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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

Those anxieties can be sampled in the writings of Edward T. Cone (1917–2004), a Princeton colleague of Sessions and Babbitt, who although a composer by training had a wider impact as a theorist and critic. One of his most interesting and symptomatic writings was a contribution to a symposium on defining a “musical composition,” organized in 1967 by the editors of a journal, Current Musicology, that had been recently instituted by the graduate students at the Columbia University music department. The symposium was a response to a challenge lately issued by medievalists (most notably Richard L. Crocker of the University of California at Berkeley) to the conventional notion of a stable “piece of music.”35 Most of the contributors to the symposium reacted to the challenge with benevolent interest and good humor.

Not Cone. He pointed immediately to some obvious parallels between the medievalists’ challenge and the redefinitions implicit in the work of the “indeterminate” wing of the contemporary avant-garde, and attacked both with phobic fervor. Or rather, counterattacked, for as his conclusion makes clear, he felt that he and his cherished beliefs (beliefs that were reaching a maximal formulation in the work of the Princeton serialists) were themselves under attack. “We may now be entering a definitive post-Renaissance stage of Western culture,” he allowed, one that bore some striking features in common with pre-Renaissance culture,

but I find it misleading to look on what is happening as in any sense a return to older and perhaps more natural modes of perception. Rather, we are confronted by an attack on the whole concept of art. If the attackers win, not only the work of art as we know it but art itself may disappear. Some composers—I use the term only because I do not know what else to call them, except perhaps noncomposers—are loudly proclaiming the Death of Music in a manner that recalls certain stylish theological positions [i.e., the “Death of God” as a metaphor for existentialist philosophy], and they are encouraging their followers to complete its doing-in. Others, more reticent, are nevertheless apparently trying to hasten the process by insisting that whatever one wants to call music is music, that what one calls a composition is a composition. John Cage's position is more honest. A few years ago, in conversation, he said, “I don't claim that what I am doing is music, or art—or that it has any value. I maintain only that it is an activity, and that it is the one in which I happen to be engaged at present.” Such a position is, from a purely personal point of view, unassailable; but if generally accepted by those who call themselves musicians, it means the end of music.

Let us not deceive ourselves. The extreme avant-garde is not trying to offer new definitions of what constitutes a work of art, or to create new forms, or to encourage new modes of perception. The extreme avant-garde has only one attitude toward the arts: it wants to kill them.36

That finger-in-the-dike sentiment turned the academy into a sort of fortress, and the mentality of a fortress, however progressive its declared objectives, is reactionary. What motivated such a quick turn toward the right on the part of artists and scholars who regarded themselves (since they favored perpetual progressive change) as constituting the true cultural left? Cone provided a clue in a later essay, “One Hundred Metronomes,” published in 1977. The title referred to a recent composition by György Ligeti, the Hungarian refugee who had become an emblem of the Darmstadt avant-garde. It was called Poème symphonique. It had no score, just a set of instructions according to which one hundred pendulum-operated metronomes, going at as many different speeds, were to be set in motion and allowed to wind down. The piece ended when the last metronome stopped ticking. An anomaly among Ligeti's works, it is generally written off as a light-hearted spoof of “happenings,” although it was performed a few times, and treated by at least some listeners and critics as a legitimate (and even a moving) musical experience.

Cone's essay was not lighthearted. He cast it as a conversation, or a battle of wits, between himself and a (fictitious?) Princeton graduate student in composition who wanted to organize a performance of the piece, and, having been turned down by the rest of the faculty, appealed to Cone in desperation to secure departmental permission to put it on. Cone, too, refused, but at least honored the request with a reasoned rebuttal, based on a quotation from the play Travesties by Tom Stoppard: “An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted.”37

The only definition of a work of art that truly matters, then, is not what its effect may be, but what skills its manufacture (or its reception) may require. To make a Babbitt composition required such highly specialized skills that only a few (most of them at Princeton) possessed them, and to receive it in the spirit with which it was put forth required comparable skills on the part of the listener. To produce a Cage or a Nam June Paik composition (or Ligeti's Poème symphonique) required only patience, and its reception required only passive endurance. The rarer the skill, it follows further, the “higher” the art. Not surprisingly, such a scale of values put “Ph.D. music” at the top of the esthetic ladder.

