ON THE PURPOSE OF COMPOSITION
What is the nature of music? What distinguishes it from the other arts? Unlike a painting, a work of music cannot be perceived instantly as a whole. It is a duration-sensitive art, and must be experienced through a given period of time. Unlike literature or theatre, music is predominantly a nonverbal art. Language is, inherently, a reduction of thought. To "put an idea into words" is to reduce it to a process of reason. Music allows us to connect directly with human passion. This statement will alienate all musicologists: analysis of music is also a reduction. Once we return a piece to its compositional elements, we lose some of its emotional power in favor of gaining intellectual power. True, understanding the structure of a piece may allow us to "appreciate" it more. It may connect a piece to its historical ancestry, showing the influence of previous work. It allows us to know when a composer is deviating purposefully from a formula. It may even allow us to rationalize that the complex structure of a piece compensates for its lack of visceral impact, but it cannot replace that transcendent connection a listener may have with the performance of a piece. A listener need not know the root movement of a deceptive cadence or a German sixth chord to be surprised by the deviation from harmonic expectations. The effect is the same with or without the knowledge of why it works. Babbitt is wrong in touting the advantages of being able to make "heavier demands upon the training of the listener"- the emotional affect of music both precedes and transcends its analysis.
Furthermore, music is inherently a collaborative art. A composer is dependent upon the performer as cocreator. Does a piece of music "exist" wholly on the page? Music lives only in the duration of its performance. When a skilled musician reads the music, they might "hear" it in their head- but they are still providing an internal realization of the score. The experience of music is different in each performance. In Japan, the Waki actor in a Noh play will have the traditional lines, music and blocking memorized for a play, and present a given piece with a given cast only once in their lifetime, predominantly unrehearsed, for a given audience. They understand that each performance is truly unique, a product of that gathering of people. Music is the same. Its effect is dependent upon the performers and the audience as much as upon the composer. Even in electronic music, where the composer and their medium may all be the creative process of a single person- the listener is a cocreator. The experience of a piece of music will differ upon each realization- even if it is a single person listening to a prerecorded tape.
Babbitt implies that in popular song, the qualities of dynamics, timbre- in fact everything but melodic interval- are "not germane." In this, he is especially wrong. Though these qualities may vary between performances of a certain piece, they are integral to the impact of the music. In Babbitt's own work, he includes passages where the dynamic shifts from note to note. Unlike metronome markings, which are specific to the tenth of a second, dynamic marking are entirely relative to a live performer, based as much on the performer's perception of the "mood" of a piece as upon the other dynamic marks surrounding it. More simply: your mezzo-piano will inevitably be different from mine.
Babbitt resents critics who dismiss the categories "popular" and "serious" music. If he examined the purpose of music, he might embrace the argument. Music is an artistic form of human expression. Its purpose is to be a catalyst for communication. If the layman, as Babbitt disdains, is unfit to dislike a piece of "serious" music, then Babbitt is closing off the communicative process- and should not have an audience to begin with. Babbitt's crisis, like that of many of his multiserialist contemporaries, is that he usually fails to communicate on the visceral level at all. True, he uses many complex mathematical algorithms to derive core elements of his music: rhythm, dynamic, pitch. However, by adhering to "the formula," he has actually relinquished artistic control over the final product. By using his time-point system, for example, the metrical attack of his notes is given to the equation. If his ear told him that, emotionally, the piece needed to arrive at a downbeat there, he would have to (a) ignore the instinct, (b) rewrite the formula, changing the score preceding the moment, and likely dissolving the need for that downbeat, or (c) abandon the system. The latter, Babbitt, who can justify every note in every serialist piece that he has written, would not do.
What, then, is a composer's task? Is he to create a process for creating music? Surely, that is a creative act by itself. Or, is the composer responsible for the completion of a piece, including its emotional impact from measure to measure? Without this, is the process not an exercise, a self-indulgent exploration of what music might be, without regard to what it is? Do we not call the finding of a structure, a generative formula, precomposition? A composer must be humble. Without both a medium and a listener, they are like an incomplete circuit: the energy has been spent, but it has no effect. Compromise is not unprofessional in a composer, as he suggests, but essential to the art.
We face a world rapidly losing patience for new music. Orchestras rarely program a premiere in their season. Those that do survive are small works: overtures or even fanfares. Chamber groups have divided into the traditional and the "new music" groups, with little meeting ground. The new-music procurers deny, even scorn their roots; the traditionalists cannot fathom their descendants. The audience has left us, retreating almost one hundred years to find music that speaks to them. This is, at least in part, our own doing. Twelve-tonalists, atonalists, serialists and multiserialists have treated their audience most contemptuously, assuming that any disfavor is a shortcoming. They cry out for music that moves them, surprises them, connects to their own passions. We must return to them: they are our partners. We have lived far too long in the void.
RELATED ARTICLE BY MILTON BABBITT (1916-2011)