Columbia University’s School of the Arts has given John Zorn the William Schuman Award, a major recognition given periodically over the past twenty-five years.
    
Named for its first recipient William Schuman, the award, in the form of a direct, unrestricted grant of $50,000, is one of the largest to an American composer. In the language of the gift establishing the prize, the purpose of the William Schuman Award is “to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance.” It is awarded by the Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. The award was established in 1981 by a bequest from the Schuman family. Previous winners have included Schuman, David Diamond, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, and Hugo Weisgall, and, most recently in 2001, Steve Reich.

I don’t think that Zorn is quite in that league but, hey, what do I know?

54 Responses to “Eight Million Stories in the Naked City”
  1. Seth Gordon says:

    I don’t think that Zorn is quite in that league but, hey, what do I know?

    I’d make this analogy:

    Zorn : Pedro Martinez :: Babbitt : the second best guy on an East Palookaville bowling team.

    I’d put Reich in the majors as well, but as to the rest… as composers… I don’t know that any will have much “lasting significance” – Schuller as an educator, sure, but as a composer? I’m fond of him, and Diamond as well, but that doesn’t mean a hundred years from now anyone’s going to remember their names – or, more to the point, their compositions.

    And I suspect the “lasting significance” of Babbitt’s snorefests are only going to last another ten, maybe twenty years on the outside. Though when he was given the award he probably seemed really important, so, whatever.

    But hey, what do I know?

  2. Alan Theisen says:

    “I’m fond of him, and Diamond as well, but that doesn’t mean a hundred years from now anyone’s going to remember their names – or, more to the point, their compositions.”

    …just like Zorn.

  3. Evan says:

    All right, a catfight!

    Perhaps we can agree that Babbitt and Zorn are both important, though not necessarily to the same people.

    I do submit that Babbitt and Zorn are the only people on that list who did fundamentally interesting things with music.

  4. Seth Gordon says:

    Perhaps we can agree that Babbitt and Zorn are both important, though not necessarily to the same people.

    What I’m saying is that in fifty years, there won’t be many Babbitt-is-important people left. Whereas Zorn’s influence is far more widespread and – I’d say – permanently entrenched in the musical culture. And I suspect (though none of us are going to be around to collect the braggin’ rights on this) that in due time the crossover success of Zorn in the late 80s – particularly in regard to Naked City – will be seen as a watershed period, and the career of Milton Babbitt a historical curiosity.

    But Milty talks a good game, I give him that. If that keeps getting him awards and recognition and such, more power to him I suppose.

  5. Steve Layton says:

    It is a pretty starnge list; pretty plodding & then ZING!… like they suddely woke up to the fact that the bus was already five blocks down the street and they were still sitting on the bench.

    Though maybe they overshot a bit? I mean, Zorn’s hasn’t even hit 55 yet, and he’s getting a lifetime achievment award? Do they know something we don’t? A sudden terminal illness? Or that they figure there’s not much left to squeeze out of him musically?

  6. Steve Layton says:

    Damn it, Jerry, I want the “preview” function back! There’s no other help for my incurable Mass-Typo Syndrome!…

  7. Rodney Lister says:

    Who is your informant in the future who’s told you that Babbitt will only be a curiosity fifty years from now?

  8. Chris Becker says:

    Funny – I heard Zorn last night at Town Hall at a benefit for The Stone and I definitely didn’t get the feeling he had a terminal illness or that there’s not much left to squeeze out of him musically. In fact, quite the opposite. I left the show stimulated – reminded of so much music that inspired me as a younger composer before I relocated to New York and excited by the possibilities of creativity that my own 40’s 50’s and onward (onward!) will hold.

  9. David Salvage says:

    The number of youngsters writing music ala Babbitt may be small, but he is of enormous influence on us all. Why? Fifty years ago, a PhD in Composition was unheard of. Now it’s practically standard procedure. The man at the center of this change is Milton Babbitt.

  10. Chris Becker says:

    …and maybe that’s why there’s a CD of Babbit’s music available on Zorn’s label Tzadik?

    And it’s deep too!

  11. Dan VanHassel says:

    Fifty years ago, a PhD in Composition was unheard of. Now it’s practically standard procedure. The man at the center of this change is Milton Babbitt.

    Seriously? How did he accomplish that exactly? And why?

  12. David Toub says:

    So David, I guess Miltie ruined composition for at least 50 years with this academic PhD nonsense? 8-)

    Sorry Rodney—not a Babbitt fan. I’ve tried, really. Coming from an academic background, I’m fine with it in the sciences and the arts. But when one starts applying very rational, objective sorts of thinking to something like music composition, I’m not going to be supportive.