It was also quite frankly elitist, in the strongest sense of the word, since by its very nature it selects and maintains a social elite. Both the composition and the performance of such music create elite occasions, which is just what high art had always done in the days of aristocratic or ecclesiastical patronage. The trouble with putting public institutions like universities in the position of the old church or aristocracy as patrons of art is the perceived contradiction between elite esthetics and the political or social egalitarianism on which modern concepts of democracy are based. Elite esthetics are usually defended by distinguishing “elite” from “elitist.” One can create, the argument goes, an elite art for its own sake without fostering or assenting to elitist politics, which can serve the cause of social privilege.

The distinction is easier to maintain in theory than in practice, and social elitism is as likely to undergird elite esthetics now as it has ever been. “We receive brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton,” Babbitt complained to an interviewer about a dozen years after the Ph.D. in composition was up and running, “who in their first year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course with Carl Hempel, and then return to their dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members of our society embrace as the only relevant music.”38 This comes very close to suggesting that the purpose of “Ph.D. music” is to provide a haven for the brilliant and the privileged comparable to that provided by the rest of an elite education, which trains the members of not only an intellectual but also a social and, above all, an economic elite.

“Under its gloss of prosperity,” the sociologist Vance Packard had warned in his book The Status Seekers (1959), America was becoming a dangerously divided society, its members constantly seeking “new ways to draw lines that will separate the elect from the non-elect.”39 Classical music, always a social divider in America, was playing its old role, some argued, under a new set of rules. Babbitt's strictures could even be read, by his critics, as an endorsement of the social benefits of pop music. If Princeton freshmen kept in contact after-hours with “demotic” music, a music “of the people” that, shared across class boundaries, tacitly reinforced solidarity between classes, then that music might actually be serving as a valuable social counter-force in a threatened democracy. As we will see in chapter 7, such reasoning drastically elevated the cultural stock of American popular music during the same decade, the 1960s, that witnessed the establishment of “Ph.D. music” as a significant and peculiarly American genre.

Babbitt went on to lament his isolation not only from the average student, but from his “fellow noncomposer faculty members at Princeton and, to a slightly lesser extent only, at Juilliard.” In what seems a doubly pessimistic assessment, considering that it was made after the program he had outlined in 1957 had been largely implemented within the university, he concluded that things were worse than ever for “serious music” as he defined it.

Superficially things might have seemed worse in the 1930s and 1940s. The audience seemed more sophisticated then, but there were not as many opportunities for composers. We do get our music performed now, we do get some recordings, we do occasionally get published. Back then Sessions was getting one or two performances a year in small rooms. That situation has improved, but we have no larger or more knowing an audience. I go to the best of concerts of contemporary music and see the same hundred or so people there week after week. I repeat, because it concerns me so, very few of my colleagues, who grew up on the streets of New York fighting the composer's battle, turn up to hear a young composer's music. As a result many young composers are, I hate to use this word, “alienated” even within their own profession. This is indeed a sad and symptomatic state of affairs, when the very survival of serious musical activity is so seriously threatened, by those within and outside the profession.40

Babbitt hated to use the word “alienated” because it was the sort of Marxist jargon that conjured up the shade of Zhdanov. But as Babbitt himself once half-ruefully joked, “everyone wants to compose our music but no one wants to listen to it.” Composing it is a fascinating game, as is analyzing it. It is the listening process that has proved durably problematical. Viewed thus, the fate of academic serialism has been predictable. It has fared no differently from any of the other forms of academic music that have arisen over the years, and that might be collectively defined as “music that only a composer could love.”


(35) Some of the arguments and speculations that Crocker and his collegues put forth to challenge the assumptions of modern musicians are reflected in the section headed “What is Art?” in R. Taruskin, Music from the Earliest Notations to the sixteenth Century(Oxford, 2009), pp.00–00

(36) Edward T. Cone, “What Is a Composition?” (contribution to a symposium, “Musicology and the Musical Composition”), Current Musicology, no. 5 (1967): 107.

(37) Quoted in Edward T. Cone, “One Hundred Metronomes,” The American Scholar XLVI (1977): 444.

(38) Milton Babbitt, interviewed in Deena Rosenberg and Bernard Rosenberg, The Music Makers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 57.

(39) Quoted in Richard Severo, “Vance Packard, 82, Challenger of Consumerism, Dies” (obituary), New York Times, 13 December 1996, p. A24.

(40) The Music Makers, pp. 58–59.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003012.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 7 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003012.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 7 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003012.xml