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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Well, part of my point was: Mr. Toub doesn't like Babbitt and finds Carter vapid and forgettable. I happen to think they're both great composers and their music seems to me full of substance and meaning and, for that matter, great beauty, not to mention drama, etc. I'm happy to agree to disagree about this, there being no accounting for taste and it being a big world, and all of that, but I'm not happy about not giving them the benefit of the doubt in regard to their intention to write what seems to them to be meaningful and satisfying.

As to "Who Cares If You Listen?": I've been thinking about that lately since I've been reading Babbitt's Collected Essays to review them. It's pretty well known that Babbit's original title for that article was "The Composer as Specialist." The Editor decided the title under which it was published in High Fidelity was better. It certainly was eye-grabbing. One could say the editor was really only encapulating what the article was saying, anyway, and I suppose one might see it that way. It seems to me, though, that Babbitt didn't intend that message. (And, for whatever it matters, he's on record as strenuously denying that he intended anything like the message of that title.) The article does say basically that since the layman wouldn't question the authority of the expert doing advanced work in science and mathematics (even though nowadays they do), why should the musical layman feel entitled to question people doing advanced work in music. The obvious answer to that is that a composer is not supposed to be doing advanced work in music, he or she is supposed to be writing music, which by definition is supposed to be communication of some sort. I think there is different problem which is pointed the article, though: a composer spends an enormous chunk of his or her life listening to music, and an awful lot of it, of all different kinds, and thinking, and thinking seriously, about music (not just his own) in a very technical kind of way, to an extent and in ways which a non-composer almost certainly doesn't. (I was trying to avoid a word like technical, but I couldn't think of a less loaded one). Even though what, presumably, first drew him or her to music was, presumably, what also draws the "layman," it would seem to be inescapable that he or she would end up with at least a slightly different, insider, sense of things. One would hope that this "insider's" view wouldn't be an obstacle to his music communicating to someone who wasn't a composer. But, also presumably, a composer tries to write the music that seems most satisfying to him, and it would seem that some times this might leave the composer writing music which is meaningful and satisfying to him which somehow alludes others. (Among works which I think can be said to be intended for insiders (written for other composers?) and concerned with highly technical matters in a very specific way (academic exercises?) The Art of the Fugue, the Von Himmel Hoch Variations, and The Musical Offering of Bach, the Mozart Haydn Quartets, The Diabelli Variations, and bunch of Brahms pieces fall alot more into that category than the Schoenberg 4th Quartet or the Carter Variations for Orchestra, to name two randomly chosen pieces). I can't see, though, that there's a virtue in a composer writing music which doesn't seem to him or her to be as satisfying as he or she can make it just because he or she is afraid that somebody else won't like it. In fact, what can a composer possible go by except his or her own instincts about what's meaningful or beautiful, and how can he or she do anything other than try to frame a piece as carefully and soundly and elegantly as possible?

I don't think anybody would claim to think that academic exercises were musically satisfying. The rub comes with determining what might or might not be merely an academic exercise. It's all too easy, though, and glib, to throw that accusation around.

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