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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

The issues at stake go right back to the origins of literate (i.e., notated) music. The “real-time” practices Benjamin invokes—improvisation, embellishment, creative play—are the practices, and reflect the values, of “oral” culture. Their eclipse marks the full ascendancy of literacy—an ascendancy a full millennium in the making. And indeed the values Babbitt's compositional practices maximize—extreme (approaching “total”) density, fixity, and consistency of texture, maintained over a long temporal (= “structural”) span—are precisely the ones associated with the “spatialization” of music that literacy made possible.

The complete “autonomy” of the postwar serial product, extended to the point where every piece of music is ideally based on unique axiomatic premises, is likewise a conceptual child of literacy, in the sense that works of art within a literate tradition may exist independently of those who make them up and remember them. Musical works that can be remembered or precisely imagined only with difficulty, or that (ideally) cannot be memorized at all, would most completely satisfy this criterion of value—if such a value could be taken as an absolute. Concepts of artistic unity in works of performing art, and, conversely, awareness of the function of the parts within the whole in such works (what we call an analytical awareness), are thus distinctive of literate cultures. A music in which analysis can potentially—and, in extreme instances, even actually—replace the acts of performance or listening could thus be viewed as the highest possible realization of the literate ideal. In historical terms it does indeed represent a pinnacle, an apex, a ne plus ultra, and in the broadest view that may count as its truest historical achievement—or at least its most accurately described historical significance.

The never-to-be-settled question is, at what price? It can never be settled because price stands for values, and equally defensible values can be irreconcilable. What from one perspective may look like a logical culmination or a zenith may look from another like a perversion of values. Those who see and value music only in terms of a historical development will see the triumph of literacy in one way; those who see the primary value of music in the social exchanges it affords will find less to admire. But things and events as such are value-free. Values reside in the observers and their purposes.

The apparent arrogance of the position “classically” exemplified by Babbitt's “Who Cares if You Listen?” is, if you like, the hubris of literacy. But that hubris, however objectionable, cannot be wholly extricated from the good causes it may be seen to serve. It found abundant expression among the great figures of twentieth-century music, especially (of course) in Schoenberg, the greatest apostle of teleological history, who saw the evolution of music as headed inexorably toward the triumph of literate practice (representing “culture” and “autonomy”) over every aspect of oral practice (representing atavisms of the “primitive” and the “contingent”).

That is what led Schoenberg, and many after him, into what can seem such incorrigibly snobbish attitudes toward performers and listeners, their fellow human beings. His pupil Dika Newlin recalled him announcing that “music need not be performed any more than books need to be read aloud, for its logic is perfectly represented on the printed page; and the performer, for all his intolerable arrogance, is totally unnecessary except as his interpretations make the music understandable to an audience unfortunate enough not to be able to read it in print.”51 As for the listener, “All I know is that he exists, and insofar as he isn't indispensable for acoustic reasons (since music doesn't sound well in an empty hall), he's only a nuisance.”52

By now we have some awareness of the many social and political (including musico-political) factors that conditioned such remarks. There is no reason to assume that Schoenberg consciously cast himself as the champion of the literate tradition of music as such, nor any reason to assume that the issues of “orality” vs. “literacy” that interest historians today were on his mind. The historical fact nevertheless remains that the politics of the twentieth century drove the discourse of literacy to its extreme, and Babbitt's achievement, both as composer and as theorist of composition, represents what in retrospect seems a historical limit.

To say this is not necessarily to impute to Babbitt any greater consciousness of such a role than Schoenberg possessed, but seeing him as the ultimate protagonist of literacy over orality does help account for the equanimity with which he met the sort of criticism we have been reviewing. In an open letter published in a special double issue of Perspectives of New Music commemorating Babbitt's sixtieth birthday in 1976, the composer and music theorist Wallace Berry (1928–91) made bold to advance some questions with regard to the “auditory construal” of the music all the other contributors were celebrating, and the relationship between those well-known difficulties or impossibilities and the, to him, grievous observation that “much music of our time, yours and mine, exists, essentially, in alienation.” Maintaining a somewhat detached and stilted diction to offset, perhaps, the emotionally volatile nature of the matters he was broaching, Berry continued:

It has been the understandable reflex of many of us to assume an attitude of brave defiance in this state of affairs, but I cannot imagine any convincing asseveration of genuine apathy toward it. Nor can we protest that today's music suffers for lack of exposure (and that if it had better exposure it would be understood and welcomed by audiences now so largely repelled by it, if on occasion intrigued at the “primitive” level of the impact of the isolated sonority and the like). And the alienation of which I despair is not merely with regard to our concert halls, which will continue to be governed in large part by crass commercial considerations, but (of course with notable exceptions that prove the point) with respect to our peers, experienced and sophisticated audiences in centers of artistic and cultural adventure and exploration. We can no longer sanctimoniously assail (as repressive, as prejudicially indisposed, as inattentive) those who, knowing today's music and the historical bases out of which it has evolved, are estranged from that music….

