Monday, January 13, 2014

Who cares if they listen?

No, it wasn't Milton Babbitt who coined the title of that notorious essay, but it stuck. And, by the way, it was "Who cares if you listen?". Serialism, as Babbitt alludes to, employs a tonal vocabulary "more efficient" than that of past tonal music. Each note-event is precisely determined by its pitch class, register, dynamic, duration and timbre. In that sense, the music has a higher information density and the slightest deviation from the prescribed values is structurally different, not just an expressive coloration. Such music inevitably poses high demands on the performer, as well as on the listener. (Critical remarks could be inserted here, but I'm not going to.) Similarly to how recent advances in mathematics or physics can be understood only by a handful of specialists, there is an advanced music that we should not expect to be immediately accessible to everyone. For such an elitist endeavor to have a chance of survival at all, Babbitt suggests that research in musical composition should take its refuge in universities. Indeed, in 20th century America that was where serialist composers were to be found.

The recent emergence of artistic research at universities and academies is really not much different from what Babbitt was pleading for. Artistic research is awkwardly situated between theorizing and plain artistic practice as it used to be before everyone had to write long manifestos. But more about that on another occasion, perhaps.

In a more dadaist spirit, there is this new release out now on bandcamp, also titled Who cares if they listen.

In these days there are enough reasons to care if they listen (yes they do, but not wittingly) and to worry about its consequences, as discussed in a previous post.

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