On Serialism, Babies, and Arrogant Assholes


On Serialism, Babies, and Arrogant Assholes, by Tussah Heera

What I’m about to write about today is based on a series of thoughts I’ve had over the past few weeks. In one of said weeks, there came a night when I found myself thoroughly unable to get to sleep, and as a result ended up thinking profusely in the wee hours of the morning out of frustration. The whole time, a certain topic discussed in history class simply would not leave my mind – can all music truly be considered music? Let me elaborate. If a composer so chooses to write a piece of such complex atonality and instrumentation to the point it becomes hard to distinguish it from plain noise, is it really music, or just that – plain noise? I’m straight off the bat going to say this before delving any deeper: though I will entertain parts of this discussion from all sides in the coming discourse, I may not come to any solid conclusions because I acknowledge that there simply are too many thin lines, so just chill out and keep an open mind, whether your jam happens to be Mozart or Stockhausen. Don’t worry, your brains won’t fall out in this case – it’s just music, after all (or not).

In class, we studied serialism. Basically, serial music consists of controlling every aspect of the score – rhythm, notes, articulation, dynamics, etc. – in order to represent any natural entities or patterns, like mathematical or biological sequences. Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez (B&B, as I like to call them) are now widely considered the poster boys of this composition technique , and I regard the works of both with fascination. Click here to see the actual patterns they conceived. Unlike other composers who wrote music simply inspired by math (a la Ligeti and Xenakis), these two strove for a heightened sense of literalism in his works – an exact translation from mathematical to musical language. Though interesting, their music was never adulterated from its purely mathematical form to be accessible or consequently, timeless – a fate that befell much music of the atonal era. As composer Steve Reich said in In the Ocean: A Film About the Classical Avant-Garde, no postman today will ever whistle the “tunes” of Schoenberg (despite Schoenberg’s own insistence of this scenario when he was alive), or any other atonal composer for that matter, partly because there are no tunes.

Even today, the works of B&B elicit searingly diverse opinions, some of which are unduly harsh and very obviously uninformed. One anonymous user online had quipped that Boulez’ Le Marteau Sans Maître sounded like someone had smeared poop all over musical notes and forced a bunch of homeless guys to play the result at gunpoint. Others went as far to say that B&B took the entire music industry for a ride by simply scribbling random notes and fooling everyone into thinking they were intelligent innovators in order to collect heaps of sweet, glorious money. Even though there is enough evidence for us to believe that their compositions are much more than just get-rich-quick schemes (and are in fact extremely thorough, erudite and worth studying to see the extent of how far patterns in music can go), it’s fair to say that the motives behind these works make their creators come across as little more than pompous old pricks, as I will now explain.

For obvious reasons, Babbitt is far better known today for his writings, namely a puritanical article titled Who Cares If You Listen? in which he demanded that music be regarded as no different than math and the sciences. He purposefully alienated audiences, and advised musicians to lock themselves up, compose solely for academic purposes and ignore the component of accessibility entirely. Music, to him, was an extremely serious art form, demanding sacrifices from those who so choose to devote themselves to it. According to him, it was your duty as a composer to write studiously and never emotionally, let nobody recognize you your entire life, die alone in misery in your crummy basement, have the police drag your stinking, rotting corpse to the morgue several weeks after your putrid martyrdom, and then reap the honor of having your name plastered all over the walls of exclusive universities in the “True Composers” hall of fame. If you instead chose to write for the public and actually make it your purpose to unite people through your music, you were little more than a musical prostitute, and precisely what was corrupting the American music industry, you communist socialist piece of shit, you.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in originality, and it should be acknowledged that being a populist composer can sometimes carry the responsibility of feeling constantly indebted to the masses, unable to execute your true visions. If you strip Babbitt’s thesis of all its ridiculous, strident fundamentalism, you could see this point quite clearly. Discovery is a beautiful thing of any passionate person in any field, and the fact remains that hours of solitude in the basement are often what lead you to it. Einstein said he wished he weren’t famous at times, because he felt it took away his time from his work. But music is a universal language – an art, not a pure science, which is what Babbitt fails to understand. Art, unlike the sciences, needs to communicate something and stir  feelings inside you. All art is a perfect blend of emotion and science: a fundamental, infinitely complex part of nature deserving of detailed study, yet at the same time, a subjective entity with a million different modes of expression through the human mind. It requires activity in both the right and left sides of the brain. Therefore, one has the freedom to express this art through whichever side one pleases, and both are equally necessary for advancement. In this sense, I believe that the water has found its own level over the years: Stravinsky and Copland have contributed to music by filling our concert halls (right-brained music), while Babbitt and Boulez have contributed just as much by filling our university courses and scholarly textbooks (left-brained music). Win win, right?

