Science Envy

Babbitt sought liberation … from the potential tyranny of taste when he tried … to make truth rather than beauty the criterion of artistic as well as scientific achievement. The measure of good music, like good science, would not be the pleasure that it gave, or the political tendency that it served, but rather the truth that is contained—objective, scientifically verifiable truth… (Vol. V, 156)

If one were to pinpoint the single theme that most dominates the first 200 pages of Volume 5, it would have to be the contentious issue of artistic freedom in the liberating but terrifying age of science. The act of music-making in the aftermath of WWII was indeed laden with heavy questions: What does it mean to be a composer in an era of imminent annihilation, when personal expression (not to mention existence) was just as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms over Nagasaki? And what use does beauty serve in such a world anyway?

Science had won the war, and many composers—reflecting the general cultural attitudes of the post-war period—were struck with an acute case of science envy. As RT’s passage above makes clear, beauty was a difficult objective for many to pursue in the zero-hour, not least because (as Adorno says) writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. The empirical truths expressed through the musical vocabulary of total serialism (Boulez, Babbitt, et al.), a system of non pareil objective rigor, aimed to transcend the merely human, to strike at a more stable, lasting, and durable reality than fleeting beauty could afford.

Paradoxes abound. In some ways, total serialists espoused a rejection of the Self, that stable, subjective (and immanently vulnerable) wellspring of Romantic creativity. Boulez and Babbitt enacted self-loss through mathematics and rationality; rather than an arbitrary, personal mode of expression, one rooted in the biases of taste, they strove for purity and truth through the perceived universalism of numbers. However, as RT rightly points out, “Ph.D. music” in other ways represents the apex of authorial power and control in the Western musical tradition: rather than holding the self under erasure, it affirms the total freedom of the composer/music-scientist, freedom to create irrespective of whether listeners will like it or performers will play it.

This notion of freedom is a “political tendency” just like any other. Ironically, the science envy of post-war music—and the ideology of “purity” and “truth” it embraced—ended up being put to the service of Cold War politics.

(In closing, here are two of Babbitt’s greatest hits, the early Composition for Four Instruments (1948) and the pioneering electronic work, Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964).)



  1. Mark Samples says:

    It’s interesting to me that “PhD music” was emblematic of American freedom of expression during the Cold War, and yet it was so insulated from the capitalist marketplace, from needing to establish a product value. Paradoxes abound, indeed.

  2. SW says:

    “Babbitt’s greatest hits” as a phrase in an article about truth replacing beauty has me laughing. In three short words, a paradox chuckles aloud. That which is “so insulated from the capitalist marketplace,” as Mr. Samples writes, should correctly never be called “hits” much less “greatest hits.” Why not be liberated from “Babbitt’s greatest hits?” After all the capitalist marketplace has been liberated from them, I learn herein. Why not be liberated from serial music, aleatoric music, and yea verily “PhD music” altogether. If liberation is to continue the struggle “against” and revolution is to revolve another few cycles, why not liberate ourselves from establishing yet another “product value.” Let us be liberated from the liberators’ definition of liberation itself. Vive le difference. Or we could settle back and listen to “Babbitt’s greatest hits” at least every few days.

  3. Anonymous says:

    i’m for the liberation of music from all this horribleness

  4. Bruce Williams says:

    . . . beauty was a difficult objective for many to pursue in the zero-hour, not least because (as Adorno says) writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric.

    Hey, you know, Adorno was wrong. NOT to write poetry after Auschwitz would have been the real catastrophe.

  5. Tom Foley says:

    What’s missing in this commentary is speculation as to how the zero-hour mentality, leading to Boulez and Babbitt, aleotorism and total serialism, and a music that was culturally meaningless, affected the decline of audience growth beginning in the mid-sixties and continuing to the present.

    As I remember those years, the standard line was that the young wanted something different. Not the same old same old. I agree. But I believe the cold war following zero hour didn’t deliver the “different” they sought. They wanted a music of meaning. They didn’t get it, and began to bond with the popular culture in droves.

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