Electronic Irony (I)

… the truly revolutionary aspect of electronic music was the new relationship it made possible between composers and works. The composer of an electronic composition can produce a “score” exactly the way a painter produces a picture or a sculptor produces a statue: what is produced is a unique original “art object” rather than a set of directions for performance. And therefore, obviously, “score” is the wrong word for it, since a score is something written, and electronic music can dispense with writing. It created the possibility of a postliterate musical culture. It spelled, potentially, the beginning of the end of the culture of which this book is a history.  — Vol. V, 210

Electronic musical media freed the composer from the pen-and-paper paradigm dominant in Western music (at least in its more socially elite forms) for hundreds of years. In so doing, it undermined the very rationale of musical literacy, and — as RT makes clear and any GarageBand-using kid can attest — we are still living in the rubble. Making music, to many in the electronic age (and even more in the digital age), begins with samples, oscillators, wave forms, band-pass filters, envelopes and a variety of other means, not with score paper. And ironically, it was Babbitt, our paragon of hyper-literate “Ph.D. music” that helped to usher in this profound shift. RT goes on: “The means that Babbitt chose for protecting his purely literate domain from social mediation — namely, the electronic elimination of the performing ‘middle man’ — was precisely the means through which the need for literacy might be transcended” (210).

In hindsight, it is hard to deny the “revolutionary” aspect of electronic music, especially when we factor in popular music (after all, sampled hip-hop beats are really just new wine in the old musique concréte bottle, and before that, the electric guitar demonstrated to the world how expressively potent a manipulated electrical signal can be in the hands of a skilled musician). But while I acknowledge the paradigm-shifting importance of electronic media for the music world at large, I’m struggling to understand how truly revolutionary electronic media were for guys like Babbitt. Yes, it gave him complete dictatorial control over sound (a Cageian nightmare) and it cut out the “middle men” of actual human bodies, but electronics to Babbitt really just represented an intensification of the old notational paradigm, perhaps even its ne plus ultra. Wasn’t electronic music, in many ways, actually the pure embodiment of the Werktreue concept, a “musical object” that exists entirely as sound without the vexing inconvenience of other people and their interpretive whims? Both the score and the tape are, after all, objects. The fixity of a recording can be just as stable and permanent as the fixity of notes on a page. Wouldn’t Brahms have preferred this level of purity to the primitive technology of the score?

RT is right in pointing out the revolutionary potential of electronic music, but this interpretation was certainly not a given when these technologies were introduced. Electronic music had to leave the laboratory for its real revolutionary powers to be unleashed; it had to be embraced by those outside of the academy, heard on the radio, tinkered with in garages, danced to. The biggest irony of electronic music is not that it overturned the reign of literacy; it’s that a fundamentally asocial form would go on to influence virtually every aspect of global popular music, the most “social” of musical practices. Babbitt was attracted to electronics’ solitude and disembodied purity, but the rest of us have fallen in love with its unique abilities to bring people together.

(More on this in another post.)

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