As one can see, there’s really not much room for disagreement on this topic. Everyone with a relatively reasonable mind can be on the same page for three simple facts: 1. New discovery is necessary and fascinating, and beckon those who are compelled by it, yet 2. Those who forsake the emotional aspect of art for discovery can’t expect other artists and the general direction of the art world to sway their way, as the true nature of any art is subjective and 3. Unlike what Babbitt wrote, it truly is possible to have the best of both worlds, as many composers, such as Messiaen, have shown and continue to show today.

Unfortunately, there are (as always) some people who don’t quite get it. You know, the jerks who try to make everything a divisive issue? Just take a look at the comments section on a YouTube video of Pierre Boulez talking about his music, and you will find many gems from people of this kind. Here are my favorites, the first of which, a comment written by an intelligent, eloquent person of the username dou40006:

“he is not dead yet? so that we can forget his annoying talks and worse his awful music, or rather this random noise. All that intellectual masturbation of serial music and other related experiments are a total musical failure. Its failure lies in the naive belief that you can just throw away centuries of musical evolution and decide that the music can be whatever the intellect decide it should be.”

Intellectual masturbation. Who in the world could possibly disagree with that? To be fair, that’s precisely the reason why Babbitt’s article is so off-putting. Composing music solely for your own pleasure and mental advancement is your own right, and is, moreover, something that needs to be done, but seriously – if that’s all you do with your life, nobody’s going to give a fuck at the end of the day (no pun intended).

But right after the first few sentences, his point falls flat on its face. The “musical evolution” he talks about has always been powered by an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality – not bytenaciously adhering to the conventions of our predecessors. All major composers throughout the ages ended up “throwing away” the previous centuries in order to achieve their potentials. It is not a “naive belief” but rather an innovative one, and a part and parcel of any development. Just because certain music does not fit your personal ideals of what music should consist of, doesn’t mean it’s a “failure”. A particular score’s being music or not is, in fact, in the eye of the composer’s beholder and depends on his/her intent. Boulez and Babbitt may be coming off as standoffish for trying to pigeonhole the art of music, but this nature doesn’t stem from their music – rather, it stems from their opinions. From a purely musical standpoint, it’s ultimately their choice to explain whatever they need to through their works.

At the same time, I must say there is nothing I hate more than artists who fake depth and degrade their peers for approaching art in a different way than themselves. In some cases, there is no substance in their works, which rely on the premise that “boring, slow, and repetitive = depth”. In this case, the composer should be subject to ridicule. But ridicule elicited from misinformation is never good. Some things, like Boulez and Babbitt’s pattern music, take time and copious analysis to understand. The unfortunate part is that there is such a thin line between true erudition and its faux counterparts that one could either be too quick to dismiss meaningful art, or become so dogmatically faithful to a work, it leads one to find false meaning that doesn’t exist. In simple terms, you want so dearly to find meaning that you start unconsciously making your own without rhyme or reason.

There’s actually a simply way to get around all these crimes of over-generalization: treat all music as it asks to be treated. More specifically, approach music like Boulez’s as you would an extremely complex math equation, while approach music like Chopin’s as you would a transcendent work of art, such as Monet’s beautiful lilies. Even though both types are technically classified as music, they require very different approaches in order to appreciate them.

Moving on. I scroll and find another commenter of the username grafplaten, who contrary to dou40006, waxes poetic and over-inclusive…

“works such as pierrot lunaire and marteau sans maître are as beautiful as anything composed by bach, mozart, schubert or debussy….those who are too narrow-minded to appreciate them are truly missing out…..as for the person who wrote that so-called “atonal” music makes babies cry: many kinds of music would make babies cry, but that says nothing about the quality of the music…i have witnessed that bruckner and wagner also make babies cry, so should we reject late romantic music, too? who cares what a baby thinks!

