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Who cares if you Yisten?

Circa the mid twentieth century, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others wrote music that seemed to be extraordinarily difficult even after many listening and playing sessions. To this very day, their compositions, often based on serialization of pitch, and, possibly other elements, such as duration and intensity, continue to challenge both aural and intellectual capacities of audiences and performers. Even those with superior musical skills and understanding could not and cannot follow or make sense of their works.

Babbitt, Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen, et al. favoured elitist music education particularly under the tutelage of a composer thought to be, according to Hindemith, "a lofty genius whose inspiration must always remain hidden from human comprehension" (Allsup, 2009, 51). In any event, they were somewhat impatient with listeners and performers who deemed the music too complicated and unplayable. For Milton Babbit (1958), no composer should have to make compromises in order to attract an audience; hence, "Who cares if you listen?"

This too complicated and unplayable music was lauded by the avant-garde. Yet, today, it is rarely heard. The seemingly unrelated, jarring, dissonant sounds, and lack of redundancy tend to overwhelm a listener's processing capability.

True, the music is complicated, difficult, and may discourage aural participation. Still, one doesn't need to recognize structure or the way a tone row is used in order to discern aspects of tension and release; such as, the piling up of dissonances vs. pointillist dabbing of notes; crashing climaxes vs. subdued stirrings; dense clusters vs. transparent linear happenings, and so forth.

It would be preferable to recognize different usages of the tone row, or, for that matter, of any musical procedure, as an encouragement to more positive and affective responses. However, if recognition is not possible, all is not lost. Tackling an unknown can lead to questioning; also, to exploring the varied rationales and traditions in music making.

Further, creative manipulation of an encountered idea, as in the instance of a tone row, is good if not challenging. Rules of composition may get in the way, but an idea extracted from a difficult work can lead to greater understanding as well as exploratory and innovative endeavors.

Incidentally, serial treatment, also applicable to duration, timbre, intensity as well as pitch, can produce affective results not only from contrasts in manipulations but also in connections to a program as in Berg's violin Concerto,* or text as in Babbet's Philomel, or electronic manipulations of a boy's singing as in Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge.**

There were and are composers who feel that a work, such as Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre (1954) might be too complicated to hear, too difficult to perform, and, for many, not worth the effort in trying to make sense of sounds that don't seem to connect. Hence, postmodern composers such as John Adams, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Terry Riley, Krisztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti, Henryk Gorecki, although well acquainted with serial techniques, took a different tack. They tended to make use of simpler textures, more consonant harmonies; also, resources drawn from different styles and cultures. To illustrate:

George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children (1970) incorporates improvised vocalizes, flamenco, bolero rhythms, Bach's Bist du bei mir, a boy soprano singing off stage, a soprano singing into the strings of a grand piano and so forth. The music reinforces the imagery of Frederico Garcia Lorca's poetry--the sounds of the wind, the sea, the smell of the earth, and the innocence of childhood.

Reich's City Life (1995), a work of 5 movements, incorporates woodwinds, percussion, pianos, string quartet and double bass, samplers containing speech, car horns, door slams, pile drivers, heartbeats, sirens, etc. The first movement begins with a chorale; the last ends with a more dissonant version of the same chorale and an ambiguous C dominant or C minor chord (Reich, 1995).

John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles (1991), Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach (1975-76), and John Adams' Nixon in China (1990-91) are operas that embrace diversity--musical , literary, theatrical, cultural--drawn from a variety of times and places.

Complex works by the post moderns tend to be more accessible although they still require critical thought and imagination. Knowledge and experiences help, i.e. being able to recognize structural features as well as resources drawn from different times and places.***

Yet, there are compositions that complicate aural communication.

They require considerable effort in order to understand what is happening. Even so, as stated previously, a work that discourages accessibility can be put to good use, thus bringing into play musical thinking as a basis for perceptive listening, and decision-making. These are skills that can be transferred to any situation so that a preference for a musical selection or interpretation becomes a qualitative decision based on experiences and knowledge.

Who cares if you listen? Music makers and listeners.

* Berg dedicated his concerto "to the memory of an angel" Manon Gropius, a talented and lovely youth who suffered greatly with infantile paralysis. She died at the age of 18. The concerto was to reflect her life. Part 1 (movements 1 & 2) was meant to portray Manon's character; Part II (movements 3 and 4) her suffering, death, and de liverance, the last being symbolized by the Bach chorale, Es ist Genug. Students were more receptive to the concerto after hearing Manon's story. They responded more readily to the harshness of sounds, to the dissonances throughout the concerto; and, in movement three, the drama of the row telescoped into a strident chord.

** Composers working simultaneously with set orders of sounds create very complicated, at times, unplayable structures; hence, the turn to electronic modes of composition. (A programmed computer can generate and perform its own serial episode.)

*** Sample activities to enhance accessibility to postmodern works: i) Students may be encouraged to use pentatonic mode in settings of text, modified or quoted, from Ancient Voices of Children; also, improvised vocal/ instrumental counter-melodies and rhythms:
   I will go far
   to ask the Lord
   to give me back my ancient soul of a child.
   "Let the branches ruffle in the sun
   And the fountains leap all around!"

Another poem studied in class may also be the basis for this activity.

i) Individuals analyze interesting sounds they have collected. Each devises a musical chart that incorporates variants of a favoured sound--manipulations of texture, intensity, duration, pitch, timbre. Then, with three or four others, perform the work.


Allsup, Randall Everett. (2009). Philosophical perspectives of music education. In H. Abeles and L. Custodero (Ed.s), Critical Issues in Music Education: Contemporary Theory and Practic, Oxford University Press, pp. 39-59.

Babbitt, M. (1958). Who cares if you listen? High Fidelity, pp. 1-5.

Reich, Steve. (1995). Composer's notes accompanying recording of City Life, Nonesuch 79430.

Professor Natalie Kuzmich chaired the Music Education Department at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Education (now OISE/UT) until 1998. During that time, she also taught the strings program at the University of Toronto Schools, a lab school for grades 7-graduation where she implemented and refined many creative problem solving teaching and learning strategies. Since her retirement, Kuzmich continues to contribute to teacher education through workshops, articles, and regular commentary Natalie Kuzmich may be reached at
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Title Annotation:recurring motifs: commentary
Author:Kuzmich, Natalie
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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