  13. Michael Zarouz says:

    Babbitt was rocking out with the Mark II when Zorn was still shitting in his diapers.

  14. Seth Gordon says:

    Who is your informant in the future who’s told you that Babbitt will only be a curiosity fifty years from now?

    He claims to be the unfrozen head of Walt Disney, but he’s got a French accent so I’m not so sure he’s being straight with me.

    Babbitt was rocking out with the Mark II when Zorn was still shitting in his diapers.

    And Zorn’s making music that people actually care about now that Babbitt’s soiling his

    Oh, and “rocking out” is stretching it a bit, I think. I’ll give you “noodling around” maybe.

    But whatever. And Beethoven was writing for string quartets before Bartok was ever born. So what. Who cares? Besides, the Mark II is an outdated, maybe kinda cool in it’s heyday, piece of crap – not unlike…

  15. David Toub says:

    Seth, you beat me to it, and more eloquently, I might add.

  16. Rodney Lister says:

    Well, the argument is useless to pursue. If you’d don’t like it you don’t like it. Fine. The fact that you don’t like it doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody should be allowed to do, or that what you don’t like has no value, lasting or otherwise simply because you don’t like it. It only means that you don’t get it, which as I said if fine–just leave it at that. As far as applying very rational objective sort of thinking to music–worked for Dufay and Machaut. And for Bach for that matter. And probably also for Debussy and Bartok. Actually, that’s not the quality that seems to me to be most striking about Babbitt’s music anyway….

    As to the PhD thing, Arthur Berger’s last book has a chapter about the whole question of how it happened and how it was justified and who was behind it. It’s really pretty interesting. He doesn’t actually point the finger at Milton, but it was definitely coming from Princeton, at least according to his account, as I remember it.

    Milton did write a dissertation which he presented to Princeton in hopes of getting a PhD, which was not granted because (1) they didn’t grant PhDs in Music and (2) they didn’t have anybody who was capable of evaluating it. (He got the PhD as a retirement present). (The dissertation was never published, but it’s basically the source of most of his theoretical writings about twelve-tone theory. ) That situation probably gave the incentive to try to see that PhDs happened.

  17. David Toub wrote: “But when one starts applying very rational, objective sorts of thinking to something like music composition, I’m not going to be supportive.”

    Cage and Schoenberg often did this too, as you know. Do you support Cage and Schoenberg? It might be more honest to say “I do not like Babbitt’s music”.

  18. David Toub says:

    Glenn, my statement is actually independent of my opinion of Babbitt’s music, which admittedly I’m not fond of. I could care less if anyone is fond or not fond of any particular composer’s output, including my own. And I was not referring to the use of a system, be it 12-tone, the I-Ching or otherwise. Rather, I was referring strictly to the imposition of academic degrees and curricula, like the PhD degree, upon something that is very much a subjective entity.

    I don’t know that I support Cage and Schoenberg. Rather, I love their music (at least most of it—I still find Schoenberg’s op. 26 cold and clammy, akin to an academic exercise rather than to expressive output, but that’s just my opinion). But that has nothing to do with the idea of instituting an academic stamp on one’s music, as with a PhD degree. I can understand a PhD in musicology, since that’s more of an objective, largely fact-based enterprise. But composition? Art? Poetry? These are all examples of how humans express themselves. By definition, this is subjective, not objective. Music is not physics, even though all sound-waves are physical in nature. At no time did Schoenberg ever, ever place theory above expression. For sure, he wrote a lot about the dodecaphonic system in the same way that others wrote about tonality. In many ways, he had to, in order to give it some imprimatur of authority, to show that serialism was an evolution of tonality. But in the end, what matters is the music itself, not whether there is some clever use of combinatoriality or some other “cool” aspect of a tone row. That’s why I can find so much to like in Arnie’s music, but little if anything that grabs me in Babbitt’s stuff. Look, I have a great fondness for mathematics and physics, and the mathematical aspects of 12-tone music certainly interested me many years ago. But in the end, I found it to be a dead end. I don’t agree with those who automatically dismiss a work because it’s serial; even La Monte Young wrote a lot of 12-tone music (just take a look at the score of the 1958 Trio for Strings). But I don’t think that something is great just because it’s 12-tone. Personally, all it is is a technique, just like tonality, etc. It’s what you do with it that matters, and I just don’t happen to like what Babbitt or Boulez did with it (although I do listen to some Boulez and even some Babbitt from time to time to give it another chance). But the practice of “academicizing” art and music is something that leaves me cold, and was not something that Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were responsible for. And as for Cage—in so many ways he symbolizes the out-of-the-box type of thinking that is not typical of academia.

