A Defense of CIA-funded Cold War Musical Research
Milton Babbitt, a card carrying positivist whose Cold War music was funded by the CIA, wrote somewhere, "if music is to continue to evolve"....
A preemptive strike: eugenics was very much in the positivist spirit. The remark doesn't have to be so insidious. You can decide.
Babbitt's music evolved, and flowered in the truly transcendental late works. Babbitt furthered Schoenberg's work, and influenced much other music.
We among the living are certainly different creatures than we were 20 or 40 or 60 years ago, but are not comfortable with social evolution or the idea that anything *must* evolve.
Music will change as people change and that's change enough for me, I suppose. I do care about Babbitt's knowledge as it is embodied in his work. I care about the ongoing life of that musical knowledge.
I am noticing that while we were not paying attention, diatonic music evolved. We could even call it tonality again, but it no longer works the way Rameau/Boulanger describe it.
I've mentioned fashionable collections. Our ears like 0156. It is the weirdest sounding signature of a key (7 consecutive fifths). It's really popular. What do Marty Rokeach, Matthew Greenbaum and Benjamin Britten have in common?---! It also has a lovely ability to split itself in two, like a paramecium. BCEF can be the 7th,8th,3rd, &4th scale degrees in C. It can also be a bintonal bridge straddling other diatonic regions-- E major and F major, perhaps, much the way Brahms splits the two 5ths in his beloved major 7th chord into emblems of 2 harmonic regions (the string sextet).
In Martin Rokeach's music, he floats something simple and catchy in the upper register, leaving the bass register clear, then he Lydianifies the upper stuff by throwing us the wierdest possible diatonic bass note. Across the registers will surely be an 0156. A displacement takes place. We hear the upper register over an imagined-but-more-likely pedal, which he then displaces by his Lydian (or Locrean) pedal tone The result is really cool.
One great thing to come out of the latest evolutionary movements of tonal music--minor third symmetries no longer have to be the mixed modality of choice, as it is in Sibelius, Wagner, and Joan Tower. When the kaleidoscopic possibilities of other symmetries are opened before our ears, the musical world is greatly enriched.
A simple example--George Walker's music deftly negotiates between minor third symmetries and "quartal harmony". I hear that displacement in his music, and I find it very compelling.
Schoenberg's Op. 9 showed us clearly all these varieties of other symmetries--all the interval cycles. Schoenberg's later 12-tone music explores such specificities in much greater depth. Babbitt's Swan Song shows how all the trichords (the ones he cares about) relate to one another and to all the background interval cycles.
Babbitt & Schoenberg's musical researches have quietly and sneakily influenced tonal music. Tonal music has evolved.
Hip new symmetries in tonal music:
0156 and also
And 0167 is way more fun as a bluesy thing than an octotonic thing, although the 8tonic context may be impossible to ignore.
Yet even whole tone symmetries are different enough from the ubiquitous minor third symmetries to be refreshing.
012 is a compelling symmetry to explore in tonal music. I like the way Liszt explored 012 in his Eb piano concerto, but that was rudimentary, and very scale-degree-bound.
And why not 0127? It is equal parts 5th cycle and chromatic cycle.
Much of this came out of Cold War musical researches, supported by the CIA--all are gold mines for tonal music, waiting to be mined by brave pioneers. Our musical progress does not have to be revolutionary, and it no longer is so. It is ruminative (like the slow, digestive processes of ruminant animals). The revolutionary stuff is there. We'll get to it in fullness of time. Those bourgeois concert-going Luddites were right to be wary. No doubt, they ignored much important work, but they also dismissed some bad wanna-be-revolutionaries *for the right reasons*!
Non-triatic, diatonic music is now heard in indie rock! This struck me:
There are other examples. When the kids give up triads--that's real evolution. It redeems Stravinsky's revolution.
