Babbitt for Babies

Babbitt for Babies

Alright, I admit it. I probably went a little overboard last week when I called Mozart’s music downright trite. Obviously, I’m not a huge fan, but I must own up to admiring certain attributes of the master’s oeuvre. While many find his music acutely profound, I find it profoundly cute—especially its attractive, glossy surface that easily seduces both the ears and cerebral cortex. But my question is, how much stimulation is actually registering? Whether or not a composer aims to arouse those neurons to fire inside the brain, listeners are going to approach whatever they’re hearing heuristically, albeit to varying degrees ranging from full-on analysis to just-shut-up-and-dance.

That said, it seems to me the most important thing that composers should focus on is the outermost layer of musical surface—that visceral sense of what something actually sounds like before our minds have the chance to process it. No need to tether this pleasure-based element to underlying macro-structures: who on earth has the ability to pull something like that off anyway? Ahem. That’s right, Mozart. And so if his music really does make babies smarter, shouldn’t we all be taking up the cause to advance human kind?

Does anyone know of any newborns who happen to be fans of Milton Babbitt? Just wondering. Toy manufactures make infant toys with bold patterns and textures to incite the senses. Shouldn’t composers be polishing up the sheen of their own music, rendering it palatable to everyone, even those still in diapers. After all, Mozart was only five years old when he began composing. Natural talent and training aside, I’m beginning to wonder on behalf of all of us composers: Perhaps the key to deeply engaging listeners lies at the most uncomplicated, superficial level of musical expression—the façade that hides all that ungainly counterpoint and harmony.

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5 thoughts on “Babbitt for Babies

  1. danielgilliam

    and composer, I deal with this issue some. Mozart won’t make your kid smarter, though our 2-yr-old daughter is gifted in the communication department, and we attribute it partly to our exposing her to different art forms. But more importantly we have engaged her with music and conversation. I often sit at the piano with her and our 4 month old and let them bang away on the keyboard. If Sony Classical marketed Babbitt as making your kid smarter, CDs would be flying off the shelf…I don’t think it matters as long as the kids are being engaged by the parents.

    As to Mozart….I think the early works are some of the best. The innocence is there and he wasn’t quite cranking out commissions left and right to pay the bills.

  2. Matthew

    Way back when, I spent a miserable year working in the classical CD department of a Best Buy. All the classical stuff was shunted off in a dark corner where we could play our CDs without disturbing the guys pushing TVs and VCRs on customers.

    A miserable year, that is, that was totally redeemed the day I sold a guy that old Sony Classics box set of the complete works of Webern just by playing it in the store. He didn’t know Webern from a hole in the ground. But the surface level hooked him.

    Sometimes I think composers are so focused on the wiring that they start to think the box it comes in is somehow a separate issue. But I think the best music lets a beautiful surface grow out of fertile structural soil. I’ve never come across a non-virtuoso-showpiece repertoire warhorse that didn’t have a well-tuned engine under the hood. And I’ve never studied an analytically fascinating musical construction that didn’t also end up with an attractive surface. (Marteau sans maître? I wish all musical surfaces were that polished.)

    Have I mixed enough metaphors yet? I could always drink more coffee.

  3. Chris Becker

    “I’m beginning to wonder on behalf of all of us composers: Perhaps the key to deeply engaging listeners lies at the most uncomplicated, superficial level of musical expression—the façade that hides all that ungainly counterpoint and harmony.”

    The key to engaging listeners is soul. When I compose, the process is more about letting things in than picking and choosing sounds. When I’m in “the zone” – composing is more like an act of prayer than anything else. And I believe audiences hear this and even experience the same sort of timelessness in playback/performance. My intention is to create that state – that zone.

    Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But approaching this work with the intention of creating some sort of facade that will hide unpleasant pointless or at best purely intellectualized sonic occurances is…for me…bizarre. But the older I get, the more I understand that there are composers with motivations that are very alien to me.

    Randy – why do you compose music? What got you into this in the first place? Where does your music take you when you hear it in a room with other people? Some of these questions – in my opinion – might give you more clues as to why Mozart appeals to so many people.

  4. pgblu

    I wonder
    When I read this post, Randy, I wonder if you’re channeling Carrie Bradshaw. Especially with “On behalf of all of us composers, I have to wonder: when does the superficial become the super-fishy?”

    Carry on, no offense intended.

  5. JKG

    Randy, Randy, Randy…

    What a great post. Several of you in here already know my take on experimental and so-called “modern” music for the sake of being modern. I will say this much: Babbitt and babies have two things in common as far as I am concerned: (1) they’re both just so cute, and (2) they both produce some things which have a bad odor.


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