Saturday, December 17, 2016

Milton Babbitt: Abstract Audio/Visual


Babbitt is one of the great composers of 20th century "classical" music, also known as "new music" or "experimental" music. Thanks to YouTube, music that once was very hard to purchase in the form of LPs or CDs is right there for the listening. It hardly needs to be said that this kind of music is unpopular: it is. But now with accessibility so increased it's easier to make the case that the unpopularity is unwarranted. Babbitt had a reputation as an especially difficult composer, but I think that's less because of the music than because of an article he once wrote called "Who Cares If They Listen," a polemic in defense of experimental and "advanced" music and against the notion that popularity tells us something about the worth of a work of art. He did himself no favors with his rhetoric, which seems to embrace the notion of his music's difficulty. But then again, it's a good conversation starter, no?

This version of "Composition for 12 Instruments," conducted by Ralph Shapey, is exponentially enhanced by the incredible montage of abstract art images so wonderfully composed by the videographer, identified at YouTube as lendallpitts. I see a lot of images in the style of Franz Kline, as well as some early Picasso, some Miro, some Klee, some Rothko, as well as a bunch I can almost but not quite identify. The music and the art share the quality of not being concerned with what I will call "getting from here to there." The music has no clear time signature and the artworks lack narrative, so there aren't the usual features listeners and viewers like to grab onto in order to be carried away. Instead one's focus moves to the beauty found in moments, in the ring of an oboe tone, in the intensity of a given color; the unusual quality of a harmony, the texture of a brushstroke as white overlaps on black. The "not going anywhere" aesthetic is very close in spirit and experience to mindfulness meditation. Is it possible for music and art to be both austere and ravishing? I think yes.

Yesterday I watched a Beyonce video that had 58 million views. This Babbitt clip has 14,000. That gap won't be closed anytime soon. But maybe Babbitt could rise up to 50,000 views. And that would be cool, even if Babbitt himself couldn't have cared less.

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