  19. Evan says:

    David, it doesn’t matter whether you have a Ph.D. or not; it is not a predictor of the quality of your music.

    It does, however, mean that perhaps you are not the best qualified to evaluate the whole idea of composition Ph.D. programs; and all of what you write above in that regard is nonsense. Sorry.

  20. Rodney Lister says:

    Who do you know who DOES thing something’s great just because it’s twelve-tone?

  21. The odd list of William Schuman Award winners says a lot more about the winds blowing through the office of Columbia’s Dean of the School of the Arts than about whatever’s of lasting significance in American music, don’t you think? Zorn and Babbitt do stand out as two of the most symbolic figures on the list. And they make quite a fox-and-hedgehog pairing–one guy pursuing the idea of 12ness to the ends of the earth and the other throwing everything that’s not nailed down at the wall to see what sticks.

    There’s an aspect of mystification to both of them that I personally find alienating. With Babbitt it’s the mathematics. And really, as math goes, there’s nothing about it that’s profound, or even all that arcane–it’s all easily within the reach of an undergraduate math major. With Zorn it’s more a matter of personal style–just look at his stock bio, which is mostly devoted to pointless mystification. I wonder if, with this new endorsement and the MacArthur award he’ll drop the bs about “defying academic categories.” Personally I forgave him for that kind of crap and for the annoying, tendentious pieces of his that I’ve had to sit through when I heard his Acoustic Masada in concert a few months ago (more impressions of the show here). I’m not sure about lasting significance but he’s not a bad fox.

  22. David Toub says:

    It does, however, mean that perhaps you are not the best qualified to evaluate the whole idea of composition Ph.D. programs; and all of what you write above in that regard is nonsense. Sorry.

    As a listener as well as a composer, Evan, I’m as qualified as anyone else. And one man’s nonsense is another man’s wisdom. But you don’t need a PhD in music to feel that there is a difference between objectivity (as with most academic pursuits) and subjectivity (as with most artistic pursuits). Again, composition is not physics.

    Rodney, I was making a point by counterexample.

  23. david toub says:

    BTW, Evan, if a PhD has nothing to do with the quality of a composition (and I’m absolutely with you here; the degree is irrelevant), then what’s the point of the degree anyway?

    Interestingly, most of the composers in the past century who were “disruptive,” and changed music in a very significant fashion did not have the academic cred and were in many cases even autodidacts: Cage, Schoenberg, Feldman, Scelsi, Partch. Those who did come from an academic background, such as Young, Glass, Reich, Riley, were the antithesis of the usual academic music paradigm, wouldn’t you agree?

    No one is saying that no one should pursue an academic degree in music like a PhD. I’m just saying that it seems a bit illogical to me—putting the stamp of objectivity on something that is inherently subjective. And Evan, if you feel that only academic types can really judge the value in such degree programs, that’s part of the attitude problem right there that is inherent in these programs.

    I’ll lay it right on the line: I genuinely believe that the academy is stifling. Not just in music, mind you, but particularly when applied to music. It’s insular, encourages conformity, etc. And people within it often don’t realize that they’re part of the system of conformity. It’s sort of like how Neo in the original Matrix film has no clue he’s part of a safe, imaginary computer-generated world until after he’s rescued from the Matrix. Think of the conservatory or university as the Matrix and you’ll see my analogy.

    Seth/Dan: your thoughts?

  24. Evan says:

    David, there is no “objectivity” in academic pursuits outside of the sciences. The idea that a degree-granting program in a subject implies that that subject is treated in some sort of quasi-scientific, rationalist manner is total, total nonsense.

  25. David Toub says:

    Evan, not to prolong the agony of all this, but except for some offshore degree mills, I’d like to think most university degrees are indeed rigorous, backed up by objective evidence, and subject to accepted standards. That’s the whole point of academic accreditation. You can’t get a PhD in fingerpainting, but you can get an advanced degree in sociology. And yes, Evan, there is indeed objectivity in the social sciences and even in the humanities. But there’s a difference between getting a PhD in musicology (objective, at least on the face of it) and in comparative literature (again, largely objective). But in terms of composition, the only way it can be of the same level of credibility as PhDs overall is for there to be some basic standards. And these standards usually mean demonstrating the ability to compose for orchestra (I recall that a credible piece for orchestra was a requirement for a DMA degree at Juilliard), just as an example. And if your degree, and your livelihood, depend on your work passing muster with an academic committee, are you going to go the innovative route or the safe route? I recall seeing a letter to a DMA committee once from a composition teacher of mine mentioning specifically that he had a wife to support. His submission was safe; nice, but safe. How can that sort of environment foster the genuine individuality and innovation that we like to think is part of any artistic endeavor?

