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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

Additional labor-saving steps were taken in New York, where Luening and Ussachevsky were receiving media exposure, followed by more prestigious performances and, finally, material grants. In December 1952 the pair were invited to appear on the “Today” show, then hosted by the announcer and commentator Dave Garroway. In April 1953, their pieces (including Incantation, their first joint composition) were included in a festival of musique concrète presented by Radiodiffusion française in Paris. Next, they received a commission from the Louisville Orchestra, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, for a concerted piece for tape recorder and orchestra. The result, Rhapsodic Variations, was first performed in Louisville on 20 March 1954 and recorded the next year.

Their method of collaboration was simple: they planned the piece together, agreed on which parts each would compose, then went home and did their assignments. In all, Luening and Ussachevsky wrote three compositions that pitted electronic music against the symphony orchestra. A Poem in Cycles and Bells (1954) was commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The New York Philharmonic commissioned Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra (1960) for nationwide broadcast on one of Leonard Bernstein's very successful outreach programs for children.

“Lunachevsky” began receiving commissions for theatrical music as well, and this gave the “pure” medium of tape music its widest early exposure. Together they provided incidental “scores” for Orson Welles's 1956 production of King Lear at New York's City Center and the 1958 Theater Guild production of Shaw's Back to Methuselah. Ussachevsky alone supplied a short electronic sequence to supplement the soundtrack music for Alfred Hitchcock's movie To Catch a Thief (1955). Another work of his, Linear Contrasts (1958), which included electronically synthesized sounds in addition to transformations of prerecorded musical instruments, was given its premiere at the Baden-Baden Festival in Germany.

Quite unexpectedly, two very conventionally trained musicians had become New York's dynamic duo of the avant-garde, and the very conservative music department where they taught—until then a bastion of neoclassical Americana under the stewardship of the opera specialist Douglas Moore (1893–1969), a pupil and disciple of the ultra-respectable Horatio Parker—found itself on the cutting edge of new music technology. Luening and Ussachevsky began attracting grant money to their institution, which purchased for them more equipment (like the oscillators Ussachevsky began using for the King Lear music and the Piece for Tape Recorder that derived from it) and in 1955 endowed an on-campus electronic music studio, America's first institutional home for the medium.

The Big Science Phase

fig. 4-6 Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky in the small teaching studio behind McMillan (now Miller) Theater at Columbia University, ca. 1960.

The studio moved from a two-story guardhouse that had formerly belonged to an insane asylum to a room behind the campus theater where the Composers Forum concerts were held, to large quarters in a building otherwise devoted to engineering offices. These quarters were made necessary by the purchase, thanks to a $175,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1959, of the RCA Mark II music synthesizer, a gigantic machine that occupied an entire wall. It had about 750 vacuum tubes and a mechanism that activated a multitude of binary switches by scanning punched cards. It could produce tones of minutely specifiable pitch, duration, and timbre, thus bringing these “parameters” under unprecedentedly minute control. Nevertheless, the romance of difficulty still attached to the process, even though the whole cutting-and-splicing phase was eliminated. Milton Babbitt's reminiscences, speaking from the vantage point of the 1990s (that is, the age of personal computers), recall the many inherent problems and ad hoc solutions with relish:

The machine was extremely difficult to operate. First of all, it had a paper drive, and getting the paper through the machine and punching the holes was difficult. We were punching in binary. The machine was totally zero, nothing predetermined, and any number we punched could refer to any dimension of the machine. There was an immense number of analog oscillators but the analog sound equipment was constantly causing problems. I couldn't think of anything that you couldn't get, but other composers gave up—it was a matter of patience. Max Mathews [a Bell Laboratories engineer who was then experimenting with the electronic synthesis of speech] once said to me, “You must have the mechanical aptitude of Edison to work with that synthesizer,” and I said, “No, I've got the patience of Job.” I became irritated with the mechanics of the machine very often. I had to troubleshoot all the time and I was completely dependent upon Peter Mauzey [the lab's technical engineer]. But I learned a lot of tricks, how to cut down on programming time with presets and so on. There were many people who would look at this machine and say, “It's a computer.” But it never computed anything. It was basically just a complex switching device to an enormous and complicated analog studio hooked into a tape machine. And yet for me it was so wonderful because I could specify something and hear it instantly.39

The nature of the machine changed the nature of the music the lab produced. Under the terms of the grant, negotiated primarily by Ussachevsky on behalf of Columbia University and Babbitt on behalf of Princeton, the new electronic music studio was to be jointly administered by both music departments and called the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. It became the model for the electronic music studios that soon mushroomed on virtually every American campus where musical composition was taught, especially those that in the 1960s began instituting doctoral programs on the Princeton model described in chapter 3.

