Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Coincidence of Contradictions

Milton Babbitt died yesterday at a hospital in Princeton at the age of 94.  I was never a great fan of his music, but this was due in no small part to the sparse opportunities to hear it.  I also suspect that Babbitt had as much right to fall back on the same observation that Arnold Schoenberg once made:

My music is not modern;  it’s just badly played.

Nevertheless, I doubt that anyone would question that there is something very challenging about playing a composition in which the composer can claim a rigorous logical argument behind every note.

However, where this reduction ad absurdum of Schoenberg’s serial techniques is concerned, I think that Virgil Thomson made the right call in one of his pieces in The New York Review.  The article was primarily about John Cage, and Thomson noted Cage taking the opposite strategy that every note in a composition would be determined by a rigorously applied aleatoric process.  (Where Cage was concerned, that process usually involved tossing three coins to select a reading from the I Ching.)  Thomson made the claim that the ear could not tell the difference between a product of absolute logic and one of absolute chance, and I think there is a sound point to make.

The reason probably has to do, once again, with the fact that the music is not in the notes.  It is in the actions that go into making music.  As soon as a composer abstracts away from those actions, there are no perceptual criteria that can distinguish the absolutely determined from the totally random.  Artificial life researchers used to say that this was a phenomenon that occupies just the right middle ground between these two extremes, describing that area as “the edge of chaos.”  I find that more poetic that useful, as if it is yet another way to punt on how little we know about motivated action.

The irony is that the time of Babbitt’s death may have coincided with a concert of compositions by Witold Lutosławski.  The focus of the concert was on works based on aleatoric techniques!  We thus had two events occupying opposite sides of a major aesthetic argument during the twentieth century.  Lutosławski died in 1994;  so I assume he has been waiting patiently in heaven to resume that argument with Babbitt.  I wish both of them well in the afterlife!

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