    So Evan, we come from different perspectives, even different worlds, and let’s agree to disagree and move on. I’m not going to concede, and neither should you.

  26. Chris Becker says:

    Robert – John Zorn recorded an entire album of Ornette Coleman tunes with Tim Berne called Spy vs. Spy where in the liner notes both Ornette and Denardo are thanked (this is also where I first read the line “smash racsim”). I’m not sure how you decided then that Zorn’s bio is “pointlessly disrespectful” in that it does not mention Coleman’s influence. Zorn has always put his money where his mouth is.

  27. Ian Moss says:

    David, there is no “objectivity” in academic pursuits outside of the sciences.

    I would argue, though, that there is a pretense of objectivity in those pursuits. Witness the rigorous footnoting in dissertation texts, for example, something you never see in supposedly “objective” fields like journalism.

  28. Ian Moss says:

    to me, Zorn’s significance lies at least as much in how he’s served as a one-man factory for an entire scene of musicians for at least 25 years. Look at the record label, the international exposure in/from Japan, the venues, the careers that he has helped to launch. And he’s done it entirely on his own with virtually no institutional support until recent years. That’s pretty incredible if you ask me, regardless of what you think about his music.

  29. Lanier says:

    David, I just wanted to chime in here, since I’ve spent the past year applying to PhD programs (and, therefore, spending a lot of time learning about them). I can assure you that there are plenty of departments out there that don’t make things like orchestral writing the focus of the degree. There are several great departments that are willing to give their resources and guidance to composers with a variety of interests.

    For me, the chance to spend several years writing music and having it evaluated by people whose music I respect sounds like a great opportunity. Sure, almost every program is going to push me occasionally to try things to which I might be resistant, but I don’t see how that experience hurts me as a composer. Also, I have enough faith in the programs to which I’ve applied to believe that whatever I choose to pursue in my dissertation will be welcomed as long as I demonstrate that it’s the product of hard work and plenty of thought. So, I think my degree will offer proof that I’m a thoughtful composer who’s had a fair amount of experience writing and learning about music. Does that mean my music is ‘objectively’ good? No way, but it will suggest to potential employers that I understand my field (and have the background to teach).

    That said, I did find a lot of programs that seemed awfully conservative. But, I imagine that those programs are generally populated by people who are intersted in writing conservative music already. So, as long as any prospective student does his or her research, I think he or she can avoid the academic stifling that your describing. But hey, I’ll check back in after a couple years and let you know.

  30. David Toub says:

    Ian: agree absolutely about Zorn’s significance beyond what one might think of his music.

    Lanier: good luck to you in your pursuits. Hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for, and your program will provide you with the appropriate respect and creative room you should have. From what I’ve heard from other composers, all of whom write really nice stuff and who already clearly know what they’re doing, there seems to be a perceived need to have a doctoral degree to obtain teaching positions and some sense of stability. That’s a shame, since it becomes a self-perpetuating process.

  31. Trevor Hunter says:

    Now, I can’t speak about issues of conformity in academia outside of the Center of the Universe here in New York (Colin Holter has an article about such issues in the midwest over on NewMusicBox). However, over the past year I’ve attended a number of student composer’s concerts (mostly graduate level) for Columbia, NYU, and Manhattan School of Music, and the one thing that has actually surprised me more than anything is the diversity of expression. One MSM concert started with a piece that essentially consisted of dropping half an accordion on the ground and ended with a Bartok-influenced string quartet. The ICE concert of NYU composers had everything from quiet, beautiful microtonal music to an hommage to Metallica. The Columbia concerts feature influences ranging from the expected Murail to Crumb, Normandeau, and any number of other stylistic types. I haven’t heard anyone who sounds like Reich or Glass (they might be at Mannis for all I know), but the influence of process music is equally apparent.

    Perhaps things are different elsewhere, but from my experiences the music coming out of Academia in the younger generation is all over the place, which is an exceptionally good thing.

