Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

3. Responding to Attacks on Serialism

FRANK J. OTERI: You mentioned being a music critic for a while and we mentioned the “national newspaper.” Even though we didn’t give it a name, I think everybody knows what we’re talking about. Over the past couple of years, in addition to these diatribes that have run about the death of classical music or classical music being a subculture, or whatever we want to call this music, there have been particular diatribes against the area of music that you have been exploring your whole life: twelve-tone music, serial music. And there have been many vicious diatribes.

MILTON BABBITT: Well, mainly lies of course about the fact that people were denied tenure because they didn’t write serial music. I can name two extremely well-known composers who were denied tenure because they did: Don Martino and Charles Wuorinen. The Charles Wuorinen thing became something of a local if not a national scandal. One was Columbia, the other was Yale and, when I was chair, there was a critic of a paper I shan’t mention (it was not the national paper), who said this to me at a panel on a stage in Trenton. This critic again pulled out this old saw that if you weren’t a serial composer, you couldn’t get a job. And I challenged him. Where are the so-called serial composers at the prestigious universities? Not Harvard. Not Columbia, not Yale. Where? A couple of guys at Princeton, that’s all it really amounted to. And this is preposterous nonsense. I mean, I just decided to pay no attention to it, frankly. Misunderstandings sometimes make me very sad because they show the depth of the misapprehensions and the lack of apprehension. There was an article and I wish I could remember his name, you would remember his name, the man who wrote in Commentary magazine for years. He was a friend of mine, so I wouldn’t mind mentioning his name if I could remember it and therefore, this sounds insulting that I can’t. He became much more interested in English literature of the 19th century than music. Once he had been a pianist and in Commentary magazine, don’t ask me when, maybe ten years ago, he was reviewing a book of interviews with composers. One of the composers was a Dutch composer whose main claim to fame was he tried to burn down the opera house in Amsterdam and he said, “Serialism is dead, because socialism is dead.” Serialism and socialism. Well, I mean, I think that’s an equivocation worthy of a French structuralist, but the fact is that he then felt that, this is the author in Commentary, that for these basically literary, political people who read Commentary, he should explain serialism. You know what he said? “Serialism is a musical system where you’re not allowed to repeat a note until you’ve sounded all twelve.” Well, even in the most immediate sense, he could have seen that that was nonsense by looking at a piece that was written 70 years ago, but beyond that. Well, that’s the equivalent of saying, you know, the tonal system is a system in which you’re not permitted to write parallel fifths. The confusion there with type, the type token confusion; the complete lack of understanding of what went on in that conception that evolved with Schoenberg was so depressing that I told this to him and he said, “Well, gee,” he said, “You know, I’m sorry but I thought that’s really what it was.” What can one say? If the idea of listening to music to listen to see whether a note is repeated in all twelve…is a very unpleasant way of listening to music, I would think. No, the misunderstandings were just so great and the worst part about it is that so much intelligent writing about the music is available to those who are willing to read it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, why do you think there have been all of these attacks? What’s behind them?

