Friday, May 28, 2010

Sticking it to Milton Babbitt?

In 1958 the popular magazine High Fidelity published an article by the highly intellectual composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt had entitled the article "The Composer as Specialist;" and it addressed the mindset gulf between many composers following in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg and most audiences. (Schoenberg himself had addressed this topic.) Without Babbitt's knowledge or consent, High Fidelity changed the title to "Who Cares if You Listen?;" and Babbitt has been living with the consequences of that decision ever since. However, even if he found the title "offensively vulgar," there remains that connotation of detachment in his "specialist" stance.

I have no idea if Lou Reed and Lori Anderson intentionally decided to exploit this stance and twit Babbitt at the same time, but they definitely found an amusing and clever way to do so. Here is the BBC News account of their project:

US rock star Lou Reed and his artist wife Laurie Anderson are to stage a "high-frequency concert" for canines in Australia.

Music for Dogs, to be held outside the Sydney Opera House, is billed as "an inter-species social gathering on a scale never seen before in Australia".

The bizarre recital in June will be largely inaudible to the human ear.

The couple said they have experience making music for at least one dog - their rat terrier, Lollabelle.

"She likes things with a lot of smoothness but with beats in them,'' Ms Anderson told the Sydney Morning Herald.

She said the inspiration for the performance at the Vivid Live festival in Sydney came while she was backstage at an event and thought: "Wouldn't it be great, if you were playing a concert and you look out and you see all dogs?"

The show, created by Ms Anderson, will last for 20 minutes as she says "dogs don't have a giant concentration span".

The sounds will be played at high frequency like a dog whistle, setting dogs' ears twitching but barely audible to their owners.

It is billed in the festival programme as "an absolute must for any dog and their two-legged friends".

The link to Babbitt is delightfully obvious: Now we have "Who cares if you can't listen?" However, even if Babbitt was not the intended target, this is clearly aimed at those who tend to get excessively serious about concert attendance, particularly in an opera house. It takes a certain level of chutzpah to break with such a strongly-held social tradition; and I would say that the level is high enough for Reed and Anderson to share the Chutzpah of the Week award!

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