  32. Evan says:

    I’m not going to get involved in this silly debate again. Just a couple things.

    most of the composers in the past century who were “disruptive,” and changed music in a very significant fashion did not have the academic cred and were in many cases even autodidacts: Cage, Schoenberg, Feldman, Scelsi, Partch.

    There were no American academic music programs of the type under discussion when Cage, Feldman, or Partch were student-age; the European situation is very different. I would point out that Charles Ives had a BA in music from Yale, which was the absolute height of formal musical education in the United States at the time.

    But in terms of composition, the only way it can be of the same level of credibility as PhDs overall is for there to be some basic standards. And these standards usually mean demonstrating the ability to compose for orchestra (I recall that a credible piece for orchestra was a requirement for a DMA degree at Juilliard), just as an example.

    … and if you don’t want to write orchestra music, you don’t go to Juilliard. Every school is different. Generally, the composition part of a Ph.D. involves assembling a dossier of work that the faculty things represents a significant creative achievement. It’s up to the student to find a school, and a subset of the school’s faculty, where that judgement is meaningful to them. I have seen accepted dissertation portfolios that make anything by Partch or Feldman look as conventional as the most academic composer you can think of.

    And if your degree, and your livelihood, depend on your work passing muster with an academic committee, are you going to go the innovative route or the safe route?

    It depends on the committee, and it depends on the school. Every composer in the world, unless they have a stable day job and absolutely no other pressures in their life, faces incentives to go the “safe route.” If you don’t know of any Ph.D. candidates or holders doing innovative work, you simply don’t know where to look.

    And no, there is nothing objective about the humanities. My wife is a doctoral student in media theory, and there are ideological battles there at least as vicious as those between, say, Juilliard and Mills College. If you are interested in the psychoanalytic model of spectatorship, you will not be welcome at UW-Madison; you will run into difficulties at Brown if you are not interested in Marxist critiques. But – guess what? – there is plenty of room for diversity.

    The idea that getting a Ph.D. is “selling out” is ludicrous, and offensive, and if it’s based on any reality at all that reality is at least twenty-five years out of date.

    Finally:

    As a listener as well as a composer, Evan, I’m as qualified as anyone else.

    No, I’m sorry, no disrespect, but you’re not. You simply cannot make statements about how the evaluative machinery of a composition program is inherently stifling, or prohibits fresh thinking, or whatever, without evidence.

    As for Riley, Reich, etc. – no, they are not typical, and that’s the only reason you’ve heard of them. Babbitt is not typical either; that’s why you’ve heard of him. Most academically-trained composers, like most other composers, are not particularly special; but to imply a blanket connection is sophistry.

    No more on this from me.

  33. Evan says:

    … one more thing: if you don’t think Babbitt was “disruptive” in the 1950s and 1960s, your prejudices are showing.

  34. David Toub says:

    Evan, I thought you said “No more on this from me.” 8-)

    And Babbitt was disruptive in the 50’s and 60’s…how? Not a matter of my prejudices, but what did he do that was particularly disruptive in terms of composition? No new paradigms that I’m aware of came out of his work, which was really an outgrowth of the total serialism that dates back to the second of the four Etudes by Messiaen (great piece, incidentally, and one where he realized it was a dead end ultimately and didn’t really do more with it). Boulez, sure, was disruptive, but Babbitt? Forgive my ignorance (or lack of a music PhD), but I’m not seeing it.

    Where did you get that I ever indicated that getting a PhD was selling out? I think that bespeaks your own prejudices, Evan.

    Yes, Charles Ives had a baccalaureate degree in music. Big deal. He had the balls not to let it hinder his visionary genius (just writing this stuff to get a rise out of you, Evan. Really).

  35. Its logical that composers that have the most formal training at the baccalaureate (or pre-baccalaureate) level would be the most outspoken critics of composers with graduate and terminal degrees in music composition.

    Pursuing my PhD degree was the best decision at made when I was 23 and I was happy that I spent four years (debt free with a stipend) in a supportive community of senior composers and talented colleagues.

    Most importantly I wanted to teach. I learn a great deal every semester immersed in an academic environment of curious learners. I also appreciate the paid four months off every year that I get to work uninterrupted on my own music and interests.

    As for Babbitt, Philomel is truly inspirational. As for Zorn, the Heretic album is incredible (and well known by my pop musician friends). I admire both for very different reasons and they have both challenged aesthetics. It seems silly to compare with conviction and hostility which composer will actually be apart of the future canon.

