Stand back: twentieth century art music is falling under its own weight

Miller Puckette

1. Should we care if they listen?

Milton Babbitt's famous article "Should We Care if They Listen?" published in Perspectives of New Music in 19? was reputedly given that title not by him but by his sharp-eared editor. The title speaks volumes about how listeners and composers of "academic music"--that peculiarly American construct--relate to each other. To ask, "Who cares if you listen," is to open and peer inside the forbidden closet. The skeleton inside has twelve ribs. Run a mallet down them to hear the sound of 20th century academic music in the USA.

The university is only one possible part of town where we could make new music, but for the most part we tend to stay among our own. We have these quaint academic meetings that we call recitals. How do they fit in the whole music scene? How does playing in and going to recitals help us know how to play or listen to the music of our own place and time? And when do we stop going to meetings and start living our real lives, start making our real music?

Confining our view to the USA for the moment, we appear to live in a tiny subculture where composer-professors write music that most of humanity can not understand a word of. Putting ourselves in the place of the non-elect (or remembering the days when we ourselves were among the non-elect), we see a strange sight, that of music which is not written for the way it will sound but for the sake of structural goals. I remember a time years ago when one hexachord sounded almost indistinguishable from another, and a Schoenberg piece would have sounded much the same forward as backward. (I am not really sure I can tell the difference now; I'm afraid to run the experiment). Writing music from the point of view of structure, and then expecting an audience to train itself to like the way it sounds--puts the cart before the horse.

One possible reply is that hearing occurs inside the brain of the listener, so there is no such thing as writing music for how it sounds in the absolute, only how it would sound to an individual. The only thing the composer can do with integrity is to write for her own ears alone, and hope that the work will resonate inside other ears as well. To do differently would mean changing oneself into somebody else, which Westerners consider a violation of that all-important integrity.

Another answer is to enlarge the scope of discussion to include Europe. Our subculture did not spring into existence by itself. The names we invoke, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, and all their predecessors, grew up thinking of themselves as continuing the great tradition of European art music, as do their disciples in turn. And over there, there is an audience, not very large perhaps, but enough to keep the ball in play.

At bottom, though, we write this difficult music because we have no real choice. Do we stop making music? Dumb our music down? No, we are stuck being who we are. That is perhaps the common situation of all artists: being stuck who you are, deriving artistic energy from the ever-changing but never-to-be-resolved conflicts and making beauty come out of them. The peculiar thing is that we are trying to do this in a university setting, with its emphasis on rationality and explanation and cross-referencing and argument-making.

The audience

So we find a central contradiction between what we musicians need our musical languages to express and what our potential audience can hear. Our attempts to deny or ignore the contradiction having failed, we next search for ways to resolve it. Perhaps the audience is wrong, and perhaps we can either educate it better or treat it better, or perhaps we can conclude that we are simply right and they are wrong, that we can merely repeat, "who cares if you listen?"

The "better education" idea appeals to us academics, and indeed it is worth pursuing. Excellent writers such as Brendel and Griffiths champion Carter in much the same language as they discuss Beethoven in the pages of general readership periodicals. They argue passionately against the program directors' natural impulse, when there is no alternative than to program "new music," to choose safe, easy-listening, neo-tonal music over what is difficult but worthwhile. The fight is uphill, but that does not make it less worthy.

Treating the audience better might help too. Sitting in a concert seat is not comfortable [1] and much of our potential audience might be staying home simply because they do not enjoy concerts very much. Of course you can not easily play Beethoven in a club setting, but that need not stop makers of new music from considering such an outlet. Just do not write for unamplified string quartet.

The final solution of simply telling the audience to go away is wrongheaded. Taking the audience away causes the music to shrivel (and in turn, unenergetic music turns the audience further away.) Academic music in the USA is played in front of small audiences, and much the same people night after night. This is part of our problem.

The language

It is sometimes useful to think separately about the way music sounds, and the way it is constructed. This separation appears to be very real in twentieth century composed art music. Few composers would pretend that the way their music sounds is unimportant, but many seem to feel that structural integrity is just as important, perhaps more important. This leads us to the old and contentious question, whether and how the structure of a piece should be perceived by the listener. Although we can not resolve that issue here, it does seem that there are ways to perceive structural integrity that do not depend on the listener's conscious understanding of some "system." With certain exceptions, it does seem that music should not display all its logic, that would lead only to tedium. To sound "right" without sounding pedantic depends on the ability to hide structure.