MILTON BABBITT: Well, I could say all kinds of things about the resentment. I must tell you what upsets me about all of that. Journalism, the people that try to…who are not vicious…who do not, let’s not even use the word vicious, the people who are basically unfriendly, who presume to be unfriendly from the very outset. It’s just they make no effort to understand or are perhaps incapable of understanding, I don’t know. I don’t know, I really don’t know the answer to this. I could say all kinds of pretentious things about it, which I really don’t want to say because the music is there. If they think the Schoenberg Fourth Quartet and the Violin Concerto—I just won’t go beyond Schoenberg, because there’s so much other music—or the Stravinsky Movements for Piano and Orchestra, all these pieces are to be damned, good, I’m glad to be among the damned. I can’t say that without proof and I don’t like to say things without something that approximates demonstration. They don’t recognize the music. They don’t recognize the beginning of the Schoenberg Orchestral Variations. Look, after all in my generation, no one was to the twelve-tone manner born. I mean, we suddenly encountered it, we were interested in learning the music, learning what was going on in the music, or we didn’t. You know, so many different people came to it for so many different reasons. When Aaron Copland, I don’t know how many people are even aware that now, ended up writing so-called serial—I’m saying so-called because the term is so misunderstood—but when he wrote serial music, I’ll never forget, Aaron, and I’ll call him Aaron, because I did call him Aaron, Aaron once said, you know, “twelve-tone music is this mathematical thing, no, it’s not for me,” and he said that. He said that publicly. And then, about ten years later, he began writing music, in fact to such an extent, I’ll say in all lack of modesty, that he wanted me to write an article about his Piano Fantasy, which I did, but the magazine that asked for it went out of existence, the IMA magazine from England, which you probably never saw. But Aaron then said, “Oh my God, I discovered that by playing with these twelve-tone [whatever he called them, rows, probably], I found chords that I had never imagined before.” Some people criticize, “What a superficial view of twelve-tone, he found chords he had never found before…” but I thought that was fine. For him, to satisfy the kind of interest that he would have. After all, he went to the Boulangerie, where you learn to slice and package and label chords, and here were chords that were not sliced and packaged and labeled in the Boulangerie! For him that was important; it wasn’t important for some of us. So it has fulfilled all of these different needs for people as unlike as Copland and Sessions and Stravinsky. And that people could presume to be off-handed about anything that had this attraction for people of that caliber…don’t ask.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, a general question then, which perhaps isn’t even relevant to connect all of this music—you talk about all these music critics who can’t hear this music, for some reason or maybe…

MILTON BABBITT: Well, you do have to learn how to hear it. You learn it informally as well as formally. I’m not saying you take ear-training courses, but when you grow into the music, I mean after all, all you have to hear are intervals—the fundamental building blocks of any music. Stravinsky showed tremendous insight in that respect. When somebody said, “How could you have deserted us? How could you be such an infidel?” Well, I shouldn’t use that word. “How could you have done this? How could you desert us and become a twelve-tone, serial composer?” He said, “But I’ve always composed with intervals.” And that was remarkable, because he recognized something that most people, even who regarded themselves as being quite friendly to twelve-tone music…We’re not talking about notes, we’re not talking about pitch class, we’re talking mainly about the relationship between the two; that marvelous relation that we call an interval that is unique almost entirely to the perception of sound and nothing else. So that he certainly used them in a particularly singular and remarkable way.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, is it necessary to be able to hear the twelve-tone set in a piece of music…

MILTON BABBITT: No, I don’t think it’s necessary to hear that as such. But I do think it’s necessary to be able to hear intervallic relationships for any musical structure. If you don’t have a musical memory, music is random in a very realistic mental sense. If you can’t hear the present event, when the preceding event has passed, which I mean if every event is not completely displaced by the next event, then of course you can’t hear music. And that is what is essentially going on in randomization. If there is no structure, if there are no dependencies, no contingencies then, of course, what kind of music is this? The man who walks down the street whistling a tune is whistling intervals. He’s not whistling it at the pitch level he heard it; you can be damn sure that people walking down the street singing “God Bless America,” which apparently they do these days, are whistling intervals. Who knows the key of “God Bless America”? I defy you. You remember when Irving Berlin put that piece away in his drawer in 1917?

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s for F# piano, so he played it in any key he wanted!

MILTON BABBITT: As a matter of fact, you know, that’s another interesting story. He really didn’t play that F# piano. Irving Berlin’s daughter is on the board of this organization here. I knew her when she was a student at Barnard and I finally asked her, because she was interested in Anton Webern believe it or not, and she wanted to study with a pianist who would teach her Anton Webern and I recommended Steuermann. And I asked about it, if he plays only on the black keys, he doesn’t have a dominant or a subdominant, he can only play one chord! Which is apparently what he did, which got us on the subject of “God Bless America,” which he didn’t like and put away in his drawer in 1917. Well, let’s not do that, that’s unpatriotic. But, all I do mean, it’s really important to remember that when people whistle a tune, they’re whistling intervals, they’re not whistling pitches. They’re whistling pitches, if you wish, but they’re not whistling it properly at the pitch level of the original.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s the relationship between them that they’re actually whistling.


FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in that sense though, they comprehend the relationship between the pitches and they comprehend the organization.

MILTON BABBITT: Absolutely, absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: And even if they don’t know what the original tonal center was or the key it was in, they’ve replaced that hierarchy and they’re hearing the hierarchy of the pitches.