  36. Also, “Mode de Valeurs et d’intensities” may be formalistic, but could hardly be considered a “serial” composition as defined the Schoenberg guidelines to twelve- tone music.

  37. Lastly I agree with Steve Layton – the preview before you post would be best so we can our catch grammer errors.

  38. Lastly I agree with Steve Layton-The preview before you post would be best so we can our catch grammer errors.

  39. david toub says:

    I’m confused as to how a work that serializes not just pitch, but duration, dynamics and attack is not considered “serial.” Guess it depends on what your definition of “serial” is. I’m also not aware that Schoenberg ever published “guidelines” as to what constitutes serialism. All serialism is, as I was taught, is the use of rows, which can be any length (not necessarily 12 tones). A lot of 50’s stravinsky, for example, uses strict serialism but not involving all 12 tones. Messiaen’s ‘mode’ has always been considered a serial work. It differs from the serialism of the new vienna school only in its serialism of elements beyond pitch. Wonderful piece of music, incidentally.

  40. Messiaen’s use of pitch in Modes is primarily intuitive even though the score suggests three a “rows” which he specifically calls “modes” – he merely assigned durations, articulations and dynamics to pitches then used pitch freely. That is not defined as Serialism as applied by his protégés. That is not defined as 12-tone as demonstrated by Schoenberg’s repertoire.

    From what I have garnered from my studies with Messiaen’s students he was not pleased with the etudes. He thought of the etudes as experimental works and they did not offer the sensual aspect similar to his other works.

    Personally, for Messiaen’s formalistic works, I prefer pieces like the “L’exchange” from “Vignt regards” where formalistic aspects of the composition came from his devout religious beliefs.

  41. David Toub says:

    Again, it depends on how you define “serial.” Messiaen does indeed use three 12-tone rows of pitches in ‘mode.’ Modes, rows, whatever. The work has been touted by several sources I’ve known as the first example of total serialism. I’m not sure how any of this materially differs from the use of rows in Schoenberg’s works, or the Stravinsky Serenade (which is serial but not 12-tone) for that matter. I think we’re talking about the same thing, just with different semantics.

  42. Again – the pitch selection through out the work (Modes) was intuitive, there was nothing “serial” about that. A better example of “Serialism” would be Boulez’s Structures, which purposely uses the same compositional materials as “Modes” but incorporated a 12 – tone process for pitch selection and most other aspects of the work. The intuitive factor was diminished significantly and the serial process realized the composition. Messiaen was “formalistic” at times – never a serial composer.

  43. David Toub says:

    Structures purposely used the 12-tone pitch rows from Mode. Regardless of how strict the pitch choices were or weren’t in Mode, Messiaen clearly was dabbling with serialism, even if one only considers the serialism of assigned durations, attacks, dynamics, etc. Messiaen called this a “mode” rather than a “series,” but it’s really a matter of semantics.

    From the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

    Two developments in musical style in the 20th century have placed great strain upon staff notation: integral serialism—in which the music is controlled by a mathematical system—and indeterminacy, or chance music. In the former, every note in a texture may have its individual dynamic marking and type of attack (for example, in Olivier Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensites…

    and so on and so forth. Even if one ignores pitch selections, every other element of the work is serial. QED. No one has ever claimed that OM was a serial composer, any more than Aaron Copland was. Both of them dabbled, Copland more so. Messiaen dabbled and gave it up very quickly.

  44. I am curious to know the author of the article, not that I dare critize the role of the Encyclopedia Britticanica as a leading journal of new musical analysis…

    “in which the music is controlled by a mathematical system—and indeterminacy, or chance music”

    I fail to see what the system is in this work, he is not using a mathematical process (or even a 12-tone system) for assigning musical parameters or pitches. Its certainly not alea. Its just a musical language that he assembled (not much differently then the formalist processes of his other compositions) then clearly outlined in the second page of the score.

    At best, Modes may be a prototype to the true serialist works that were composed by his students and by Babbitt.

  45. Scott says:

    David – you said, “Again – the pitch selection through out the work (Modes) was intuitive, there was nothing ‘serial’ about that.” But it’s not as if Alban Berg just rolled some dice and picked a 12-tone row at random, and then played eeny-meeny-miney-moe to pick which row form goes where. There’s a great deal of musical intuition, aesthetic decision-making, and artistic temperament that goes into the masterful arrangement of pitches in any well-written piece of music, including serial music. Intuition always has a great deal to do with it. It seems that no matter what happens, there’s still this persistent image of a composer choosing notes willy-nilly, and screwing over his/her own musical ideas for the sake of math. I’ve never met nor heard of anyone doing this, including Babbitt; I love one particular piece of his guitar music, which is remarkably flamenco-influenced and 12-tone at the same time, and that’s not an accident, but rather an excellent sense of musical intuition.