My case: I have come to appreciate collections-unto-themselves (I call them the collection *as sich*, after Kant). To find the collection *an sich*, one must willfully take collections not in their scale degree context(s), but in other (willfully devised) customized contexts. The collection *an sich* is a distillation of what comes from 12-tone music if you look back on that music from a distance, ignore the rows, and look at how that old 12-tone music works on the phrase level and bigger.
For me the result is most potent when the compsoer puns on the scale-degree associations--like Schoenberg Op. 27, no. 4, and Op. 29, much Wuorinen, Brickle, Bob Morris, and Robert Pollcok.
I have never really gone down that road (willful denial of scale degree associations), even when I thought I was doing so. There are many others like me. For us the collection *an sich* is a kind of enormity. We approach it asymptotically, like a black hole. It's true, it came about in end times. We associate it with world wars and cold wars. Yet, it's been end times for 2011 years.
Times that are not end-times are engineered. The last time one was engineered was after the 1929 crash. Disney cleaned up his cartoons, films were censored. Interesting decadence from Europe went deep underground to incubate. Will the geronboomertocracy now engineer another golden age? I don't think they can pull it off. It takes too much discipline. If they manage, the collection *an sich* may be underground for a long, long time.
I take Babbitt & Boulez' positivism as something akin to the enlightenment reapect for reason. Babbitt was always dead set against any kind of snake oil. When I asked him about fractals he said his music is not fractal. He is interested in the relationships between big things and small things. He hated misappropiations (for supposedly musical purposes) of scientific principles. He yelled at me a couple of times for things like that. He had big issues with Hofstadter's *Godel, Escher, Bach*.
I have to concede that to argue that Babbitt is for precision is an awkward argument to make. His music was soooo difficult, so opaque!! He did not feel that the issue was to see how easy music could be. He wanted to make it do all he felt it could do. Soli e Duettini - I can understand because I play it. It spoke very powerfully to me as someone with that close proximity to its workings, but I can't understand the violin/viola piece from that cycle from a casual hearing, and I would not expect any other casual listener to get it either. But his last works hit the jackpot. They are ambitious, and clear.
When things that have kept us safer from harm are endangered by snake oil (false reasoning or deceptive reasoning), we are in grave danger. Herd immunity will be jeopardized when enough homeopaths succeed in circumventing vaccinations for their children. Yesterday, news was released that nutritional supplements can be harmful. The framing of the study was designed to be inflamatory--the study found that there is a greater likelihood of death for people who take nutritional supplements. Doctors (my positivist father included) were always alarmed by the claims made by the manufacturers of those supplements, and I'm sure they welcomed this study and the attention it received.
Babbitt & Boulez, and other positivists from that positivist time, were after a similar kind of honesty and straightforwardness about music. Their attitude was recognized by their contemporaries. It appealed to the upwardly mobile America of the Kennedy administration. There was that resonance between Babbitt's worldview, and the aims of a people and its government who wanted to put a man on the moon.
Music doesn't have to be rational. It just has to be good. Discussions of music can be like the dialogue about a tennis swing. The coach can use any language that works to make the swing work as well as it can. The coach's dialogue about the anatomy and physiology might be less that accurate.
Babbitt wanted accuracy and clarity in discussions about music, and that was consistent with a broader respect across many fields for rational discourse. Rational discourse is a discourse that avoids irrational or deliberately deceptive discourse. The distinction is arguably unimportnat for music, but it was not unimportant for Babbitt, and the idea that it is less important for music than for more "crucial" areas of study was offensive to Babbitt. It was felt that civilization was upheld by rational discourse. While music could exempt itself, there were those like Babbitt who, perhaps out of a sympathy for the larger cause, felt that the all would benefit if music did not exclude itself from the positivist, postwar call for rational discourse.
That the CIA support for Babbitt's work skewed the playing field for a time cannot be denied. That was a very brief moment, toward the very beginning of Babbitt's career! It was all over for him by the mid-70s. He knew he was a dinosaur. Being a dinosaur gave him leave to work quietly on his *miraculous* last works.
The vitamin study now gives me some hope for reason & Babbitt.