There are episodes in music's history that seem to have proved, finally, while exerting vital and constructive influences upon the course of things both coexistent and to follow, to be fascinating culs-de-sac, important not only in the impact by which, in part, subsequent developments are shaped, but in the intrinsic worth of many individual expressions and in didactic significances. Is it possible that the ultimate developments of serialism have attained, or are reasonably seen as coursing toward, such an end?53

In his published response to the essays collected in his honor, Babbitt was courteous enough. Of all the contributors to the volume, he conceded, “Wallace Berry most demands and deserves answers.”54 But he did not rise to the bait, offering instead (quite uncharacteristically) to relegate Berry's questions to the arena of taste, about which, as the saying goes, there can be no dispute. He, too, couched his thoughts in an unnaturally ceremonious idiom, as if to divest them of emotional baggage. But as always, obvious avoidance only succeeds in calling greater attention to the issue being circumvented:

I do suspect that there may be differences in attitude, normative differences, between us, originating—perhaps—outside of music, and eventuating in our music, or—possibly—proceeding in the retrograde, even retrograde inverted, direction, even if only in that there are those of us who prefer the relative quiet and solace of the dead-end street to the distractions and annoyances of the crowded thoroughfare, although quite a few folks—at one time or another—have found their way to our cul-de-sac, if only because they, mistakenly or misguidedly, took a wrong turn…. Just as the philosophy of art has carried its practitioners into the philosophy of mind, our art is ever mindful that whatever one musical mind can create another can come to comprehend, even if it comes—normatively—to decide that it doesn't like it, approve of it, or of the isolation the two of them thereby suffer or enjoy.

But of course Babbitt's careful choice of language allowed the possibility that comprehension come by way of analysis—the contemplation of the musical object as a spatialized whole, by those with special training in the ways of the literate culture—rather than on the more direct perceptual terms Berry had specified. Babbitt saw no reason, then or since, to give an inch of ground to the “oral” culture, which he equated with the “crowded thoroughfare” of commerce. The sacrifice of a listening (rather than a looking) audience was a price he was prepared to pay for purity.

It is worth one more reiteration that the purity Babbitt consciously sought in his theory and practice was not necessarily the purity that is being attributed to it in this account, any more than Copland's or Stravinsky's conscious reasons for embracing serial composition directly reflected or acknowledged the factors invoked in this chapter to explain their actions. Copland, as we have seen, always said that he simply “needed more chords.” Stravinsky argued, more categorically, that significant artistic change can only come about through “an irresistible pull within the art” rather than through the sort of “social pressures” that “Marxists,” as he put it, preferred to invoke.55 But even as he said this, his gratuitous, seemingly superstitious sidelong glance at Zhdanov (the Marxist-in-chief where the arts were concerned) told another story. Not only artists, but all who profess to act as conscious or autonomous agents in a complicated world are subject to many influences, including some of which they may perforce be relatively unaware. It is the historian's job to be aware of them and, however fallibly, to describe them.

But even if we allow for its political contingency, Babbitt maintained his position with consistency and integrity, and won for it a virtually universal respect within the academy, even among those convinced, like Wallace Berry, that it represented an historical cul-de-sac. It was only when some of Babbitt's colleagues and former pupils began claiming for academic serialism qualities (such as traditional emotional expressivity) that lay audiences complained of missing, that allegations of bad faith became common.

As one critic put it, it was as if one asked Claire Bloom or some comparably eloquent actor to read “Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms,” Babbitt's notorious hypothetical math lecture, “with all the expressive resources of voice and gesture she would bring to the role of Ophelia or Desdemona.”56 Such a performance could only seem silly and gratuitous, whether one listened as a “layman” or as a math professor, and made both the textual object and its performance seem inadequate to their respective purposes. Ironically enough, it was only when academic composers seemed ready to retreat a bit from Babbitt's hard line that their position began to lose credibility. It was then that the tide began to turn against the sort of uncompromising “truth” that had been artistically upholdable at the height of the cold war, and that provided academic serialism in America with its philosophical support system.

But we can end this chapter on an even more obviously ironic note. It was when he formulated his time-point system, which implied, and therefore demanded, a precision of rhythmic execution that appeared superhuman even to his supporters, that Babbitt began touting the electronic medium as a necessary practical adjunct of theoretical advance. The already-quoted article in Perspectives that first promulgated the time-point system was in fact called “Twelve-Tone Rhythmic Structure and the Electronic Medium,” and it contained the prediction that “such pitch and rhythmic extensions of the twelve-tone system” as Babbitt was proposing would inevitably “carry music to the point of purely electronic feasibility,” and this because only electronic means could afford the composer a control over his product that would suffice to allow “the necessary characteristics” of his music to be “preserved in the auditory domain, and not merely in the domain of notational specification.”57

In other words, only electronic media could give music the sort of fixity and exactness in the domain of physical sound that it already possessed in the conceptual domain of notation. It was the triumph of literacy over orality that demanded the final sacrifice of the finite “human” to the infinitely adaptable and obediently automated performance media that would eventually be controlled by computers. Electronic media promised (or, depending on one's perspective, threatened) the ultimate dehumanization of the art, a dehumanization whose status as a logical (inevitable? necessary? desirable?) consequence of literacy now stood revealed.

The irony was, and is, that the same electronic media that enabled composers on the extreme “literate” edge to realize their notated complexities without loss of detail also made it possible to compose without the use of scores at all, and thus inaugurated a new era of improvisational (or “real time”) composing. In the end, as we will shortly discover, electronic media would subvert the triumph of literacy and give music a new future.


(51) Dika Newlin, Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections 1938–1976 (New York: Pendragon Press, 1980), p. 164 (recorded 10 January 1940).

(52) Schoenberg to Alexander von Zemlinsky, 20 March 1918; in Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964), p. 54.

(53) Wallace Berry, “Apostrophe: A Letter from Ann Arbor,” Perspectives of New Music XIV/2–XV/1 (double issue, “Sounds and Words: Milton Babbitt at 60”): 195, 197–98.

(54) Milton Babbitt, “Responses: A First Approximation,” Ibid. pp. 22–23.

(55) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959), p. 127.

(56) R. Taruskin, “How Talented Composers Become Useless,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, 10 March 1996, p. 31; rpt. in R. Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), p.87

(57) Milton Babbitt, “Twelve-Tone Rhythmic Structure and the Electronic Medium,” pp. 77–78.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Sep. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003015.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 The Apex. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003015.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003015.xml