In the process, American electronic music was to a significant degree Princetonized. It increasingly took on the characteristics, and served the purposes, described in Milton Babbitt's influential article from the inaugural issue of Perspectives of New Music (see chapter 3) in which “time-point” technique was first set forth, and in which the electronic medium was specified as the sole vehicle for achieving the accuracy in time discriminations at unlimited tempos that the system demanded.

But nothing in those days went unaccompanied by polemics. Even before presenting the new technique as such, Babbitt came out swinging at the musique concrète crowd:

To proceed from an assertion of what music has been to an assertion of what music, therefore, must be, is to commit a familiar fallacy; to proceed from an assertion of the properties of the electronic medium to an assertion of what music produced by this medium therefore must be, is not only to commit the same fallacy (and thus do fallacies make strange bedfellows), but to misconstrue that compositional revolution of which the electronic medium has been the enabling instrument.40

That revolution, Babbitt implied, had nothing to do with the much-vaunted expansion of sonic resources or liberation from traditional scales or organizing systems. It had, rather, to do with limits on the application of those organizing systems, both theoretical and actual. “For this revolution,” Babbitt asserted,

has effected, summarily and almost completely, a transfer of the limits of musical composition from the limits of the nonelectronic medium and the human performer, not to the limits of this most extensive and flexible of media but to those more restrictive, more intricate, far less well understood limits: the perceptual and conceptual capacities of the human auditor. Therefore, although every musical composition justifiably may be regarded as an experiment, the embodiment of hypotheses as to certain specific conditions of music coherence, any electronically realized composition which employs resources singularly obtainable by electronic means, in addition, will incorporate certain premises that are either severely circumscribed by the limited confirmed knowledge of the nature of those capacities or by isolated facts of musical perception, themselves obtained mainly with the assistance of electronic media, for incorporation into the premises of the particular work.41

As Babbitt less formally expressed it, “the hand is never faster than the ear”42 (that is, we can always hear more than we can manage physically to perform), but the synthesizer certainly is faster. It can easily be programmed to do what cannot be “heard”—that is, meaningfully parsed—by “the human auditory apparatus.” How to keep things within limits? Only by building on the most advanced systems of the past, because “the hypotheses they exemplify already have been widely tested and confirmed,” and give some assurance of structural validity. Electronic compositions, this means, cannot be judged otherwise than according to “traditional” musical criteria. And even though Babbitt takes the precaution of always putting the word “traditional” in ironic quotes, he intends no irony at all. So much for all the unprecedented, unlimited sound resources of the new medium! They are written off in advance as musically meaningless:

At the extreme of “nontraditionalism” is the selection of an uninterpreted formal system, no interpreted instances of which have been musically validated, along with coordinative rules which, likewise, have not been validated independently. In such a case, the probability that such an unrestricted choice from such a large number of possibilities at both stages will yield a significant result is extremely small, or the result itself is likely to be virtually trivial, that is, hardly to admit nonverification.43

What is to be sought, then, is not novel sounds or liberation from existing systems but only greater precision in the application of those very systems, allowing their further expansion and elaboration along previously marked-out paths of technical advancement. The electronic medium, in this view, was not the revolutionary transformation that Busoni and Cage had foreseen, and that Varèse awaited, but only a refinement of means toward an academically sanctioned end, that end being Ph.D.-style serialism. Babbitt, it seemed to some, was the “mortician” whose arrival Varèse had glumly anticipated.

For while obviously the most conservative and restrictive view of the new medium, Babbitt's was also the best-funded one, and had the most institutional prestige. That gave it influence. Its “classic” exemplifications were the four compositions that Babbitt himself created on the Mark II synthesizer during the Columbia-Princeton Center's early years. Two of them—Composition for Synthesizer (1961) and Ensembles (1964)—were composed for tape alone; the other two—Vision and Prayer (1961, text by Dylan Thomas) and Philomel (1964, text by John Hollander)—combined synthesized sounds with soprano voice, namely that of Bethany Beardslee (b. 1927), an intensely energetic singer gifted with phenomenal accuracy of pitch and rhythm, who had become a fixture of the New York new music scene, and who was married at the time to Babbitt's pupil Godfrey Winham.

At the beginning of Composition for Synthesizer, his maiden venture in the electronic medium, Babbitt seemed especially determined to announce that (as he put it in a program note) “the composition is less concerned with ‘new sounds and timbres’ than with the control and specification of linear and total rhythms, loudness rhythms and relationships, and flexibility of pitch succession.”44 The actual sounds seem to have been contrived with conventional instrumental timbres in mind—piano, pizzicato strings, woodwinds (clarinet or saxophone, bassoon or contrabassoon), unpitched percussion (actually closely spaced aggregates) as punctuation—so as to attract a minimum of attention to what for many composers was the primary attraction, and the primary selling point, of the medium.

