Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Composer as Generalist

I'm fairly certain that there has been no single title for an article about contemporary music in the last half century which has been more often cited than that half-century-old article by Milton Babbitt published as "Who Cares if You Listen?" in High Fidelity. In fact, inspection will likely reveal that the citation count for the title alone is an order of magnitude or more larger than any count based on the actual contents of the article itself. But, as notorious as that title has been, the title which Babbitt has persistently insisted on preferring, The Composer as Specialist, would have been deserving of greater circumspection, if not notoriety, and the acceptable alternative to that suggested by Babbitt, The Composer As Anachronism, probably beats both on all counts.

"Who Cares if You Listen?" has, as a title, at least the shape of a familiar rhetorical turn, and, while the article was not written in a style likely to communicate well to the lay audience of audiophiles reading High Fidelity, let's stipulate that the article does indeed outline one case for "caring about listening", responding to the critical problems of both the small size of the audience and the inherent difficulties of listening to the repertoire Babbitt advocates. Whatever one makes of his arguments — for example, the claim that the particular strain of contemporary music he is promoting "employs a tonal vocabulary which is more 'efficient' than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives" (an argument highly dependent upon an imprecisely defined measure of tonal efficiency) — or even the terms in his arguments — "nonpopular music" or the threat that "music will cease to evolve" —, it is clear that not only does Babbitt care if one listens, but he cares how one listens. I happen to share the first concern but the other strikes me as unfortunately, if not dangerously, prescriptive, and I go rather with John Cage's assertion of a voluntary and more universal music-interpretive competence.

The published title aside, the prime intention of the article itself was to make a case for the contemporary composer as an academic specialist. Accompanying the growth in scope and demography of US higher education in the post-WWII era, scholarly and scientific specialization was considered a normative and central attribute of the modern mix of research and teaching. Babbitt was trying to position composition within that mix, in effect laying out a tenure-track job description in the face, presumably as acute in Babbitt's Princeton as elsewhere, of the considerable resistance that modern music faced from an academic music community dominated by historical musicology and a larger campus community which viewed music departments as primarily providers of services in the forms of high-brow recreation, entertainment, and large lecture classes in music appreciation (whatever that was).

I am entirely sympathetic with Babbitt's project of defining a role for the composer on campus, and especially for a composer who contributes something other than the traditional anthems and preludes at weekly chapel (an institution disappearing in secular liberal arts institutions at precisely that moment in history), or day-jobbing in choral conducting or the music appreciation racket (as Virgil Thomson put it). But his model for the job was, in my opinion, so narrowly modeled on that of the specialist in the natural sciences or mathematics, that Babbitt missed the altogether more interesting possibility that a composer might, in fact, be more profitably positioned as a generalist within the musical and larger academic communities, open to dialogue and discovery across the divides of practice, theory, and history within the department as well as between the humanities and sciences across campus.


I suspect that Babbitt's own academic career will be increasingly viewed in two ways: his impact as a teaching composer, encouraging and influencing student and colleagial composers, and his impact upon the structure of musical academe in general. The first form of impact has received some attention, and it would be safe to characterize his influence, now, as rather localized in both time and history, with his argument for 12-tone based techniques as a single alternative to tonality now eclipsed by a view broadly held in academe in which there is an indefinite number of alternatives, including many which Babbitt himself simply would not have recognized as either sufficiently serious or even as sufficiently musical. Indeed, neither tonality nor 12-tone technique are now usefully heard as monolithic and uniform constructions of technique or style.

The second, institutional form of impact can be associated with a specific innovation that can be closely identified with Babbitt and one which has, with unfortunate irony, actually had some net negative effects on the role of the composer in the University. This is the invention of the Music Theorist as a recognized academic specialty. While this form of specialization definitely has plenty of breadth, as a research field, encompassing description and analysis, prescription and speculation, doing interesting work which borrows profitably from acoustics, mathematics, information science, psychology, neuroscience, semiotics, cultural studies etc., its formal separation from both musicology and composition comes at some costs. A tradition had developed in many schools in which, very broadly speaking, musicologists taught music history and composers taught music theory, with the lines between the subjects a bit fuzzy whenever it was useful or necessary. The introduction of a professional theory specialist into the ranks has, in contrast, tended instead to sharpen the distinction, with the effects, perhaps, of driving musicology closer to the forms of cultural "theory" practiced in the humanities and driving composers out of tenure-track lines. (I recently visited a website devoted to academic job offers and noticed a comment by a recent theory grad resenting the fact that a couple of theory/composition jobs had gone to composers instead of theorists).

This is, to my mind and ears, unfortunate, as the experience of music is rich enough that it welcomes, indeed requires, an approach in which specialization and generalization are more balanced. Specialization, as a practical matter, may well be efficient in settings in which musical education is reduced to a mass training enterprise and research areas and projects are narrowly focused. There are indeed some huge schools which command separate departments from theory, composition, history, ear training and so on. (Though don't those big schools carry all the signs and symptoms of post-war industrial modernity? You know: The Yoyodyne Conservatory of Music.) But is greater efficiency — however defined — a marker of greater musicality? In my experience, livelier, more engaged teaching has often come about when the strict job assignments are loosened up a bit, with the musicologist teaching orchestration or the composer teaching ethnomusicology or even the theorist conducting the college band.

Babbitt's article and argument are now 50 years old, but I think that it's still timely, if not even urgent, to make the case for the composer as the useful, and perhaps necessary, generalist in a musical community, academic or otherwise. A composer comes to his or her work as a specialist, as each new piece will have its own unique field of concerns and ideas, but he or she also comes as a generalist, as each new piece sits astride the music that has come before it, in some slice of musical history and geography, raising practical and speculative concerns in the domain of theory and perception, and all of the practical and stylistic concerns which arise when a piece becomes a performance: by definition, the work of a composer is at the center, not the periphery of the department. The best composers I know all have profitable exchanges with artists in other media, as well as with scholars and scientists: the composer is at the center of the University as well. And when, in fact, a composer is asked to provide the music for an inauguration or a commencement ceremony, he or she can even do that too: the composer working at one of those points in which academia is most public.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Here's a simple solution: budget cuts. The fewer positions there are available, the more the schools are forced to combine responsibilities that used to be spread out over 2 or 3 positions into 1 person's job description. The smaller the school (i.e. budget), the more they must tend towards hiring generalists. This fact on its own probably accounts for at least a small part of the trend towards specialization, which connotes prestige to impressionable aspiring young musicians and their not-yet-totally-on-board-with-this-music-thing
parents. Personally, I can't disagree; in theory, it seems to me that hiring a lot of specialists offers some distinct advantages over hiring only a few generalists, especially in the performance area. Rightly or wrongly, aspiring performers (not just in academia, but everywhere) tend to flock to the eminent performers on their instrument and in their chosen repertoire. While I am well aware of the benefits of learning from players of instruments other than your own, and from one's peers on whatever instrument they might play, I see that as a complimentary rather than a primary component in one's development, and a poor substitute for nitty-gritty work with a world-class specialist. That's me the performer; I've never had a composition lesson, so I can't speak to that world.

Perhaps as you hint at in your final paragraph, we are all specialists in our own music and the world surrounding it. To that end, it would indeed behoove academia to include a more diverse array of perspectives on their faculties. On the surface, I can't see what harm specialists could do provided there are enough of them to cover all of the necessary ground; this, however, costs more money than most state schools have available to spend on music.

And come on; is it really possible to "borrow profitably" from cultural studies?