  46. David Toub says:

    Scott, my sentiments exactly. I’ve written strict 12-tone works. I continue to use serial elements in much of my music, albeit in my own voice and when I want to (several sections of my recent piece “for philip glass” are 12-tone, yet postminimalist just the same). So it’s not as if anyone, Babbitt included, picks series based on some mathematical construct. Certainly, some folks have constructed series that have particular attributes, like combinatoriality or all-interval rows, but I haven’t done anything like this in nearly 30 years, and in any case, most rows are derived musically, not mathematically.

  47. Scott – the treatment of the “mode” is not handled in a twelve-tone “row” fashion. Even though the 2nd Vienese guys composed with great thought the pitch material in their rows, they proceeded to order the rows in their music (for the most part) by the typical 12-tone prodecures. Messiaen composed his modes, “assigned” other music parameters to the pitches in the mode – then composed in an intuitate manner not following 12-tone or any other process for the realization of the work.

  48. Scott says:

    David, I’m sorry, but I just don’t think these “typical 12-tone procedures” for choosing what row goes where exist. Maybe this is where I depart from the history books, but I just don’t think there is a “typical.” If what you’re saying is that Schoenberg chose his “rows” (a term he didn’t use) in a typical way, remember that he invented that type. Meanwhile, Berg and Webern, his star pupils, both did completely different things with the choosing of rows; different than each other and from Schoenberg. And Babbitt is also extremely idiosyncratic in his choices. So yes, Messaien’s “Modes” are not much like anyone else’s choices, but you could say the same about pretty much anyone writing music with all 12 tones at once. Also, you’re trying to distinguish “row” from “mode,” but Schoenberg himself called it all sorts of things, none of them “row,” so I don’t think you can argue that the styles are completely different because of different semantics. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m a tonality-loving, major-chord-writing composer of the most shamelessly romantic sort, but that doesn’t mean I can’t show some love and props to my 12-tone homies.

  49. Evan says:

    No. A “mode,” which for Messiaen is a very loaded term, exists independently of the ordering of its elements. A row, or series, or whatever term you want to use, is what it is partly by virtue of the compositional emphasis placed on ordering. Hence “serial.” “Modes, rows, whatever” is the entire point.

    “Mode de valeurs et d’intensites” is not constructed with reference to ordering. Hence it is not serial.

    Its title has a very specific meaning in the context of Messiaen’s idiosyncratic musical vocabulary. A “mode” is a predetermined set – an unordered set – of elements, usually of pitches, as in Messiaen’s own beloved “modes of limited transposition” – i.e. modes with symmetrical properties. In this etude, the “mode” consists not only of pitches but also of durations and dynamics – in fixed constellations, comprising an unordered set of elements from which the composer selected without any undue emphasis on the idea of “structural ordering.” It has much less to do with “total serialism” than with Cage’s “gamut” idea, q.v. the String Quartet in Four Parts in particular, where Cage’s “mode” involved pitches, articulation, and instrumentation.

    The importance of “Mode de valeurs et d’intensites” for Messiaen’s students et al. lay in its atomistic structural use of dynamics and duration – thus totally separating dynamics in particular from the agogic and expressive role it had held for 250 years -, the precompositional separation of duration from rhythm, and the structural equation of rhythm/dynamics/pitch as equally weighted.

    clear? now back to writing my safe music.

  50. Scott, I think your missing the my point of my comparison. The individual pitches are selected intuitively through out the score – unlike the ordered (pre composed) pitch treatment of rows in 12-tone compositions. Messiean selects any pitch he wishes from the Mode at any given moment and does not follow the 12 tone strict order of going through all pitches from a selected row before starting a new row. Modes does not follow a 12-tone method. It may bare similarities to Integral Serial Music but it really isn’t that either.

    I by no means compose music like this either but Messiaen’s compositional procedures (and music) have held my interest for a long time.

  51. Tom DePlonty says:

    Going back to Babbitt — I’m not a fan of his music either, but the conception of his music as completely mathematical, mechanical, and “objective” is oversimplified. If you take the man at his word, anyway. Some interesting things he had to say in his interview with William Duckworth, in the book “Talking Music”:

    Duckworth: How do your ideas come to you?

