Tag Archives: Milton Babbitt

Reading about Milton Babbitt immediately preceding John Cage presents the two extreme directions in which American music has gone in the twentieth century.  And what a refreshing change of pace it is to read about John Cage and his concept of musical creation!  Where Babbitt is intellectual and elitist, Cage is insightful and down-to-earth.  Not knowing much about Cage himself, and only knowing a little about the miscellaneous sampling of his music that I have heard, It was interesting, although logically expected, for me to learn that Cage was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy.

The concept of chance in music, however, is startlingly contrary to this philosophy, as chance does not exist; everything is and happens as it is and happens.  Another interesting realization I had while reading about John Cage is that, despite his rejection of pre-calculated and mathematical form, his art-music, like Milton Babbitt’s, is still not easily accessible to general audiences.  Where Babbitt expects you to decipher his code, Cage expects you to be open to hearing more than the expectation of a performance; neither idea is something a general (American) audience is likely to grasp on first listen.  The difference for me, however, is that deciphering Milton Babbitt provides the listener with nothing more than knowledge about the algorithm Babbitt used for composing the piece, where expanding your perception of the world around you to truly appreciate John Cage’s later works can ultimately benefit one’s awareness of the world around them.

Reading selections of Cage’s writing on music, Silence, I was amused by the overall form of the writing as well as some of the micro-stories sprinkled in here and there.  “Saturday came.  Nothing happened” (6).  Priceless.  I couldn’t help thinking of magnetic poetry as I was reading some of the sections.  I wonder what John Cage had on his refrigerator?

Once again, like many composers before him, we see Cage’s desire to make music out of electric “instruments” without the hindrance of live performers to muck up their music.  Having lived my entire life with this technology available, I sigh at this notion, as I have yet to hear any real music come out of an automated instrument – be it car, computer, or one of those creepy looking robots that pays the trumpet.  As fascinating as this technology is, the lack of the human element (perhaps chance?) fails to make anything more than “organized sound.”  Why was everyone so obsessed with the idea of using machines to make music??  I just can’t comprehend it.  Surely in an age where the machine had been around long enough to create pollution, poverty, and war, people would already be aware that the sounds coming from these instruments is undesirable.  I am aware that the idea of flying cars is awesome, but in practice would be nearly impossible to control.  Technology on the horizon is understandable – and with it always comes a benefit (flawless performance, insane rhythmic accuracy, etc).  There are two sides to every coin, however, and one must consider what gets lost when technology takes the place of something.


The arrogance of Milton Babbitt is quite astonishing.  His ideas about music and the modern composer, as outlined in High Fidelity, VIII/2 (February, 1958), are as self-indulging and isolating as his music, which, from what it appears, is exactly what he wants.  It drives me a little nuts to think that a composer might actually want no one to hear [understand, enjoy] his music.  What’s the point, then?

I’m reminded of the age-old question “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make noise?”  Well, if a composer writes a masterpiece, and no one understands it, is it really a masterpiece?  On the surface I say of course it is not; not for the annals of history, anyway.  There’s a deeper issue in there, however.  The idea that music is not enjoyed by the current or general audience does not take away the quality of a piece.  There are major works, now considered masterpieces, that were not received well at their premiere, or even for years afterwards.  One such piece that comes to mind is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913, and which Wikipedia’s entry notes as “one of the most famous classical music riots in history” [1].  Other poorly received works are listed on Wikipedia’s Classical music riot entry.  What Babbitt writes, however, is that if a piece of music is not understood or not well-received at its premiere, the general audience is simply not ready to experience his music.  This concept seems like the ultimate defense mechanism for a composer who knows his work is not well-liked by the general audience.

Mixed into all of this discussion is a chicken and the egg scenario.  Which came first: the music of Milton Babbitt or his writings to tell you that his music is probably too elite for you?  Babbitt sets an expectation, if you read his writings first, that his music may be hard to understand and thus enjoy.  This expectation can also be taken as a challenge: “Are you smart enough to like my music?”  His comparison of modern his music to an advanced field of science, in which, as he quotes the New York Times, “there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute” creates musical super-elitism, the likes of which haven’t quite reached this level before.

Lastly, I want to comment about Babbitt’s comparison of music with science.  For me, science is built upon theory and then, fact.  Science explores our world around us and creates speculative and definitive answers to “Why?” in the world around us.  Sound is an area of science, for sure, as the physics of sound (as well as our anatomy) dictate what we hear and why we hear things as being out of tune or too loud.  Music (and art in general) does not fit in to science, however.  Music is an expression from within, the creation of which does not prove a theory or reside within fact.  Music is individual – it is something different to everyone around us – whereas Science presents us with rules that govern each and every one of us.  To call the expression of music a science is to box us in as musicians, and in many ways, constrain our musical boundaries.