The Evolving Compositional Landscape

Jonathan Bellman

Recently, much of my time has been devoted to a faculty search for a composer, and so there has been a good deal of talk around here about the future of art music, composition in general, and so on. Of course, I will say nothing about the search itself. In the course of a meal out, though, a colleague mentioned that when Milton Babbitt turned 90 last year, he gave several interviews in which he opined that there was no real future for what he would call “serious music”; in the past, various foundations had commissioned him to write six or seven pieces per year, and now they’re no longer sponsoring those kinds of endeavors, so…

A quick search only netted me this 1994 Babbitt article from The Musical Times, reprinted by artsaha. Now, Babbitt is an American original, a composer of some of the most rarified, abstruse, and difficult to perform music around—music that requires the very best of virtuoso readings to really speak, and music for which there has never been but the tiniest of audiences. Not surprisingly, this article shows him to be complaining about the quality and availability of music education in schools, the populist impulse, the “racist” and “sexist” (some preferring to call these, he explains, reverse-racist and reverse-sexist) policies of the National Endowment of the Arts, and much else. Everything is going in the wrong direction, apparently, and

The rare conductor who is willing and able to perform what others cannot or will not, who might restore to public conducting what it has not exhibited since the days of the courage and conviction of Mitropoulos and the young Stokowski, is consigned to the even rarer conducting of small ensembles or student groups, but even were he to be offered the occasion to conduct the celebrated orchestras, he would be hopelessly shackled by rehearsal constraints, performers’ resistance and inexperience.

I am not an early-twentieth century scholar, but I don’t think that the works Mitropoulos and Stokowski were commissioning and performing required the grueling hours and rigorous devotion that Babbitt’s do—something a lot more like a common musical language was still being spoken at the time, and disciplined performers could perform new works, often without having to completely revamp their technique and conceptual approach for each. I can’t shake the feeling, on reading Babbitt, that there’s a kind of Wagnerism at work: no one’s playing my music, so this is a problem with The World, The Culture, The Institutions, etc.—my frustrations are but a microcosm of The Problem. The fact is, though, that plenty of people are continuing to compose art music—some using found materials, some not—whether or not foundations pay them to do so. These composers do not come up for discussion in Babbitt’s worldview, apparently; anything that smacks of the populist—or even popular—is de facto pandering, beneath notice. Philosophically, he seems to have painted himself into a kind of Boethian corner where only the most cerebral minds can truly be called musicians. This kind of asceticism seems a bit—how you say?—anachronistic, the neo-academic pretense of the 1960s and early 1970s. I remember this attitude from undergraduate school in the late 1970s, and it struck me as odd then also.

Make no mistake: I’m not laughing at Babbitt, or dismissing him, or anything like that. I’d only like to suggest that his kind of music is one of a variety of possibilities in art music, not art (or “serious”) music itself, and if people are no longer throwing piles of money at composers of such music that doesn’t mean the doom of art music composition—rather, it means that the culture and market are changing. I do not see the demise of art music composition in the immediate future; rather, I see a continued evolution of the means of production and realization. That does not differ, really, from what we have had in the past; it’s simply that a pattern that has been in place for two or three generations something becomes “what it has always been like,” and the eclipse of such a system seems to spell the doom of culture and civilization.

Deep breath. Keep writing, and seeking to interest people in your music. And no, Milton Babbitt is not starving.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to The Evolving Compositional Landscape

  1. Shorter Milton Babbitt: “Get off my lawn!”

  2. Lowly Composer says:

    Have you met Milton Babbitt? He’s nothing like you would expect from his writings. In many ways, I think he’s simply being an agitator and a bit of a Devil’s advocate. His writing gets people thinking. It turns some people off. But, it might lead others to question such topics as programming and preparation. Even “old” music needs rehearsal. There’s a certain curatorial responsibility that performers have to be stewards of whatever music they perform and to treat all that music with the utmost care.
    I’m biased: I’m a composer. To date, one of my biggest foils has been a performer who is receptive to performing new music but who is admittedly lazy about preparing for concerts be the music new or old. Practice takes place in recital. For a one-off performance, even when the instrumental writing is as straightforward as anything from the nineteenth century standard repertoire, the results can be poor. But, he’s willing to do it which is half the composer’s battle. Perhaps Babbitt would have something to say to this performer: willing, and able, but unmotivated. I dare say Haydn would have something to say, too.
    There are elitists out there, and new music snobs, and new technique snobs, and those who think performers exist solely for the service of the composer all other concerns be damned. And then there are the rest of us: competent, cordial, and earnest individuals who want to foster good relationships with our performing colleagues and who want to bring our music to a wider public. Sometimes the process and the results may be challenging, but if music did not challenge us, why would we care enough to make it or play it or write about it?

  3. squashed says:

    Well Milton should go at it on the net and rant. Announce his challenge to the world. He should blog!
    What good is making noise where noone can hear him?
    He should go out and play.

  4. jodru says:

    Thanks for the link!

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