January 15, 2016

Giving up on Milton


No, not that Milton.  I am giving up on the music of Milton Babbitt.

I've lived with Babbitt's music for years and it is still aesthetically alien to me.  The problem is certainly not with the music's complexity.  Elliott Carter's music is no less complex, yet I find it as rewarding as the music of Bach and Beethoven.  Rather, my problem with Babbitt's music is that I still perceive it as aesthetically flippant.  In performances, Babbitt's temporal organiziation of musical elements (pitches, durations, dynamics) results in successions of 'sound-events' which, to me, remain indistinguishable from randomness.  This randomness has a certain playful quality to it because the sounds themselves are not grating and the textures are often quite delicate.  But this only adds to my impression that behind the notes there is an aloof intellect completely detached from the psychological realities of music listening.

The fact that Babbitt's compositions are based on rigorous formal designs is irrelevant to my predicament.  As a listener I don't get an aesthetic hard-on from knowing, say, that a certain motif is a transposed retrograde inversion of the second hexachord of the tone row.  From a mathematical point of view, the formal symmetries in any musical score are trivial and of no aesthetic significance in themselves.  Such formal details matter only to the extent to which realizations of the score (i.e., concert performances or recordings) reward the time and attention of experienced listeners.  Which is why I think the time has come for me to cut my losses, so to speak, and say goodbye to Milton Babbitt's music.

6 comments:

Rob said...

Even the string quartets?

Boom said...

Yes, Rob, the whole oeuvre.

Rob said...

But, but, ...

Tassilo said...

Give "Transfigured Notes" a try. The degree (small as it is) of Babbitt's rapprochement with Verklaerte Nacht may be just enough to let you in the door, so to speak.

-dg

john schott said...

A belated comment: I have always felt that Babbitt's A Solo Requiem, recorded waaay back in the day on Nonesuch, is an extraordinarily beautiful and affecting piece. His setting of The Widow's Lament in Springtime is very lovely too. I haven't heard his Two Sonnets for baritone and ensemble, or his song cycle Du, but I'll bet they're special as well.

Boom said...

Tassilo and John,

I know some Babbitt compositions which are not only intelligible but also lighthearted and charming. Alas - and I am willing to admit this as my loss and curse - such compositions do not strike me as INTERESTING. And given a choice between unintelligible and uninteresting, I understandably pass on the offer altogether.

Needless to say, the post was a confession of a personal limitation as a listener. However strong my feelings may be about the lack of aesthetic merit in Babbitt's music, I incline to attribute such feelings to one of those unfortunate 'stumbling blocks' commonly experienced by many music lovers. After all, I can't ignore the fact that there are musically sophisticated people out there who find Babbitt's music rewarding.