Cygnus Ensemble

Babbitt & Teleology

I was very proud to be one of the players on the 90th birthday concert that James Levine put on at Weill Hall, playing the Cavalier Setttings for tenor and guitar.  In a wonderful conversation between Babbitt & Levine, there was this interesting exchange, which I have to paraphrase:



Your work is the main thrust of music history.


I don't think we can speak of it in that manner.


I think we can concede one thing to Levine:  equal temperament happened.


Equal temperament opened up vast regions for composers to explore.  Remember the way Babbitt spoke of Moses und Aron, pointing out how rich it is in musical possibilities.  (Find this discussion in Babbitt's collected writings, published by Princeton.)  He is obviously very careful to speak of these wonders in pragmatic terms, in the Pierce/James sense of pragmatism.  It could be that in his earlier days he fell prey to Schoenberg's inflated teleological thinking, but any chastening was likely very early on.  I welcome insights into this.  I know that Ben Boretz considered his Metavariations as an oblique criticism aimed at Babbitt.  Babbitt was lucky to have very smart students to keep him current and to check any untoward teleology.


At the Bard Festival last August, the best and brightest musicologists spoke and wrote about Berg.  I was struck by the almost ritualistic disavowals of teleology that came in brief preambles.  This all because Schoenberg blabbed too much about historical necessity and such.


In all my conversations with Babbitt, he made an effort to couch things in simple, unpretentious language.  He learned from the flack that Schoenberg took for his talk about fulfilling music history.  An example--


Babbitt & Fractals:

He told me his music is not fractal (after I accused it of such).  He admitted he's interested in little things &  big things mirroring each other, bouncing off of each other.  The opening guitar tune in Swan Song uses a major 7th chord in eighth note triplets that comes back twice in quarter-note triplets, amplified, made large.


Schoenberg did a great & courageous thing, and Babbitt followed up courageously and exhaustively.   We're all greatly enriched by their work.  At the time, no doubt, Schoenberg felt that he was onto a big thing.  Music played Schoenberg and to Schoenberg music must have felt like such a powerful daemonic force, so fortunate that it didn't destroy him, as it almost destroyed Reger, for example.  Schoenberg mastered it.  Such daemonic forces look different (feel different) coming and going.    Teleology is a mini narrative mistaken for a grand narrative, but it is also apt hyperbole trying to descirbe the experience of  grappling with titanic forces, which is always, in the end, quite indescribable.  Missing this obvious point, our narrative concerning teleology has become a bit tedious.


For Babbitt, his creative masque was that of a positivist.  And if you like, take Alex Ross' cue and embellish this a bit--a *coldwar positivist technocrat*,  although Babbitt's positivist mask was something that he had tried on long before the cold war.  After Steuermann pointed out that Babbitt or any American could never  have the *Geist und Seele*  to compose like a German (see Babbitt's essay, My Veinna Triange), Babbitt worked long and hard, for decades, creating a spirited and soulful (yes, absolutely soulful, if you know his music well enough) American compositional voice.  Note, the positivist mask is a professional mask, and professionalism can protect one from the kinds of  inflation that would lead one to make grand claims such as teleological ones.


Mistaken  teleologies came about notoriously through misunderstandings surrounding "evolution".   Darwin preferred the less teleological "natural selection".   And still there were those who felt that Darwin was suggesting that nature had a fondness for intelligence.  The late Stephen Jay Gould deals with this problem, but I'm not convinced entirely by his treatment of the issue.


more coming....

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