Taruskin--Grand Narratives and Mini Narratives I

I've mentioned that Taruskin is guilty of creating a grand narrative that is just as high flyin' Hegelian as that which Schoenberg perpetrated.   Taruskin's grand narrative is that Western Music evaporated into hyper literality (at the expense of orality) in a reductio ad absurdam.   Reactions to my first statements about Taruskin suggested that I was being too apologetic.  

True in part.  Taruskin is wrong for those who hear Babbitt, but he is right for those who can only understand it as notes on paper.

I’ll begin with Taruskin jumping all over Babbitt's use of the word, "evolution" in the Stereo Review article.   The problem with the word is its odour, not its literal meaning, and the odor comes from our present disdain for grand narraitves & false teleologies.   Also, we all know that in the '50s the purge had yet to come.   Babbitt was likely unreformed then.   He was possibly a really arrogant monster back then, as some people have insisted.  I didn't know him then.

Stephen Jay Gould in his book *Full House* purified the word "evolution", stripping it of any notion that it goes inextricably toward humans or toward greater complexity.  It works through natural selection.   "Evolution",  post Gould is understood to rest on the contingencies of complex ecosystems where surprising mutations prove to tip the balance of a gene pool into proliferation or decline.  The proliferating period often ends, after the species is found in every little niche, in a collapse.   (Jared Diamond's *Collapse*)

Taruskin is suggesting that chromatic music followed such a trajectory.  Chromatic music collapsed into hyper-literality.  There's enough semblance of truth to this from the perspective of the great masses of music lovers who never jumped on the modernist band wagon.  My position is that he is speaking for the collective; he is describing the ways that the winds of musical fashion turns sharply against certain 20th C. sounds.  He is describing the collective response to the that difficult 20th Century sound.   Seen by me now, or by others in ten or 20 more years things will look different.   I love fashion, and describing how it works is terribly important.   I am also a slave to fashion.   I got tired of 20th Century sounds.    I figured out my own way to get away from them, as did Steve Reich, my favorite minimalist. 

---Renaissance text painting contends for the height of musical literality.-- 
--Cut time is the height of musical literality.   Students always say, "why not 4/4?" and  "You mean just because you feel different when it's written that way?"--

Babbitt's pie in the sky displacements were easily fixed by a clever conductor. He fought Bernstein over this, which was truly misguided. And yet, the anology with cut time holds. It is something of that nature that he was fighting for. These points of contention gradually dissipated. I told him that I felt there were passages that go into time and a half, (dotted quarter pulses or dotted eighth pulses) and he did not object to my thinking that way, either for the groove's sake, or in order to set up some syncopated tuplets, or often for both reasons at once.  He honored my inclinations more than my colleagues did. 

I did not get tired of Babbitt, because there were real, permanant, ineluctible modalities and dynamisms that stand there in his work.  They are not going anywhere.   The 21st C. question for some of us was, do his methods imply a certain sound?   If so, we reject them because we are tired of 20th C. sounds.   

But they are not.   Babbitt, until around 2002, was chained to a daunting 20th C. sound because prior to that, for far too many decades, he was avoiding diatonic harmonies.    It was part of his mis-guided Schoenberg/Webern-launched project to put the (horrific) past in the past.  (Taruskin gets this right.)   

Andrew Imbrie:
''Asking a composer to describe his own style,'' he said in a 2001 interview with the Society of Composers Newsletter, ''is like asking a person: 'How do you walk? How do you talk?' We are all subject to influences. Back in the '50s the European avant-garde tried to eliminate influences from the past by setting up purely abstract mathematical systems to control various 'parameters' and thus insulate the composer from unconscious indebtedness. It just plain didn't work.''

Babbitt admired Imbrie greatly.  He listened, eventually.

Gradually, Babbitt wrote remarkable works where the diatonic harmonies were not excluded, but in fact, inextricably mixed up with all the other kinds of harmonies that he knew and loved, but scared most people away.   If he and others like him had started a perestroika with the diatonic sound world thirty years earlier the world would be much different than it is today.    Why did he and othes not make this move earlier?   The minimalists were goading the modernists and the moderists felt the need to dig in.    It's natural. 

Babbitt's late-blooming diatonicism contributed to a project that some younger folks had going on,  a big 21st C. project.-->

--Could the techniques that proliferated in the 20th C. be de-coupled from that tired 20th c. *sound*?

There are many triumphant works that came out of this effort.  One was the Pulitzer-nominated *Brion* by Harold Meltzer.   Meltzer is a pioneering "set-class minimalist".   Another triumph is *Farai un vers*, but the still relatively unknown Frank Brickle, who got all of his degrees at Princeton, studying with Babbitt. 

I offer my Djuna Barnes Settings as an exemple, along with a great number of earlier works.  The Barnes Settings will be performed by the Riverside Symphony on December 2 of this year.

Diatonic harmonies are in our bones.  Marty Goldray, who was Phillip Glass' pianist for many years, points out that minimalism was diatonic, but more precisely, pentatonic.   Glass is diatonic, Reich is often pentatonic.   The minimalists took refuge in the harmony that war-scarred modernists avoided in their misguided effort to put the past in the past.  Babbitt lived long enough to correct his error--  Swan Song No.1 is diatonic enough for me.  It grabs our heartstrings with Brahms’ echt Weltschmertz chord (major 7th chord), but the flow of the argument takes us seamlessly and powerfully through less travelled terrain. 

I am saying that diatonic harmonies reach people, other harmonies less so.   That is to say that at this stage diatonic harmonies are more public.  The harmonies that are unfamilar to us are not all the same, they are multicolored, but a listener who is not acquainted with those harmonies will get lost.  In Swan Song No. 1, Babbitt seamlessly traverses between public and private harmonies.  The power of the more public moments rubs off on all the rest.   He is redeeming his old language in this way.

I told him that Swan Song No. 1 is a monumental achievement, and that it makes me care about his earlier music *more*.  He told me he was very glad to hear that.

Please continue to--

More Taruskin Grand & Mini Narratives II