I’m always surprised at how much an obscure debate about contemporary classical music from the 1950s has the power to unleash strong emotions and passionate arguments among my friends, many of whom are not musicians. Milton Babbitt’s notorious essay “Who Cares if You Listen“, published in 1958 in a magazine “cryptically” (as Babbitt put it) called High Fidelity, still has a way of getting under our skin today, even as the music he so passionately advocated for in it has faded from cutting-edge avant-garde to historical curiosity, largely neglected by all except a small corps of faithful devotees.
A little background: Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was an American composer who rose to prominence in the post-war decades, utilizing and expanding upon Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, developed by the Austrian composer shortly after World War I. A casual listener with a (forgivable, of course) skepticism of contemporary classical music—or perhaps a disinterest in or disapproval of modern art in general—would hear this kind of music as essentially random notes without any discernible melodic or harmonic structure. But that’s an understatement: even most professional classical musicians wouldn’t be able to distinguish between one of Babbitt’s solo piano works and a gaggle of toddlers banging on an instrument. (Not to confuse the issue, but such truly random music does exist in 20th century classical music as part of a later and highly separate form of avant-garde). In fact, 12-tone music is based on an extremely complex and rigorous organization of musical pitches. This system is difficult enough that analyzing one of Babbitt’s short works would make for a pretty taxing all-nighter in the University library for today’s typical undergraduate music student. The act of listening, to the extent that these myriad musical relationships can actually be heard (so that the music no longer sounds “random”), is a nearly impossible task that vastly overshadows the difficulty of actually performing the music.
At the time Babbitt wrote the controversial essay, composers of 12-tone music were afforded a place of respect and recognition in the U.S. and Western Europe. This respect (which was never quite as great as many like to recall) extended as far as institutional support from contemporary music festivals and the University, but rarely spread into the concert hall or radio. After all, even more “accessible” composers like Igor Stravinsky or Samuel Barber were already less popular with the public than the traditional favorites of the 18th and 19th centuries (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.). While many in the classical music world were bemoaning the decreasing relevance of contemporary composers and starting to notice the eventual decline of classical music itself in American society, Babbitt was one of the first to argue that public irreverence was, actually, a good thing.
Babbitt, whose wordy, sometimes pedantic prose (in a different article article, he began a paragraph “From our present departure from chronology,” as opposed to simply writing “Now,”) fell just short of outright polemical, didn’t come up the title, which he later described as “arrogantly provocative, and for me, vulgar.” Whether or not the title itself was provocative, many critics at the time took strong offense to many of Babbitt’s assertions within the essay. Among them was the idea that music had reached an advanced level on par with other fields, like theoretical physics, in which only an elite academic class could understand and contribute to its latest developments. The comparison to physics elicited strong responses from many who insisted that the very premise showed that Babbitt—and by extension, the American and European composers of the 12-tone method—were completely out of touch with the basic social function and purpose of musical art. Babbitt later defended his comparison, stating in his typical manner, “I could have just as easily chosen Mathematics, if not for fear of arousing the absurd misapprehension of ‘Mathematical Music,’ or, for that matter, Analytical Philosophy, if not for fear that—as an a priori, had-to-be-born-again logical empiricist—I’d be asserting my methodological persuasion onto the issue.” (Somehow I doubt whether that response would put his critics to rest.) At times in “Who Cares if You Listen”, Babbitt, probably against his better judgment, becomes overtly condescending, remarking at the end that the “whistling repertory of the man on the street” would be unaffected by a cessation of academic avant-garde music, but that music as an art form would “cease to exist.”
But the part of the essay that seems to strike the biggest chord (or rather, as 12-tone serialists would say, “vertical simultaneity”) today, lies in the following passage:
“It often has been remarked that only in politics and the “arts” does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated “I didn’t like it” from further scrutiny. Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on “Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.” At the conclusion, he announces: “I didn’t like it,” Social conventions being what they are in such circles, someone might dare inquire: “Why not?” Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer’s voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is left undisturbed.”
This passage, more than any other part of the essay, has the power to make people furious. While the question of institutional support for certain kinds of art, and the case for and against 12-tone music, may remain of interest to some, the real question is the role the public should have in artistic criticism. History has decided on a few things: it has, on the one hand, mostly abandoned Babbitt’s particular brand of “serious music,” while on the other affirmed the role of Universities as supporters of contemporary music and composers. In contrast, the big question of what the role of the public should be as critics within our national discourse has only grown more contentious.
