The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue


August 10-28

Ana Sokolović. Photo:

When Milton Babbitt wrote his article, “Who Cares if You Listen?” he unleashed a virus that has proven itself as robust and contagious as the flu. Published in High Fidelity magazine in 1958, the article quickly turned into a totem representing both every piece of new composing that audiences didn't even want to try to listen to and also how irrelevant those audiences were supposed to be to modern composers—and vice versa.

Babbitt went on to later argue that he never authorized the title, preferring "The Composer as Specialist.” I'll give him that revision because so many know the inflammatory title and so few know the actual contents of the argument, which is that the gap between the state of Western art music and popular culture had grown so vast in 1958 that composers should just concentrate on writing for a small and specialized audience, amounting to their professional peers and colleagues, and a handful of aficionados in the public.

Babbitt was correct about the problem, but only insofar as it applied to his own experience, that of composer in a niche culture that had become, rapidly and drastically, academicized. For most composers, writing music was research, funded by graduate and post-graduate degree programs which, as the only practical economic means for a life as a composer, eventually built a fortress-like set of institutions that is a de facto recreation of the Medieval guild system.

That is the history in which the annual Time:Spans Festival found itself. Presented by the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust, Time:Spans is one of the leading showcases for compositional thinking, and, at least in America, it is the one that, intentionally or not, continues Babbitt's legacy of academic composing.

Nothing in this year's edition sounded like Babbitt—music has moved on from the cul-de-sac of atonality and procedures for determining every facet of composing—but the festival perpetrated the aesthetic and culture of composer as specialist, writing music that fulfills their own intellectual curiosity and speaks in the language of other composers and contemporary musicians—two cohorts that along with a small handful of critics, made up the bulk of the audience for the duration of the festival.

That is not to say that this was bad music or a bad festival—like all such things there were things that worked, and things that didn't, as well as the expected exemplary performances from superb ensembles like JACK Quartet, Bozzini Quartet, Yarn/Wire, Ensemble Nike's, and the Talea Ensemble. But it is to point out that this is music making that takes place in something of a cloister, following the roles and expectations of a hermetic culture.

Why are composers writing this music? To hear out loud what is in their heads is an absolutely valid purpose, but the music is a social activity, something that people make together, and listening to music in a group (audience) is something that affects the mind and body and makes it all the more fulfilling for performers and listeners.

How a composer sees the public is an individual decision, and in the end there's nothing to be gained by pandering. But John Adams's great breakthrough was that he realized the value in simply speaking to the public, and that epiphany led to masterpieces like Harmonielehre and Nixon in China.

There was no breakthrough of any kind at Time:Spans, and while there was enjoyable music, nothing stuck in the memory. And by enjoyable, I don’t mean it was made to entertain, but pieces by Ana Sokolović, Commedia dell’arte and ...and I need a room to receive five thousand people with raised glasses...or...what a glorious day, the birds are singing “halleluia”..., had a sense of pleasure in them. Sokolović's work sounded like making music was fun for her, satisfying.

At the other end of the spectrum were featured works from the usually fascinating Chaya Czernowin and Marina Rosenfeld, the latter from whom the festival commissioned two premieres. Using the skills of JACK and the technology of IRCAM, Czernowin made HIDDEN, an electro-acoustic piece formed out of quiet fragments, some still and some quite agitated. In Mary Flagler Cary Hall at the DiMenna Center, the sound from the quartet and the PA was clear but dry, full of detail but in the usual stereo format. This was ambient music, but made by an academic, it sounded like she had researched the materials and features of the ambient genre and assembled something out of that knowledge, without ever once listening to Brian Eno.

Rosenfeld showed a parallel misconception. Her Deathstar Reduction (which had to do with an experimental Bell Labs microphone) as a reverse engineered Music for Airports, field recordings and short percussion passages structured in a composerly way, careful calibrated for architecture but not for sound, there was no sense of space, no sense that the listener was somewhere else, out of time. Her My Body was based on she called dub plates, which are acetate recordings played on turntables—records. She and the members of Yarn/Wire scratched these as a DJ would, but not for any clear musical purpose. This was theoretical DJing, looking for intellectual meaning in the ergonomics while ignoring that the point was to get people dancing.

Somewhere in between was the string quartet music of Michael Oesterle, which the Bozzini Quartet played with exquisite intonation and timbre. As sheer sound, this was some of the loveliest stuff to cross my ears all year. But his Daydream Mechanics V and String Quartet No. 4 both fell into solipsism, the music taking a solid and attractive idea and turning it every which way until it was exhausted. It seemed like listening to the inner workings of Oesterle’s mind, puzzling and impenetrable, and even the references to Beethoven couldn’t bridge the gap between music as mathematical formula and music as something we listen to and make together, to be humans together.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues