Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Or, how to stop worrying and...

Boulez, Babbitt, and Carter. Merely mentioning the names of any of these three composers in a blog or a discussion group nowadays virtually guarantees insults, invective, flames, and further unpleasantries not worth further detailing. I will now go out onto a fragile limb on the old oak of experimental music and admit to you that I do not lay awake at night worrying about and cursing the existence of music penned by Babbitt, Carter, or Boulez. In fact, although music by Carter, Boulez, or Babbitt is not part of my daily musical diet, I have come to use -- enjoy is not always the better word -- some music by Boulez, Carter, or Babbitt as an added element, a modest condiment, if you will, atop my musical food pyramid. Here are three suggestions about how you, too, might come from another borough of Newmusicville and manage to live undisturbed, and perhaps even enriched by music from any member of the terrible triad that is Messrs. Carter, Babbitt, and Boulez:

First suggestion: remember that the music of the students, acolytes, and camp followers of Babbitt, Boulez, or Carter is not to be equated with the music of Boubitt, Babter, or Carlez. Imitation is flattery, and flatterers are seldom worth listening to. Originals in music, on the other hand, like originals in sin, are usually worth experiencing at least once, and each of these three has legitimate, if modest, claim to originality.

Second suggestion: remember that, although honored and ancient now, Bablez, Carbitt, and Bouter were all once young, unknown, and prone to risk-taking. Under the influence of Iwan Wyschnegradsky, Coulez once had a romance with microtonality (although the marriage failed), he once called Cage his friend, and in some works (especially the mysterious, withdrawn, Polyphonie X) pushed a program that can only be considered experimental before withdrawing into the security of traditional performance practice. Cabbitt tried his hand at Broadway, admitted that microtones were possible on the merry old RCA Synthesizer, and still likes beer and baseball, suggesting a youth that has not yet waned. For all his tenure-insuring talk about 12-tone technique, in the end, his music is about improvising out, on paper, from a recycled set of arrays and superarrays that he never bothers inventing new these days. (You'd grow tired of musical Sudoku, too). And Barter, has never committed the venal sin of promoting a particular method of composition, and has been as interested in timbre, rhythm, and metre as in collections of pitches, and when then, sometimes even reducing the number of pitches in play to but one. No, I'm not calling him a minimalist (the Purcell of the Fantazia On Upon One Note was not a minimalist) just more interesting than the official party portrait.

Finally, do not fear the music-political machinations of these three for they are old, each of them, and in their glorious good health do they take retreat from their previous seats of power and influence. If you have personally suffered injury at the hands of any of these three, TTibbab, Retrac, or Zeluob, whether as teachers, jurists, or bureaucrats, then learn the lesson well not to put people of such different character in the way of your work, your music, your life. In Newmusicstan, we're not even two bloody countries fighting over bloody nothing, we're just musicians doing the best we can and surviving on crumbs. So, if you encounter someone in our little republic who's looking to grab some power, gently remind him of our trio of terror, now reduced to docile harmless gentility, and the fact that every composer, of whatever talent, taste, or background, is equal in at least one regard. And that is the right to be heard and forgotten with the rest.

Belize or Peru? Ambit blob tint. A trill to erect! No Brit not bit by lamb. Alert lice trot! Pure bile: zero.

(An encore post from July 8, 2006)


M. Keiser said...

while i strongly oppose the dogma of boulez and co. i DO like some of his music quite a bit... and carter was always the sweetest of the bunch. He writes really lyrical music that i can appreciate- well crafted and generally more interesting than most others. I enjoy philomel, but im not familiar with much else by babbitt.

And im actually quite glad my audience is so small... Less people to disapoint!

pood gost!

Anonymous said...

"Pure bile: zero." I just lost my milk and cookies.

Unknown said...

Nice post, Daniel.

Carter is a favorite of mine, and I think you've hit on some aspects of his art that aren't usually noted.

Samuel Vriezen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samuel Vriezen said...

Nice post, thanks for (re)posting! Now here's the invective.

Really, I think it's worth making distinctions within this trio. Both Carter and Boulez are to my hearing overrated as orchestrators - Boulez' large-scale ensemble music only ever sounds OK on CD, and Carter never quite made ideas like the orchestra of soloists materialize for the ear.

But indeed, the stuff that Boulez later revoked (when he got into money and power) is somewhat adventurous, a bit strange, interesting - though I'm not entirely sure if it's all that intelligent. Furthermore, Carter's melodic sensibility is, in my view, very one-sided - from a gestural point of view, it's often in fact expressionist cliché. His ideas of form OTOH are interesting - in the end, I'd apply to his music what people often say about Cage: the ideas are more interesting than the music. Of course this isn't true of Cage at all, but for me it is true of Carter.

But Babbitt is just a fabulous and weird composer, and his music is razorsharp and every note is expressive. His structures may be far beyond what I'm even *willing* to follow by ear but it all sounds great. At heart a true American maverick, a real original, if in an academic disguise.

Daniel Wolf said...

Samuel, I think you're right regarding Babbitt, especially with the more recent music, as he gets into superarray weirdness (with "weighted" aggregates and the like). But he is uneven (All Set or Post-Partitions are awful) and it is difficult to get around his politics (both musical and otherwise) and his camp followers.

As to Boulez's orchestrations, I have heard his pieces work in the concert hall (in particular when he's leading the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (lots of rehearsal time)) but I can't get around the gestures, which seem to be taken from a limited pool of possibilities and are often loaded with older expressive traditions. On Carter, we can agree, but I'd go even further, as a piece like Night Fantasies fails to orchestrate well as a piano piece.

Steve -- I'm always willing to be influenced. Are there some more recent Carter pieces I should pay attention to?

Unknown said...


The Dialogues for piano and orchestra and the Boston Concerto (both on volume 7 of the Bridge series) are good examples of Carter's recent music. I think they really sound for the instruments.

I think of Carter's music as gestural rather than melodic/thematic, and I find the gestures to be sharply etched and expressive.

I like Boulez, Babbitt, and Cage, too.