A lesson for the humanities from new music

This month’s issue of The Wire has a nice article on the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (including a wonderful description of the dilapidated condition of the original equipment). It was the first thing I’d read about Milton Babbitt in a long time, which led me to go find his infamous 1958 essay “Who Cares if You Listen?”

The first thing to note is that the title wasn’t his and he didn’t like it (it was supposed to be called “The Composer as Specialist.”) I don’t know if I ever actually read it before or if I’d imagined I read it before, but this time I found the essay quite profound. I was a little taken aback, which is what I enjoy about reading old things that are immersed in other arguments.

Babbitt’s argument roughly parallels the argument I routinely hear for why university professors in the humanities and social sciences shouldn’t write like journalists. He begins by acknowledging that the contemporary concert-going public of his time has mostly rejected new music. His response is to effectively let them off the hook. Why shouldn’t they? The avant-garde of his time required a great deal of abstract knowledge about music that even the most seasoned season-ticket-holder to the orchestra simply wouldn’t have.

He writes:

Advanced music, to the extent that it reflect the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than [those] arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. But to this, a double standard is invoked, with the words “music is music,” implying also that “music is just music.” Why not, then, equate the activities of the radio repairman with those of the theoretical physicist, on the basis of the dictum that “physics is physics”? It is not difficult to find statements like the following, from the New York Times of September 8 1957: “the scientific level of the conference is so high…that there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute.” Specialized music on the other hand, far from signifying “height” of musical level, has been charged with “decadence,” even as evidence of an insidious “conspiracy.”

Let’s take Babbitt’s own strategy and update the essay. Substitute “humanities,” or “theory,” or “cultural studies” for “music” and you’ll see what I mean. In writing on music, Babbitt’s position is generally considered indefensible (though on a careful reading it deserves to be taken more seriously even if he’s a little misguided about where musical “progress” must come from). Yet I know many humanists who would make exactly the same argument for their use of any number of specialized languages.

The alternative is equally unsatisfying: imperatives like “democratize the humanities” “speak only what is easily understood” and “we must all reach out and cross over” abdicate too much. Sure, we should be able to speak in multiple registers, but that doesn’t mean abandoning the space of the university or the values of specialization entirely.