Friday, February 02, 2007

Not sexy

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz makes a good case for the music of Babbitt and some cohorts in their own era of good feeling. I agree that there is some interesting and sometimes fine music there, and I have often been in the position of defending it to my own detriment (although Babbitt & friends were often downright nasty to the composers I consider to be my teachers). I particularly like a characterization of the twelve-tone and serial moment made by Earl Kim once at Cal Arts, when he said that it was an attempt to give back to music some of the dignity it had been denied in the brutality of the mid-twentieth century, and it found that dignity in the most sophisticated intelectual tools of its time. But this was definitely an uneven repertoire when taken as a whole. There is often an unfathomable distance between a good Babbitt piece and an average piece by one of his camp followers.

I suppose that the problem was simply that the Babbittonian high twelve-tone style was -- when examined as a broad body of compositional technique -- too easy to use. Choose your set type. Choose a series. Build an array ot two with a set of properties you like (or better yet, use an existing array, as the damn things are hard to make, and recycling something at the precompositional level is totally on the level, dude). Assign your parameters to arrays, or "lynes" or partitions of arrays. Then start writing out you score, with all the elements undetermined by the pre-composition -- which could be repetitions of tones or their durations or grouping tones into phrases -- essentially improvised on paper. Unfortunately, some folks are better improvisors than others. When Babbitt is at his best, he uses these free elements to underline or make connections across a piece in an audible way, and he clearly has the memory and puzzle-solving skills required to pull something like this off. And when he's off -- as in All Set, for example, or Post Partitions -- it just goes to show that the experiment doesn't always work.

And Dennis's use of the adjective sexy for Babbitt's music: sorry, I don't buy it. While clever and witty at its best, sexy is not the word I would have used, and frankly, as someone who's heard a lot of stories about new music, I've never heard a story about going to summer camp at Princeton, Tanglewood, or Darmstadt with sexual conquest as the prime target.

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