Most recently, the rise of social media has given the individual a small microphone with which to blast opinions into their small corners of the public sphere in a way that has never existed before. Babbitt’s layman now feels more secure than ever in stating his or her “I didn’t like it.” This is added to by mass culture’s explosion of interest on the individual needs and wants of consumers, motivated by powerful financial incentives. In politics, the protest movements of the 1960s, the conservative ascendancy of the Reagan era, and the growth in popularity of large events like the presidential election cycle has both brought many more people into discussions of policy but has dumbed down the level of discussion. This is apparent in everything from the focus of political news coverage to the size of vocabulary used by candidates, even as overall educational attainment in the US has risen. In the midst of this half-century surge in populism, critiques of modernist art—from contemporary classical music to brutalist architecture—came under attack from within the elites, as a new generation of post-modern critics began condemning modernism as socially irresponsible in the 60s and 70s.
I suspect that both the anger and immense approval that many people express upon being introduced to “Who Cares if You Listen?” stems from the fact that we’re largely unsettled over these cultural changes. It makes sense, after all, to be conflicted about cultural and political populism. As Musicologist Susan McClary noted in her scathing critique of Babbitt and his European contemporaries, the rise of popular music in the US, so lamented by defenders of the old order, is the story of black farmers from the south entering cities and joining the middle class. It’s the story of citizens entering the political process. But it’s hard to paint cultural populism as completely positive when our national discourse has been reduced to media-driven sensationalism and lowest-common-denominator entertainment that many people openly associate with decline. With these contradictory forces in mind, it makes sense that the extremism expressed in the intensely intellectual music and writings of Milton Babbitt would fall right in the center of arguments over the merits of mass culture.
Naturally, most people find themselves opposed to the views expressed in “Who Cares if You Listen?”, their opposition often taking on an air of righteous anger. I admit, it’s lonely to be in the pro-Babbitt camp. As comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong famously noted, fundamentalism is “rooted in the deep fear of annihilation.” If religious fundamentalism sounds a bit heavy for a comparison to Milton Babbitt’s followers, then you aren’t familiar with the fanaticism with which some people continue to laud him. In a documentary on the late composer, a woman is interviewed following a performance of his works at Juilliard and declares, almost trance-like, “my brain is stimulated by Milton Babbitt’s music and my heart is touched by the freeing of my mind, which is a different way to have one’s heart touched than usual, and in that way I find his music extraordinary and unique… I just wish that we could have entire programs of Milton Babbitt’s music, because that would be all pleasure and no pain.” Meanwhile, entire scholarly articles have been devoted to analyzing Babbitt’s works, many claiming that the pleasure experienced by “structural listening” of Milton Babbitt’s works gradually crept closer and closer to outright hysteria as his music faded from relevance in the last decades of the 20th century.
Yet the critics of Milton Babbitt and his music, though they are in the majority, often display a certain defensiveness in their own right. I’ve gleefully engaged in discussing “Who Cares if You Listen?” with countless fellow music students and now countless fellow professionals, as well as friends who have no musical training. At the heart of this lies a certain warped view of Babbitt’s arguments that is only slightly unfair: the implication that, because 12-tone music sounds like cacophonous mumbo-jumbo to them, they are somehow inferior and worthy of condescension. This is far from what Babbitt—by all accounts, an incredibly kind and mild-mannered individual who loved popular music of the 1930s—intended. But this reaction demonstrates the fault lines through which notions of elitism still has the power to evoke visceral reactions in our populist but still highly unequal society. These opponents often tend to fall back on assertions that music ought to be “beautiful” or “sound nice,” by which they usually mean music that is easily accessible to them from within the highly culturally-specific soundscape that they’re familiar with.
There were other factors at work, of course, in the decline of Babbitt’s wing of the avant-garde. The political climate of the Cold War was one in which institutional support for abstract art was (believe it or not) part of a massive effort to assert the cultural superiority of the western world against communism. Today, by contrast, the culture and ideology of the west is threatened only at the fringes of the global order and there is no longer a significant need to advance the cause of avant-garde art, or even pop culture, to protect capitalist democracies. Consider, for instance, the Ford Foundation, an influential non profit institution around since the 1930s. Today, it is committed to, among many things, defending the rights of worldwide indigenous peoples, fighting Islamophobia, and chipping away at Global Poverty. Amidst all of these worthy endeavors, it does not support any artists or artistic institutions. In 1963, the Ford Foundation commissioned Philomel, Milton Babbitt’s most famous work. That’s just one example of the many cultural changes that reflecting on Babbitt can bring up.
Love him or (more likely) hate him, Babbitt presided over a contentious debate that is as important now as it was in the 50s. Milton Babbitt dared to write music in which the virtuoso is not the performer, but the listener. The listeners, it turns out, have mixed feelings.
Zalman Kelber is a piano accompanist and opera coach. He’s held Young Artist positions with Aspen Opera Theatre, Shreveport Opera, Glimmerglass Opera and Palm Beach Opera and has served on the music staffs of the Castleton Festival, Opera Saratoga, American Lyric Theatre, and Venture Opera. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he received his dual undergraduate degrees in Piano and African History from Northwestern University and received his Master’s in Harpsichord and Musicology from Oxford.