Only near the end of the composition does Babbitt exercise his timbral imagination, recapitulating some familiar rhythms and contours with filtered white noise in place of exactly specified pitches. The confidently relaxed and humorous effect would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to obtain in a real-time performance that taxed the players’ concentration the way the compositions of Babbitt described in chapter 62 tended to do. That in itself is a strong argument for the electronic medium, not only as an aid to the composition of highly determined compositions like Babbitt's, but also as an aid to their enjoyment by listeners.

In Philomel, the medium is put to effective dramatic use. The title refers to one of the myths embodied in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the classical Latin poet. Philomela is the daughter of the Greek king Pandion and the sister of Procne, wife of the Thracian king Tereus. She is raped by her brother-in-law, who cuts out her tongue so that she can not accuse him. Philomela embroiders her story into a tapestry that she sends Procne, who, enraged, kills her son and serves his flesh to her husband as a meal. Tereus pursues the sisters intending to kill them, but the gods turn them all into birds: Procne becomes a nightingale, Tereus a hoopoe (the bird that fouls its own nest), and the silenced Philomela becomes the songless swallow. Ovid improved on the myth, adding both irony and poetic justice, by making Philomela the nightingale and Procne the swallow, so that the silenced woman becomes the sweetest singer in all the forest.

Hollander's poem is an interior monologue that portrays Philomela's emotional metamorphosis from the agony of rape and pursuit to exultation at her miraculously granted vocal powers. Babbitt pits the live voice against an accompaniment that includes the same singer's taped voice as well as synthesized sound. The beginning (Ex. 4-1) shows Philomela in her silenced state, screaming inarticulately (and inwardly), her voice represented by the taped soprano, sustaining and obsessively returning to the note E, which (as one might easily guess) is the zero pitch of the tone row on which the music is constructed. While it is held, six aggregates are formed around it in whirlwind succession in a process that one analyst has likened to a twelve-voiced canon.45

The first aggregate reflects the notes of the twelve-tone row as given across the top of Ex. 4-2, their order transformed into vertical spacing (reading “down”). The whole chord thus arrived at is transposed up a semitone in m. 2 to form the second aggregate, and transposed again, down two semitones, in m. 3. These intervals of transposition invert the intervals of the row itself, and the process continues throughout the excerpt shown, although beginning with the fourth aggregate the row is presented partly verticalized as before and partly as an ordered succession, the more usual way.

The odd rhythmic compressions (four or six even notes in the time of five sixteenths in m. 3, followed by seven in the time of eight sixteenths, four in the time of three, eight in the time of thirteen, eleven in the time of seven) are artifacts of the time-point system described in chapter 3, as the use of the time signature might already suggest. Rhythms like these are obviously more easily programmed on a synthesizer than realized by human beings, whose “auditory apparatus” might have trouble distinguishing one-eleventh of a double-dotted quarter note from one-seventh of a half-tied-to-an-eighth. Using the machine grants the composer freedom from such human limitations; in terms of the “dehumanization of art” that modernists have always longed for, that freedom was indeed a breakthrough.

The Big Science Phase

ex. 4-1 Milton Babbitt, Philomel, opening

The Big Science Phase

ex. 4-2 Magic square (prime-inversion matrix) for Milton Babbitt, Philomel

What sets Philomel apart from most of Babbitt's music is its representational dimension, which provides a metaphorical context for interpreting serial procedures that are more often presented as wholly abstract. The poem's dramatic plot, which ends on a note of emotional resolve, gives added resonance to Babbitt's usual habit of ending a composition with the simplest statement of his row material. The last stanzas of the poem describe the transmutation of Philomela's anguish into the nightingale's joyful song:

  • Pain in the breast and mind, fused into music! Change
  • Bruising hurt silence even further! Now, in this glade,
  • Suffering is redeemed in song. Feeling takes wing:
  • High, high above, beyond the forests of horror I sing!
  • I sing in change
  • Now my song will range
  • Till the morning dew
  • Dampens its face:
  • Now my song will range
  • As once it flew
  • Thrashing, through
  • The woods of Thrace.

The last quatrain (Ex. 4-3) is finally sung—this once only, and to poignant effect—to the pitches of the aggregate in the basic order, P0, set forth across the top of the magic square in Ex. 4-2.

The Big Science Phase

ex. 4-3 Milton Babbitt, Philomel, end (voice only)


(39) Quoted in Chadabe, Electric Sound, pp. 16–17.

(40) Milton Babbitt, “Twelve-Tone Rhythmic Structure and the Electronic Medium,” Perspectives of New Music I, no. 1 (Fall 1962): 49.

(41) Ibid.

(42) Milton Babbitt, Words about Music, eds. Stephen Dembski and Joseph N. Straus (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 173.

(43) “Twelve-Tone Rhythmic Structure,” p. 50.

(44) Liner note to “Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center” (Columbia Records MS 6566, 1964).

(45) Richard Swift, “Some Aspects of Aggregate Composition,” Perspectives of New Music XIV/2–XV/1 (1976): 241.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004008.xml