Yeah, that’s right! Screw you, babies, nobody cares what you think! You just popped into the world and now you’re already music critics? Haha, very funny, the only qualifications you have for that job are a bald head and an affinity for pooping on everything.

Jokes aside, what this dude is referring to is an article by Stephen Strauss about a scientific study done in Canada in 1996, in which babies were made to listen to the music of Schoenberg and other atonal composers and scientists studied how they reacted. Click on the red words to read it. The result was just what you would expect: babies were quite disturbed by atonal music, and cried profusely. Now I don’t have a problem with the premise of the study and the interesting scientific facts they cited about our ears preferring certain intervals over others (such as the “golden fifth”), but I have a huge problem with the title: “TONALITY FAVORED, STUDY SAYS”. Well, no shit, Sherlock, thanks for enlightening me. The idea of atonal music, as championed by the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) was to declare tonality dead, and not care about what their audiences liked. They were well-aware that tonality was heavily favored, and viewed themselves as renegade reformers who sought to break the music industry by veering as far from tonality as possible. We don’t need a study to figure out that tonality is loved by all – we need one to figure out why.

As for the first point grafplaten made, I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “beautiful” to describe Pierrot Lunaire or Le Marteau Sans Maître. Thought-provoking? Yes. Innovative? Unquestionably. But “beautiful” just comes across to me as the wrong adjective to use, if not superficial. Would you describe an exceptionally well-made horror movie as “beautiful”? Or call a well-written book about a dark topic such as child slavery “beautiful”? No, you wouldn’t. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is based on a collection of poems with extremely morbid thematic material. With its hair-raising harmonies and the slurred singing of the soprano (Sprechstimme in German), it might very well be the soundtrack to your nightmares. To call it “beautiful” is a notch above calling it “cute” – the word simply does not justify the gravitas of this music and other works like it. As for Le Marteau, it is more akin to a chemical experiment than a thing of beauty, so to treat it as the latter would do a great disservice to the quest ofunderstanding it. But since when did anyone find any depth in a YouTube comment?

Back to the topic of tonality and the human mind, what are the true evolutionary benefits of a preference for tonality? How many millions of years did it take for our ears to become so discerning? Was it to do with the fight-or-flight response – in caveman times, the scary, atonal sounds of a predator approaching, for example, contrasted with the melodious, tonal songs of birds signaling dawn? Is nature or nurture responsible? I was talking to my mom about this very subject, and together we wondered what would’ve happened if, instead of feeding my ears a diet of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and Peter and the Wolf in my baby years, my mom had had Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and the rest playing constantly on the stereo? Would I have grown up preferring their music over the tonal, mainstream kind? Say I finally grew older and discovered tonal music (much in the same way I discovered the music of Schoenberg just a few years ago). Will I still prefer the Second Viennese School, or simply hate my mom for making me listen to horrible, disfigured “music” for the formative years of my life? We will likely never find out the truth in my case, but as my mom said, it depends both on the baby and the environment the baby is in. She reckons I would’ve come to love both equally. That would’ve been great, and even though I was somewhat skeptical about that outcome at first, she does obviously know Baby Me better than I do so I’ll take her word for it.

I’m not going to lie. I love some atonal music (a follower of my blog would know I have a special liking for Ligeti), but still have a knee-jerk reaction to music that is seemingly devoid of any structure. Still, being an open-minded person, I’m still aware that my tastes and understanding may change at any point, and there are reasons why I may not exactly grasp this music at first, second, or even third listen. Life in music is a constant journey, not a series of destinations that constantly demand on-the-spot opinions. It’s not about pretending to like something when you truly don’t either, it’s about having the wisdom and patience to see things for what they truly are.

A police siren howls from outside. I’m suddenly briefly distracted, and look at the time on the microwave. An hour has gone by since I sat down to write this entire post, and it’s already midnight. A long day came to an end a couple hours ago and another is imminent, but with so many thoughts in my head, the sleep I need isn’t likely to come so easily…

TUSSAH-HEERA-PHOTO-CV Tussah Heera, L. A., March 13, 2015

First published on March 13, 2015 in Tussah and the Wolf

TO READ IN PDF (pp. 64–71): HCH-4-MAYO-2015