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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

But Can You Hear It?

CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

Other analysts were quick to note, however, that an irreducibly arbitrary (or “notional”) element remained at the heart of Babbitt's procedure, namely the deceptively simple notated meter. Conceived solely as a container for the time points, and never articulated in terms of recurrent rhythmic or accentual patterns, Babbitt's or measure was not in fact “a measure in the usual musical metrical sense,” but (like the bars in a transcription of a “medieval” or “Renaissance” motet) just a notational convenience. Rebar the music in or , or just shift the bars an eighth note to the right or left, and everything will change for the analyst, although nothing has changed for the listener. What is analyzed, then, are the relationships that are demonstrable in the music as seen on the page, not the music as heard. Is Babbittian (Princetonian? American?) postwar serialism, then, just an enormous flowering of Augenmusik? And if it is, does that invalidate its musical quality, or its crucial truth-claims? If it does, then in what way: esthetically? scientifically? Are the two distinguishable? If so, how?

These issues have been debated for decades, both within the serialist school and outside of it. Even those who accept the limitless malleability of human nature and believe that all listening habits are the product of conditioning have questioned the practicability of Babbitt's theorizing, even as they have in many cases adopted it themselves out of admiration for its utopian qualities. Babbitt's Princeton colleague Peter Westergaard (b. 1931), writing three years later in Perspectives of New Music, the serialist house organ, registered his qualms in the language of the theory to which he was raising his considered objections. Writing with reference to the Composition for Twelve Instruments, in which Babbitt employed twelve-element durational sets for the first time, Westergaard noted that

we have been at least partially conditioned by pre-Schoenberg pitch structure to hear pitch relationships mod. 12; i.e., we can be expected to hear a family resemblance in the opening interval of any P pitch set be it up a semitone, up thirteen semitones, or down eleven semitones. But have we been even partially conditioned by pre-Babbitt rhythmic structure to hear durational relationships mod. 12; i.e., can we be expected to hear a family resemblance between a dotted quarter note followed by a sixteenth note (the opening “interval” of duration set P0 [see Ex. 3-26]) and an eighth note followed by a dotted eighth note (the opening “interval” of duration set P2 [see Ex. 3-27])?

The perceptual problems outlined above are further intensified by problems of performance. It would be difficult enough to differentiate between durations of ten and eleven sixteenth notes defined by pairs of attacks controlled by one player on one instrument. But the attacks which define the durational sets of Composition for Twelve Instruments may come from as many as twelve different players, each playing an instrument with a different response time.46

Westergaard added a footnote to the article, possibly at the editors’ request, granting that all of these problems “have since been solved by Babbitt in his more recent procedure in which metric position corresponds to pitch number and, hence, duration to interval”47 —that is, by the time-point system. But few theorists who recognize the “problems” as such have been satisfied that the time-point system has solved them. More frequently they have complained that the solution merely added another purely conceptual, nonperceptual level to the theory, thus removing the music even more decisively from the likelihood of its “auditory construal.”48 That is a phrase coined by George Perle, who went on to dismiss not only the music in question but the analytical literature that has grown up around it, since “it should not need to be stressed that the analysis of a piece of music ought to be relevant to its perception.”49 Needless to say, what Perle took to be a self-evident axiom has proven, since the rise of academic serialism in America, to be as controversial a contention as anyone could possibly adopt.

Perhaps the climax of “theoretical” dissension from within was reached by William Benjamin, a Princeton-trained music theorist, who in 1981 noisily defected from the ranks, charging (in the Journal of Music Theory, a rival organ to Perspectives published at Yale) that “the music of the post-war avant-garde” was “the first music in history” that “cannot be improvised, precisely imagined, embellished, simplified, or played with in any creative sense,” all of which, he felt, justified the assertion that “it is hardly music at all.”50 Strong words. But Benjamin has no greater right to define music than Babbitt. Some analysis of his comments, and Perle's, may help clarify the stakes of the argument—and the historical significance of the musical discourses at the center of the controversy.


(46) Peter Westergaard, “Some Problems Raised by the Rhythmic Procedures in Milton Babbitt's Composition for Twelve Instruments,” Perspectives of New Music IV, no. 1 (Fall–Winter 1965): 113.

(47) Ibid. p. 113n.

(48) George Perle, The Listening Composer (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), p. 115 (quoting Joseph Dubiel).

(49) Ibid. p. 121.

(50) William Benjamin, “Schenker's Theory and the Future of Music,” Journal of Music Theory XXV (1981): 170.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003014.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003014.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003014.xml