“Academic Music”? OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Milton Babbitt

Composers like to say, “I’m not a university composer, I’m a composer who happens to be at a university.” He happens to be in a university because it makes it possible for him to be a composer. Otherwise he wouldn’t eat, and I can’t imagine a more important function than being able to eat occasionally when you’re composing music. – Milton Babbitt

I recently watched this documentary of Milton Babbitt available at NPR Music, and it gave me a new perspective on a composer whose music I often have a bit of a love-hate relationship with.

Watching this film was perhaps especially timely for me because, earlier this year, I had my first experience of someone calling me an “academic composer” in the pejorative sense (at least my first experience being called that to my face). This experience was a bit of a surprise to me because, as a student, I always thought of myself as the populist rebel, what with my melodic writing and triadic harmony.

When people use the term “academic music” with intent to offend, they usually trying to say that (1) the music has no wide, market appeal, and (2) instead of wide appeal, it has narrow appeal, specifically to others in the academy, and this is helps this music to sustain itself, leading to a large-scale emperor’s-new-clothes situation, where, while everyone knows this music is terrible, no one has the courage to say so (except for the populist rebels).

I’ll share a response to this way of thinking from Detritus Review which is far superior to anything I could put together:

…the harm is that this sort of ill-conceived, childish argument perpetuates a commonplace misunderstanding of music. A misconception that music owes something to us. That when we don’t like a piece of music, it has done us wrong, and the composers have lost their way. While everyone is always free to like or not like any piece of music, that music has no obligations to you. Music doesn’t have to make you happy, please you, provide you with emotional catharsis, or look or sound like anything. In fact, it doesn’t even have to try and be popular. – “Gustav”

Of course, “academia is certainly not above reproach.” Whether or not academic music is a real phenomena that holds its followers to a set of expectations (to write inscrutable music and all wink at the same time), it seems that many young composers perceive that there is a set of expectations they must meet for their music to be considered “serious,” and perhaps across all of the different institutions and music professors in the US, there are some who look for particular criteria in evaluating compositions.

Joseph Dangerfield describes his experience in this article, where the composer (whose work everyone should check out) outlines his liberation from the feeling of obligation to please the academy in his work. This article inspired a surprisingly thoughtful and engaging discussion by academic composers in the comments section, as well as an interesting response, aptly titled “Academic Music” – What’s that? by Christian Carey.

IVORYTOWER
Those poor elephants

I like to think I don’t hold my students to any stylistic standards, just technical standards (counterpoint, counterpoint, counterpoint), and I do believe that technique is something that you have to learn and develop.

Otherwise, why offer a degree in composition?

Despite how I hip I consider myself, though, perhaps the second I started teaching composition at a university I became “The Man,” and now its up to my students to rebel against me.

I think I’m ok with that (perhaps another sign of aging) because maybe, as artists, we need to keep rebelling against the previous generation of rebels.

For me, that would be rebels wrote awesome pieces like this:


Milton Babbitt’s Philomel

Fifty Plays for a Penny

I recently had some attention on facebook with a post about my “Spotify” royalties:

These tracks were songs I wrote 12 or 13 years ago while bassist for the band Mrs. Skannotto, who are enjoying continued success (and, I guess, some streaming music play). Thankfully, I’m not financially dependent on these royalties as a source of income, but it does make me a little annoyed to think that someone probably pulled in a lot more money than 2.2 cents for the 99 plays of this song, and it’s unlikely that the band saw much more of this than I did.

This discussion of artist compensation on streaming services is far from new, with musicians like Thom Yorke removing albums from various streaming services last summer:



..and questions have been raised about how independent artists are compensated as early as two years ago.

Looking at my royalties statement, however, it seems that these discussions haven’t really led anywhere yet. We should all continue force the conversation about this question, though, especially as streaming services seem to be taking over as the primary means of music consumption.

While a pipe dream, I like Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal’s idea in the comic linked below:

Electronic Music and the Uncanny


Louis Dufort’s Zenith: Creepy? Awesome? Both?

In introducing electronic music to students, there usually comes a time in the semester where one of my students asks, “Why is all this music creepy?”

I’m not sure I agree with my them about the music being creepy, but, as a specialist (of sorts), though, I’m maybe too close to the subject, and I can sympathize with my students coming to terms with these new materials.


Ok… Stockhausen may be objectively creepy

So, in general, what makes something “creepy”?