But a composer's choice of musical language must obey a second constraint as well, which is that it must empower the composer to write the music in the first place. We instill the need for structures to write within early in a music student's career. The craft of getting the notes to work out according to the rules is taught to young composers in "writing and analysis" courses which trace the development of our classical music heritage as if our music were a great march forward toward ever higher levels of skill and complexity. As I have argued elsewhere [2], the process of Western art music composition requires a system of complex, interlocking rules. Without the rules to push against, there is no way to expend effort; either the ink will not flow or else it pours out and covers the page. Put differently, the rules are an essential kind of mental chewing gum, without which the composer can not walk.

Musical movements such as the Spectral school or the New Complexity fill this need. Music which is founded on rationalistic grounds can not achieve the all-important quality of ineffability until the wheels and cogs of the machinery become so complex that they can no longer be fully comprehended by the composer. As our technical standards rise ever higher, the music becomes ever more complicated. How much longer can this continue?

Hidden Assumptions

Although our music is complex to the point that few people can listen to it, we certainly do not offer the world's most complex music, merely the world's most unlistenable music. To compare our music to that of north India by asking which is the more complex is simply ludicrous. However, ours somehow sounds too complex. This may lie more in qualitative aspects of our music than quantitative ones; we might have a different kind of complexity (or perhaps it's just plain obfuscation) from that of other musics [3]. The West's skill in classifying, combining, dissecting, structuring, and constructing has led us to world leadership in manufacturing, medical procedures, and electronic circuit design; yet our own population turns to a music which derives more strongly from the African diaspora than from our "own" musical culture.

2. Composition and music scholarship

The composer is the central cult figure in our twentieth century art music. This development has been long in coming (composers such as Beethoven and Wagner come to mind) but the dominance of the composer has only now reached its logical extreme in the U.S. university scene. This dominance both derives from and contributes to the bookishness of university composers.

Universities are about bookishness, not music. The token at the end of the tunnel, the Ph.D. dissertation, is essentially a book. In general, artists are not awarded Ph.D. degrees, although art historians or theorists are; their output is not works of art but scholarly prose. Somehow, though, the idea became accepted that a large-scale written score, a piece of Western art music, could qualify as a dissertation, and that therefore the correct university degree to award a composer would be the Doctorate of Philosophy.

This places certain expectations on music of the university genre. To start with, the music must be written down. Many musics are written down but many others are not. The former can get you a Ph.D. in itself; whereas to specialize in the latter you will have to find something to write down in the music's place. The need to write about unwritable music is answered by the academic field of ethnomusicology.

Second, the book you have to write to gain entry to the university must have a linear structure. Music as it is performed has little choice but to start at the beginning, proceed to the end, then stop. But there may be many other ways of thinking about it, and we may be neglecting nonlinear approaches to musical invention because we think of writing music as being like writing a book.

Third, scholarly books are rational, measurable, ponderable, evaluable. Music may or may not enjoy these qualities. To insist on them, as the university has taught composers to do, is to choose one music over perhaps many others.

Finally, an even more basic assumption is favored by the academic music mill, which is that music should live on a two-dimensional grid with discretized time and pitch for axes [4]. Pitch runs twelve units to the octave and time is divided in measures which hold between one and sixteen beats, occasionally with a half beat added. On this grid the music is divided into objects called notes. You can hear all the notes in a piece of music and there is never any question whether some sound you are hearing is one note or a superposition of many simpler ones. The note is the indivisible atom of music.

These are the traits of a written language. Our culture, which begins with the sentence, "In the beginning was the word," has found a way to reduce music to a form of writing. Music might serve to declare something, or might ask an answerable question. Music could even present an enigmatic, meaningless poem. But music always has to speak in some language.


If composition is a form of writing, the composer is the literate priest in a countryside populated by illiterate peasants. The priesthood is charged with the vital responsibility of keeping the written culture alive. Music scholars are the monks who help by copying and sometimes illuminating the precious manuscripts.

In the old days this made sense. If we wish to have a system of music making that emphasizes continuity, so that every church across the land can sing the same hymns on the same holidays, the written score is the ideal solution. If our musical culture is carried forth by putting on concerts where a dozen or more musicians are expected to play together, the only practical solution is the written score. Finally, we turn to written scores when the complexity of our music exceeds the capacity of an oral tradition to learn it by heart.

But the twin technologies of amplification and recording change entirely the economics of music performance. Two or three musicians can make as much noise as an orchestra; and there's little danger of forgetting music now that we can routinely press a CD with the night's work. Of course we would prefer to be able to have the dozens of musicians, and if we did have them we would want to play from a written score, but writing the score out hardly causes the musicians to appear, so if you are thinking about a club-sized ensemble you might not have a strong reason to prefer to have the music be written.

