Notes on Taruskin

I must offer my experience to correct for some omissions and inaccuracies in Taruskin's discussion of Babbitt.

--I am grateful for his making the distinction with regard to Boulez. Boulez used his techniques to be a rebel.  I would add that, particularly with Le Marteau sans Maitre, he used fancy techniques to sound exotic.    (Elsewhere I will discuss some aspects of the poetics of Boulez' approach which Taruskin and others are missing.)   Babbitt is positively (logically positively) concerned with mastering his materials.   Greg Sandow also gets this, and discussed it nicely somewhere.

--Taruskin is dealing with early and middle Babbitt and does not know the limpid and poignant Swan Song No. 1.

--Taruskin's goal is admirable--what he discusses and sets out in his introduction, but in the Babbitt discussion there is a sad omission.   He emphasizes the tendancy toward electronic music, and ignores the relationship Babbitt had with players.   Babbitt explained to me that after Prentice Hall, which housed the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, was vandalized, he never went back to electronic music.   He had players who loved his music and kept him feeling engaged.  Some of his collaborators could muster a real audience--James Levine.   Others kept his music alive within the pathetic little ghetto that we were all resigned to inhabit.  Performance practice:   as over-marked as his scores are, I find that his players make the music, taking in the dynamics as best they can.   It's still music.  The player's job is to get the music, which we did, even if we ignore a dynamic here and there.  Moreover, the music should support the dynamics, the music should call for those dynamics, summon them.   The players' intuitive grasp of the music must meet the notated dynamics, and in my experience, that's exactly what happens in a human way, gradually getting closer to an ideal perfect performance.

--Taruskin does not seem to appreciate how each work is an experiment in making time points and pitch strategies work.  He does not seem to understand that time point strategies evolved considerably through Babbitt's life. 

--He does not know where Babbitt's improvisation (his composing) takes place.   The way pitches relate to time points is an improvised thing, a composed thing.  He does better in one work than another.  There are foreground pitches that embellish the time points.  These improvised, *composed* aspects are not acknowledged, and so the fallacy that his music is just spit out by cold, hard mathematical formulae goes on unchecked. 

I testify.  There is a cycle of three works, all entitled,  Soli e Duettini.   I play two of them, and I understand every note of those two works.  I understand them musically.  I have not analyzed the work.  I am in awe of the Soli e Duetinni for two guitars.   There is nothing so ambitious and so bizarre, and it happens to work.   What it demands of the players is daunting, but not impossible.  I can become impatient with these works because they are so very ambitious.   I confessed to Milton that I will not analyze his score.  He said of course, you are interested in what the notes *do musically*.   Right. 

The third Soli e Duetinni is for violin and viola.   I do not understand this work at all.  Perhaps I need to hear it played better.  Or perhaps it's not a good piece.  Mostly likely, I have to play it myself and then I'll get it.  I will not solve my problem by analyzing the score.  So, Mr. Taruskin, your pounding away at the "literality" theme seems misguided.  Notated works are still works to be played and heard.

Because I know what it's like to sit through a Babbitt work in total incomprehension, I can sympathize with those who listen to it as if it were free-improv.   That I hear the guitar duo as anything but free improv. puts me in a kind of limbo. There are fine musicians who do not trust me.   I am in a sort of soteriological quandry. Only God and Babbitt and Oren Fader and maybe a few others know that I know that there is something to get in the guitar duo, something wonderful and dazzling. This is a problem in performance because I can tell when people are not getting it.  I can tell when they are hearing it wrong, taking it in like free-improv. This could be dispiriting at times. It's *not* John Zorn!

After the premiere of his piano concerto I talked to a very distracted Milton.  I could see that he was beside himself, and so I said, surely if they all memorized the piece, as Oren & I did with the guitar duo, the performance would have gone much better.   My point was that with orchestra one must be a bit more realistic than in chamber music for virtuoso guitarists.   He seemed to take that to heart--Swan Song No. 1 is a work that people get on the first hearing.   The ending is poignant.  A knockout.  I have been screaming this to the hills.  It is frustrating that the work goes on being ignored.

--Taruskin's discussion of Babbitt occupying the hisorical pinnacle of musical literality, as opposed to orality, is a lovely idea, but I think it is overstated.   I like the sound of Swan Song No. 1.  I find it moving.  The opening trumps itself over and over again culminating in the first big quarter note triplet, which is a big version of the little triplet that the guitar plays in bar 1.  I love its orality.

Taruskin's high flown talk of literality vs. orality is a grand narrative, isn't it?   Here, I must recount the conversation that Babbitt had with James Levine at his 90th birthday concert.   The conversation must be recorded somewhere. (I opened Levine's concert with Niel Farrell, performing the Cavalier Settings.)  Levine began by saying something like, "your music is the main thrust of Western musical development".  (Need to find the recording and get the exact wording.)  Babbitt responded, "We cannot speak in those terms."

He had the Schoenberg-Hegel teleological error beaten out of him decades ago.   In my experience with Babbitt he was always looking for Dewey-like plain language, particularly for discussion of important matters.  For fun he would exercise his talent for fancy language.   He liked complex sentence structure as a mirror of his complex musical phraseology.    I suspect he toned down his sententious pomposity by the time I got to know him. 

Taruskin recounts an exchange between some guy (I promise to look up his name later) and Babbitt.  The guy says Babbitt's work is a cul-de-sac.   I have to say that I totally disagree with Taruskin's reading of Babbitt's response.  The mis-reading may have to do with the fact that Babbitt did not think about main roads.  So here I cite the exchange with Levine once more. If he did not think in those teleological terms then why should he care about whether he is on a main road or in a little cul-de-sac??  He simply doesn't care!!; he does not think about music evolving toward an ultimate destiny.  This distinction is terribly important, a matter of history that is documented in the recording of Levine's concert.  

Another anecdote.   I once suggested to him that his music must be fractal.  He said "no, I am interested in relating big things and small things, but  If you want fractal music you must go to Jonathan Dawe."   And so I discovered his protegĂ© Jonathan Dawe.

Babbitt also hated it when people mix science, math and physics with music in sloppy or misguided ways.  He yelled at me for talking about the uncertainty principle, trying to apply it in a stupid way to music.

In short, he was ambitious.  He aimed high.   He hit the mark on many occassions.