • Michael says:

        Perhaps, I was slightly overboard writing ” a lot of misinterpretation”. I did it in order to emphasize my point.
        I am, for one, extremely fascinated with his music. I find no other contemporary (post II WW) composer’s music so gratifying.
        We are talking here about the unprofessional listener, but probably a majority of “serious” composers nowadays consider his compositions opaque and even pointless.

        His article is self-explanatory, there is no need for farther elucidation. We probably have different understanding of the function of music. The below citation touches the bone of contention, when he defies the prevailing opinion what is expected from a composer.

        “I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study. I do question whether these differences, by their nature, justify the denial to music’s development of assistance granted these other fields. Immediate “practical” applicability (which may be said to have its musical analogue in “immediate extensibility of a compositional technique”) is certainly not a necessary condition for the support of scientific research…”

        I think there is one thing special about serial music, and his music as being a fine example of the method; the structure has never been more unified with the content, probably since the Renaissance. That is how I see it.

        I never implied that complexity equals quality.

        I am also a fan of Dylan, bus his art touches on different strings in me. Dylan is more immediate. Babbitt is construction. Some time ago I listened a lot to Cecil Taylor but his music in contrast to Babbitt, and classical as such, is based on different precincts; it is improvised. In a way it is the opposite of Babbitt’s compositions in which everything (as he says in the above article) is determined.

        Perhaps you are not aware that he is considered an expert in popular tunes and his memory of the popular song, some people say, is unrivalled.

        Michael Filosek

        • Thanks for these clarifications, Michael. I would not want to appear to be defending ignorance. You’ve given me something to build on in beginning to appreciate Babbitt’s music. It’s certainly reasonable to ask a listener to put some effort into learning about the music, and that I’m willing to do.

          By the way, I listen to Cecil Taylor too, and do go to different musics to have different kinds of experiences.

          • Susan Scheid says:

            I enjoyed coming back and seeing the exchange with Michael, who has offered an interesting counterpoint. Babbitt’s is not a music that I have found interesting, but, as I noted in a previous comment, there are many who genuinely do, and Michael is clearly one. I am not at all convinced that it takes “a mmemory capable of following the four polyphonic forms of the motive” to appreciate–and be profoundly moved by–Bach, but I definitely believe that those who have that capability can appreciate Bach in a different way. In addition to the problematic “lay listener” nomenclature, an underlying concern for me is when the hegemony of a single style serves to devalue the creative approaches of others. Too many fine composers were for a long time side-lined, at best, if their own muses did not follow the serialist path. It’s not that way, today, thankfully, and I think the world of classical music is all the richer for it. (PS: I am aware of Babbitt’s genuine love of popular music of a certain era–and that Stephen Sondheim was a student of his. Michael, if you don’t know it, I’ve provided a link in an earlier comment to a Bad Plus version of a Babbitt piece. Enjoy!)

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