In contrast to priests who are in the employ of their parishes, composers are paid by the performers who commission them. A group of sixty musicians is in a better position to employ a composer than a trio. The musicians hire the composer to instruct them how to behave, in much the same way as students pay professors to direct them.

Since it's the musicians who are paying, perhaps the composer could be used in a fashion that is more relevant to the situation. Although the commissioning musician asks the composer for a score, it is not the musician's primary goal that the score be left around after the performance as some sort of memento. That, on the other hand, is the composer's primary goal; the money helps him keep body and soul together for another few months, but it is the paper the composer truly cares about. The musician views the score as a byproduct that other musicians can later scavenge, if they wish, as a cheaper option than to go out and commission some other composer's piece.

If we are going to pay them, we can tell composers to do what we want, and that can involve writing specific sequences of pitches and times or not, as the situation requires. The composer's role in the creation of new music could be vastly more variable--and more interesting--than that of a priest.

Nurturing our composers in the university, as we do in the USA, has worked negatively on our music. The harried, flustered composition professors are under pressure to keep proving themselves worthy of keeping the academic flame, competing with scholars on grounds of rationality, linearity, and alphabetizability. This has had an almost irresistibly corrupting influence on our music. A hopeful development is the emergence of younger university composers who are able to question the structures of the composer/performer/audience food chain [5]. Since the limitations of our musical language seem to derive in part from the university reward structure, courage will be needed to break free of them. As always, the breakthroughs will come only at the cost of having to break rules.

3. Music in the University

Academic publishing, the ritual of getting scores and scholarly papers into the journals or published as monographs by the academic presses, is a classic pyramid scheme. An academic researcher might read 100 papers for each paper he writes for publication, but an academic journal cannot survive with fewer than a thousand subscriptions.

In preparing our students for an academic career, we are buying them in to a parallel pyramid scheme. At UCSD, for example, we have 23 music faculty (so we hire one per year on average, say) and in a typical year we graduate six or eight new music doctors. Will there be jobs? Only if the university population expands by a factor of six every generation. This is linked to the publishing pyramid scheme. Tenure cases hinge on getting articles printed in the good journals. If there are not enough people to read the journals, who will find it profitable to print them, and if they are not printed, how will our tenure track professors get their writings published?

So from the point of view of dissemination of scores and other writings, the university seems unsuitable as a home for music makers. Living in the university and writing for (and playing to) an audience of out fellow university lodgers can be seen perhaps as a preparation for something to follow, but certainly not as an end. Music -- and writings about music -- must reach outward.

On the other hand, the university is the best place for musical exploration and collaboration. It is also the best monastery we have now for retreating from the world of moneymaking to the world of music-making. The last thing we should imagine doing upon leaving the university should be to take up a teaching post in some other university. The university has a deeply valuable thing to offer musicians, which is a chance to think in a serious and unhurried way about their music. The state of "art music" suggests that the time for such thinking is at hand.

In most university programs we work to acquire language. The language is always a shared one; chemists talk orbitals, physicists spinors, linguists verbs, artists pigments, and philosophers stones. But in music each composer speaks her own. Whether or not this plurality of language is a good thing for music, the university has been an opposing force, pushing music toward a common language which it naturally shrinks from, that of the twelve tones. This language may soon be a dead one.

It is tempting to try to cook up a new musical paradigm. Perhaps there is a way to construct music which is at once tonal (so that we can hear the result) but at the same time combinatorially intractable so that the rationalistic composer can have something to bite down on. Here we have argued that perhaps the answer will not be some new compositional paradigm ala 12-tone, but rather the question will be mooted by a larger phenomenon, which is the shifting role of the composer. From this point of view, the 12 tone system appears to be a mere aberration brought on by our insistence on sticking with the composer/paper/musician model long after it became unviable.


1. Thanks to John Mark Harris for this idea.

2. Puckette, M., and Settel, J., 1993. "Nonobvious Roles for Electronics in Performance Enhancement," Proceedings, International Computer Music Conference. San Francisco: Computer Music Association, pp. 134-137.

3. Thanks to Michael Dessen. For related ideas, see Georgina Born, 1995, Rationalizing Culture, University of California Press.

4. Wishart, T., 1996. On Sonic Art. Harwood Academic Press.

5. This idea arose from conversations with composer Rand Steiger.