The Curious Case of Milton Babbitt

Array from Milton Babbitt's  Composition for Four Instruments

Array from Milton Babbitt's Composition for Four Instruments

Why does atonal music suck?  The canon of Western Art Music (more commonly called classical music) stretches back centuries and you can more or less trace its progression in styles, forms, and complexities in a somewhat linear path beginning in the 13th and 14th centuries.  And for the most part, each composer in that chain builds off and is influenced by the composers that came before him.  From Buxtehude to Bach, from Bach to Beethoven, from Beethoven to Bizet, from Bizet to Brahms, from Brahms to Bruckner, from Bruckner to Britten.  And then we get to Babbitt.  I don’t mean to pick on poor Milton specifically, as he was just one of the 20th-century composers influenced by the Second Viennese School, but his name started with a “B,” and his music is archetypal of the point I’m trying to make.  Give a listen to an example of his composition style and then read on:

Now, if you’re a Normal Person, the question I expect you to be asking is, “What the #@$! did I just listen to?”  You’ll notice, however, if you examine the YouTube comments below the video, a slew of Serious Musicians applauding the brilliance of Mr. Babbitt.  Almost inexplicably, what sounds like hot garbage to the layman has actually taken root in the Western Art Music canon as one of the important steps of musical evolution.  My question is how.  How did we get from the intricate melodic counterpoint of Bach, from the dark, brooding harmonies of Beethoven, from the marvelous, exciting drama of Brahms to what sounds like a cat having a seizure on a piano?

To answer this question, one first has to understand what makes an artist revolutionary – what makes a composer actually worthy of his place in the canon.  And while this might be overly simplistic, I think the primary answer is his ability to say something new.  Truly good art is about taking the old and hackneyed and revealing it to the world in a way that they’ve never seen before.  To take something that everyone thought they knew, and reveal a new facet or dimension that rings beautiful and true.

In Western music, this “finding the new” took the form ofpushing the unwritten rules of music composition ever outwards, first bending, and then breaking those conventions.  Beginning in medieval times, the most complex art music was plainsong – unaccompanied vocal chant, sung in unison (meaning everyone was singing the same pitch at the same time).  Composers, highly limited by the constraints of a single melodic line, quickly exhausted their creative possibilities and began developing simple polyphony in the form of organum.  From there, more complex polyphony began to develop that began to resemble modern-day V-I cadences.

From organum, there then developed counterpoint.  Modern-day instruments were invented and became standardized.  Increasingly complicated forms were developed like binary, ternary, theme and variation, and eventually the pinnacle of developed forms, sonata allegro form.  And eventually even these highly sophisticated standards were altered and abandoned for formless through-composed compositions, meaning they didn’t adhere to a strict form at all!  Harmonies slowly but surely pushed the limits of dissonance further and further until consonance became a welcome relief in a sea of cacophony. You get the picture – the progression of musical evolution was a gradual, organic process, but the direction was always the same: more complexity and a dismantling of previous convention.

By the 20th century, every limiting rule or constraint of composition had fallen into history, and the single progressive narrative had been splintered into many different threads by breakthroughs in telecommunications and travel, leaving composers in a sea of endless possibilities.  Yet ironically, it was this exact lack of limitation that made it more difficult than ever to say something new.  It turned out that it was the rules themselves that allowed revolutionary composers to be revolutionary – because they were able to break the rules.  Once these rules no longer existed, a composer could write whatever he wanted, but in some sense, it had all been done before.  Any attempt to go back in time and reestablish some semblance of order was futile: any composition in an older style was simply derivative and unoriginal.

It was this epiphany that led a group of composers known as the Second Viennese School to try something radical.  They realized they couldn’t resurrect the old rules governing music…. but what if they artificially imposed rules that had never before existed?  What if they came up with a new music theory – unprecedented in Western music – that reimposed some limitation, allowing composers to, once again, be creative and push boundaries?  Thus, 12-tone music was born.

Developed by Arnold Schoenberg, the idea was a radical departure from all previous convention, completely throwing out the idea of key centers and tonal harmony in exchange for a mathematically-based system in which each of the twelve tones in a chromatic scale was given equal importance.  These series of twelve notes were called tone rows, and could be arranged as inverted, retrograde, and retrograde-inverted.  The whole point was to stop the ear of the listener from gravitating toward a particular tonal center by having each note in the chromatic scale sound in the piece before a tone could be repeated.

It’s a very compelling concept in theory and immediately drew the interest of composers as famous as Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez.  And if you analyze the scores of some of these 12-tone pieces, they are visually beautiful, masterfully weaving 12-tone matrixes across the staves like an intricate jigsaw puzzle.  The problem is of course, as demonstrated by the above video, that they sound awful, boring, and pretentious.  And after all, what is music if not what it sounds like?

Fortunately 12-tone music failed to catch on widely outside of academia and composers instead turned to neo-classicism, serialism, and minimalism in an attempt to push music’s evolution forward.  But if you ever hear atonal din on a radio station or at a concert and wonder, “How did this ever spring forth from a composer’s head, much less be taken seriously by other musicians?” you’ll know the answer.  There was a time in the 20th century when composers, staring into the abyss of endless creative decisions, had an existential crisis and panicked, artificially throwing up barriers in an attempt to say something new.  Unfortunately for them, the new thing they said was unpalatable gobbledygook.