In a TIME article a few years ago, Why is Scary Music Scary? Here’s the Science, Patience Haggin suggested that music used in horror scenes of films was similar to animal distress calls, and that these sounds “trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us this our young are threatened…” The dissonant and minor chords, then, are naturally unsettling, due to their “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

MONSTER
Rar! Nonlinear!

Katy Waldman quickly responded with an article in Slate point out the TIME article’s lack of consideration for the cultural components of music. Waldman says the minor chord isn’t something that is “biologically ingrained,” noting different world cultures have difference perceptions of dissonance.

Sidestepping this nature/nurture debate, though, perhaps one of the reasons that uninitiated students think electronic music is “creepy” has to do with Freud’s uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The uncanny is the distorted ordinary.


Yakusho Koji encounters his double in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Doppelganger (2003)
A persons doppelganger is familiar, because it’s one’s self, but it’s also an impossibility, an aberration, and therefore a great example of the uncanny

There’s no shortage of uncanny images that exemplify this idea, but we have to take another step to show how audio can be uncanny. A example might be that of “hearing voices,” where a disembodied voice occurs without anyone around speaking.

That said, in the 20th-Century, audio recording makes sound portable across both space and time, allowing us to hear music performed by someone on the other side of the world, or even by someone who has died years ago. Composer R. Murray Shafer coined the term “schizophonia” to describe this separation of sound from its source:

We have split the sound from the makers of the sound. This dissociation I call schizophonia, and if I use a word close in sound to schizophrenia it is because I want very much to suggest to you the same sense of aberration and drama that this word evokes, for the developments of which we are speaking have had profound effects on our lives. -R. Murray Schafer

In recorded audio, then, all of these schizophonic sounds are uncanny, disembodied voices separated from their sound sources, like the severed body parts that Freud describes in his essay:

Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition. -Sigmund Freud

CRAWLING HAND
The Crawling Hand, from the movie of the same name

That said, we don’t perceive all recorded music as unsettling. Schafer points out: “Modern life has been ventriloquized,” and perhaps we’ve become used to the phenomenon of sound reproduced by loudspeakers, visible or not. Speakers and headphones have become the surrogate sources for these sounds and prevent us from feeling all recorded sound is uncanny.

So why is electronic concert music specifically uncanny? Perhaps this perception has to do with a phenomena that has become a cultural trope: the Uncanny Valley

A term perhaps best explained in an episode of 30 Rock (“Succession,” Season 2, Episode 13 for die-hards), which I sadly can’t link here but you can read about it in this blog post from several years ago by Mike Arnzen.

Put simply: Real things don’t bother us, fake stuff doesn’t bother us, but when fake stuff gets to close to being real, there’s a threshold where it becomes perceived as “uncanny” — the distorted ordinary.

GRAPH

a graph showing familiarity over human likeness

So, for example, we can consider vocals in music. To paraphrase the “30 Rock” scene: On the right of the valley, you have a real singer, possibly singing in the room with you, and, on the left you have things like Daft Punk or DJ Q-Bert, but in the valley, you have something like this:

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…which is the audio equivalent of this:

GEMINOID-F
Hiroshi Ishiguro‘s “Geminoid-F”

…and maybe that’s a bit creepy.

Of course there are a number of other aspects common in electronic concert music that can make it challenging for new listeners–unfamiliarity, unpredictability, extreme dynamic range, to name just a few–but maybe what gives people the creeps is electronic music’s ability (nay, duty!) to manipulate and distort sounds that we might find familiar. Or, at the very least, put these sounds into new contexts.


Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique

FALLINGROCK
Josh Shalek’s “Falling Rock National Park” (guest comic by Reid Psaltis)

Rigidity, Formality, and The Book of Tea

Dusting off my old copy of Okakura Kakuzo’s Book of Tea, which I haven’t read for more than a decade (before my time in Japan), I found this quote in Liza Dalby’s introduction, talking about her training in Japanese tea ceremony:

American culture has traditionally stressed the Romantic notion that form and structure are things to be thrown off to discover the pure artistic soul beneath. In contrast, the idea that deep artistic freedom can lie within rigidly structured form is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my life, and I am grateful that I found it at an early age, in tea.

A wonderful quote that I completely understand. Though, instead of tea, this statement beautifully described why it took me learning the shamisen and shakuhachi in Japan to really appreciate the music of J.S. Bach.

…and why I love these guys so much: