Sunday, April 22, 2012

Two Musicians

My diverse and recondite tastes are, I'm sure, confusing for those programs that sites like Amazon and YouTube use to determine what sorts of things you might be interested in. For example, I went to YouTube to see what music they had by Milton Babbitt and the first clip on the "recommended" list was Toccata and Fugue in D minor performed by Vanessa-Mae. Just now I opened up YouTube and the first few recommended items are

  • Beethoven, 7th Symphony, Allegretto
  • An MIT lecture on music and technology
  • a song, in Japanese, by Genki Sudo and World Order
  • Martha Argerich playing Chopin, Ballade #1
  • a student version of Greensleeves on piano
  • a clip from Babylon 5
For me, the search for aesthetic 'truth' obviously involves a lot of comparing different things! (Well, except for Babylon 5, that's pretty much just entertainment.) So let's compare a couple of different things. How about Vanessa-Mae and Milton Babbitt? Here she is with the aforementioned toccata and fugue written by that Saxon organist, J. S. Bach:

I've said disparaging things about Vanessa-Mae from time to time, but viewed from the right angle she is pretty much perfect: young, sexy, good violinist and she really wants you to be happy and have fun. What could possibly be wrong with that? And if she does a funky version of Bach, well, so what? There are no rules in music, not nowadays. Millions enjoy her music so what's the problem?

Ok, now let's have a look/listen to Milton Babbitt. He may be less familiar to you. Babbitt is what Richard Taruskin calls the 'apex' of the thousand-year literate tradition of the West. Ever since people started writing down music a thousand years ago, there has been developing a tradition that looks to create complex, intricate music for those who have the intelligence and interest to hear and study it. In the 13th, 14th and early 15th centuries, composers wrote isorhythmic motets where there was a repeating rhythmic pattern, called the talea which was combined with a repeating melodic pattern called the color. As these two patterns had different numbers of units, the repetitions did not coincide. Composers also used different texts in different languages in different voices sounding at the same time and often created intricate textures in which one voice might imitate another voice, but backwards or upside-down or in different note values. The possibilities were endless. But all of this sort of thing is really only comprehensible if you are very familiar with the techniques, or study the score. Here is an example of some of this kind of writing; the last great isorhythmic motet--Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume Dufay:

You can listen to this and enjoy it just for the sounds, but to actually understand what is going on will take study of the score. To understand what is going on in the music of Milton Babbitt will take considerable study of serialism in music, perhaps some mathematical set theory and a long sit-down with the score! It took theorists twenty years in some cases to figure out what was going on in some of this music. He is the exact opposite of Vanessa-Mae in the sense that he is trying to make music that is nothing but rules. Here is Babbitt's Composition for Four Instruments written in 1948:

If you want to study this piece, you might start with the Wikipedia article. Milton Babbitt (who passed away last year) does not care if inattentive, naive listeners do not 'get' his music. He is not writing for them. He is not really writing for anyone; what he is doing could be described as technical research into the possibilities of musical structure. He is a research scientist in music. Now, mind you, there are problems with this approach as it could be questioned aesthetically on the grounds that if it has no aesthetic appeal then it is not music as an artform, but rather a kind of mathematics. You can question what Vanessa-Mae is doing with precisely the opposite position that she is doing nothing whatsoever interesting with the music, just pandering to the audience.

My position is that I'm actually glad that both these musicians exist (or did, in the case of Babbitt). This is all music, in my view. And comparing how differently music can be approached and produced tells us about music and about ourselves. You can actually enjoy, appreciate and perhaps understand both what Vanessa-Mae and what Milton Babbitt are doing. Personally, even after giving both of them a fair hearing, I have to say that I don't see much possibility in listening/watching more performances of Vanessa-Mae as you can pretty much hear/see what she is up to the first time. But Babbitt is a little different. You may justifiably complain that he has utterly removed any trace of genuine human expression from his music, but still, it is definitely the case that repeated listenings and study of the score will reveal much more over time. So in that case, Babbitt's music is interesting--to me, at least--in a way that Vanessa-Mae's is not.

UPDATE: The clip from Vanessa-Mae has had over 629,000 views and another clip of the same piece, in a concert performance, has had over 8 million views! The Babbitt? A little over 7,000 views...


Nathan Shirley said...

Where else could you read a comparison of Vanessa-Mae and Babbitt?!

You've got some funny points too. Personally I would only make one small change-

"He is a research PSEUDO-scientist..."

If he had worked at NASA there might have been many more disasters!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh! Yes, we here at The Music Salon always strive to go where no-one else goes.