MILTON BABBITT: Exactly. And that’s what makes intervals so crucial because the transformations underlying the twelve-tone system were interval preserving.

FRANK J. OTERI: But could anyone who isn’t a musician learn to hear the relationships between a retrograde inversion and an original set.

MILTON BABBITT: I’m not sure…I mean, it’s the difference between hearing a triad and hearing that it is a triad. I don’t think these people necessarily have to hear a retrograde inversion. Forgetting by the way, for a moment, that the retrograde inversion is much closer to the original than the inversion is because it repeats the intervals. Forgive me, but no, of course not that they should, but if they could remember those pitches, of course. They’d remember the intervals, if you wish. Of course. And they do and I know people that can do it and who do do it. Look, I’m not going to make the point about naturalists or anything of that sort. I mean, what it meant to us was a fascinating way of structuring music and structuring music in terms of the way it is to be heard and not the way it is to be seen. The notion of so-called paper was as uninteresting to us as it would be to the so-called people who criticized us.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know people who can hear twelve-tone sets, but I don’t know anyone who isn’t a musician who can. But, similarly, I can’t think of a non-musician who could hear a piece and hum you what the tonic is.

MILTON BABBITT: That’s a very good point.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, but the place where I get lost as a listener and as a composer and as a thinker about music, is when the notion of a twelve-tone set is extended beyond pitch to time points and to other aspects…

MILTON BABBITT: The only point there is that again, it’s analogical. We do hear the rhythmic aspect, the temporal aspect of music in terms of durations. Durations are intervals. They’re intervals between time points. If we didn’t have intervals of time points, we couldn’t play music—a half note wouldn’t be the same as a half note here at a given tempo. So I don’t see the problem there. Now, no one for even a moment suggested the serialization of timbre for instruments, for example. That’s numerology already. You can do it by analogy with the numbers that come up when you’re representing the series and numbers if it amuses you, it might…what it would do—and I say what it would do, because I’ve never done it—what it would do is provide a patterning and the patterning itself internally, contextually might be of value and use.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what it could do perhaps if you associate specific instruments with specific pitches, is it could reinforce the perception of the set…

MILTON BABBITT: It could be that, it could be that the particular patterning that is the result of, let’s say, an inversion would come up as a particular patterning when you apply it to the instruments, of course. I don’t find that it’s too outrageous. Not if it’s satisfactory. It does give a kind of patterning to the total piece. I’ve actually never done that believe it or not. As far as dynamics are concerned—after all, dynamics are susceptible to what are called strictly serial relations. That is to say the relationships of louder and softer. No one pretends for a moment that the difference between p and pp is the same as the difference between ff and f, but one of them is softer and the other is louder, but if you associate it with a particular dimension of music, which is more projectable, then of course it can have that reinforcement effect. But it seems to me that this would be true of everything when you think of long range listening in music, long-range music. Let’s just for the moment say in the Schenkerian sense, one is trained. One may be trained informally as well as formally. If one sits among that music—I’ve known people who have played music all their lives, from the age of four, played four-hand music all their lives who hear remarkable things. I’ve tried this one. I’ve tried this at Princeton because there were the days way back, you know those days in the ’30s and ’40s, when kids would come who had done nothing but heard chamber music or that kind of thing all their lives—some of it on records, there wasn’t much of it on records—who had long range hearing that was remarkable, because I had to teach ear training. These people could not read music. They were never taught musical literacy, but they were able to remember and recall and have a sense of connection that I found remarkable.

FRANK J. OTERI: But now that tradition is gone. People aren’t playing music in their home…

MILTON BABBITT: I’m afraid you’re right. Exactly. You’ve said it. They’re not being taught! You know, there was, in a book about Toscanini—you’ll probably remember who wrote it…

FRANK J. OTERI: Joe Horowitz.

MILTON BABBITT: Exactly, Joe Horowitz. He pointed out the kind of thing I found most valuable to me about that book: all kinds of little facts that I would not have known. In the 1970s, the number of public school music teachers in New York City, within a decade, dropped from over 2000 to somewhere less than 700. If you’re not instructed, if you’re not being focused, if you’re not being directed, if you’re not being led, then what can you expect?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.