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Twentieth Century Music: How Cage and Babbitt Changed Music

By Edited Nov 13, 2015 0 0

During the twentieth century, music was advancing in all new ways.  The two most famous composers who changed music were John Cage and Milton Babbitt.  Both men, had different ideas.  John Cage’s music focused around the idea of Experimentalism while Milton Babbitt’s music was focused around the idea of Serialism.  Though both ideas are different they still have similarities and change the course of music.

            John Cage (1912-1993) wrote an essay, “Experimental Music” in 1957.  In his essay he states that, “many people, of course, have given up saying ‘experimental’ about this new music.  Instead they either move to a halfway point and say ‘controversial’ or depart to a greater distance and question whether this ‘music’ is music at all”.  This new music has many different characteristics than the music before it.

            Before this Experimental music, notes and silences were notated on a page.  Now, not all sounds are notated.  This leaves room to allow the natural sounds around the performance to be included in the music.  During this time the openness which Cage refers to often can also been seen in modern sculptures and architecture.  This causes the theory that there is no such things as empty time since there is always a natural sound (or structure in terms of space) happening.

            A journey to Harvard University, backed up Cage’s statement about silence and sound.  At Harvard there is a room called the anechoic chamber, which is made of six walls or special material.  Echoes do not exists in this room.  When entering the room one will here two sounds.  There is a high sound, which is ones own nervous system in operation and the low sound, which is ones blood in circulation.  This room proves that all music cannot be written on a page.

            As music has advanced so has technology.  At the time of the essay improvements had been made in recording sounds magnetically.  The tape had become suitable for high-fidelity recording of music we well as multi recorders.  Because of the new use of tape players, there are many different possibilities with the use of filters, circuits, other physical characteristics, as well as the juxtaposition of any sound, alternatives to the original physical characteristics.  Because of the advancement Cage has set five determinants for sound that include: frequency in pitch, amplitude or loudness, overtone structure or timbre, duration, and morphology.

            Experimental music has a new compositional approach than music before it.  As seen in the paragraph above, the aesthetic of the music has changed but so has the compositional approach.  Approaches for music include scales, modes, theories of counterpoint and harmony, and the study of the timbres, singly and in combination with sound producing mechanisms.  The composer also will need give up his (her) control of sound, and discover the means to let sounds be themselves rather “than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments,”.

            The aesthetics for the listener has also changed according to Cage,   Cage discusses the idea of emotion in music, “Hearing sounds which are just sounds immediately sets the theorizing mind to theorizing, and the emotions of human beings are continually aroused by encounters with nature.”  Many of the questions that Cage believes that one should ask all have to related to the idea of nature from trees to mountains to rain to lightening.

            John Cage was not the only composer of the time with new ideas.  Milton Babbitt (b. 1916) is a composer who is famous for his work with early work with Serialism music.  In 1958, Babbitt wrote an essay, “Who Cares if You Listen?” which reflects on his ideals of music and how it began to change.

            A new idea in his essay is relates to the relationship between the music and the listener compared to how much work is spent on the music.  “This composer expends an enormous amount of time and energy- and, usually, considerable money- on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value”.  Babbitt believes that this has come about because of a half-century of revolution is musical thought.

            Babbitt’s music had certain compositional characteristics.   The tonal vocabulary is more efficient than that of the music of the past.  This characteristic changes the aesthetic of the music.  The demand on the listener is greater because of the perceptual capacities it requires.  The next characteristic is that a piece has meaningful pitch material.  This characteristics is similar to Cage’s as well.  Babbitt, like Cage, describes the use of rhythmic texture, dynamics, harmonic structure, timbre, and other qualities.  The next characteristic is that the composition music posses a high degree of contextuality and autonomy.  In Babbitt’s words, “That is, the structural characteristics of a given work are less representative of a general class of characteristics than they are unique to the individual work itself”, (37).  The fourth and last characteristic is though the music is “new” that it represents an extension of the methods and idea of other music and their dynamic principles.  In other words, Babbitt is describing the revolution of music.  Babbitt had other concerns about the revolution of music and the composers who would attempt to write such sounds.

            Babbitt insists that Serialism music may not be understood by the common man.  “Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music, or anything else? (38). The new music that is appearing in the concerts halls does not have a fit into the common man’s schedule.  Yet, Babbitt goes on to take about how the layman will have his own uneducated opinions.  “If often has been remarked that only in politics and the ‘arts’ does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard,” (38).  Music at this level requires a much greater ability of knowledge than the music before it.

            The layman is not the only obstacle that the new music must overcome.  Music critics who are set in their own style will have their own thoughts. “The music critic admits no comparable differentiation.  He must feel, with some justice, that music which presents itself in the market place of the concert hall automatically offers itself to public approval or disapproval”.  Aesthetically speaking, if the layman does not enjoy the music than it is possible that the solution is to keep the music private.  The music needs to survive, “if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed.  But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live,”



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