    Babbitt: Well, it’s a very interesting question, but the answer, I hate to say, is I don’t know. I’m simply incapable of knowing when I think “Hey, this is right.”

    Duckworth: When you begin a piece, do you know where it’s going?

    Babbtt: I never start writing a piece unless I have a conception of the piece.

    Duckworth: All the way through?

    Babbitt: A huge conception of the piece. Otherwise, you’ll write down that wonderful first page with every dynamic, everything set, and realize you don’t know where the piece is going. And it completely inhibits you from continuing. And that’s certainly the way I feel about influences. I can’t possibly imagine what goes into when I finally make a decision. If I really wrote music mathematically, I wouldn’t have that problem.

  52. in terms of sounds, chance methods are no different than 12-tone methods, harmonic structures, counterpoint, or microtonal constructions … in my opinion. the difference lies in whether a piece of music is worth listening to repeated times, or not. for me, this concept defines classical music. classical music never gets old. no one can be taught how to write an enduring piece of music. at the same time, the more a composer learns about the nature of music, the better … whether in a university, or on one’s own.

    since these words are coming from a performer … and one who has no interest in composition … composers are free to ignore me. :)

  53. Seth Gordon says:

    Seth/Dan: your thoughts?

    Well, my opinions on musico-academia have been expressed numerous times before. I’m generally not it’s biggest fan, and I find it has a record of artistic conservatism that can be – as you put it – stifling. I know there are exceptions, of course, and some schools are better than others – and my impressions are primarily based on my college days (late 80s / early 90s) and on the writings of those who came before me – but I’ve listened to many student compositions in the years since, and those by fresh-out-of-school composers with degrees in hand and… I find myself hearing a lot of the same. And when it’s “different” it’s usually kitschy and/or self-conscious about it.

    But then these are conservatories after all…

    I’ve made reference to – but I’ll mention again, for those who’ve never read it – Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? as a parallel to what’s happening in the world of “academic” music. Only I think the situation for composers of such is much, much worse.

    I think it’s a combination of two things: first, the resistance to new ideas – especially those that have already proven themselves outside of the ivory tower. There’s a general reluctance to put the stamp of approval on anything – jazz, minimalism, electronics, whatever – that wasn’t an in-house creation. Second is the intentional isolationism – the “who cares if you listen?” effect. And while one should make the music they want and not be concerned with popular approval, that sentiment is a step too far – it’s not like saying “who cares if you like it?” – it says that it doesn’t even matter if anyone pays attention. Except special people who “get it” – an academic music performance is kinda like those Bush “Town Hall Meetings” where everyone’s been pre-approved beforehand, where you know everyone’s already on the same page.

    There are many reasons behind it all – don’t feel like going into detail now, I’ll spare y’all the sociohistorical rant (which would just be a rehash of one of my old ones, anyway) – but the end result is a womb of sorts. Only an infertile one.

    But then it seems this thread is already off that whole subject and onto “Is Babbitt / serialism mathematical or not?” instead. Hmm. My opinion? If I go to a restaurant and every entree tastes like ass, I’m not gonna waste my time debating the details of the chef’s technique.

    ——-

    Whoever it was above that talked about hearing so much different music at NYC student concerts: well, that is true. But there’s a reason. And that’s because, whatever the jealous haters may say, we are the Center Of The (Artistic) Universe. (So just get over it, everyone else, and accept that all y’all cities are fighting over second place.)

    Um, point being – students in NYC can’t help but experience a multitude of different musics every day. That’s one of the great things about living here, how much outside your normal realm that you’re exposed to, even unwittingly. And that has two effects: first, whether you like it or not it expands your horizons. Second, because people know this about NYC, it tends to attract students who want to embrace that, who already have very open views and progressive ways of thinking. Every student in the arts I know here – and I know a lot of them – says that the school they chose, only half the reason was the school itself. The other half was location. There’s such a plethora of schools here, a clear majority of them didn’t even bother looking at schools in other cities.

    ——

    Oh, and one more vote for bringing back the “preview” button.

  54. “to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance.”

    I am not a big Zorn fan but I would have to admit that if you investigate the total body of his work dating back to the late 1970’s until present, I can think of no other American composer (besides for Anthony Braxton who should be a recipient) who has demonstrated such a unique and creative sound universe and vision as John Zorn. For my criteria in judging a creative musician/composer, Zorn certainly belongs in the group of recipients mentioned as do many other “non-winners”…but that is a different post. Again, his work has never resonated with me but he is a very deserving winner.

  55.