“Sometimes” Music

The title of this post is borrowed from my friend and former band mate Doug Perkins. I heard him use it during a discussion surrounding our performance of Iannis Xenakis’s Pleiades a few years ago. Doug is idealistic. He was talking about Pleiades in the context of its unique qualities. So much rehearsal and setup time goes into putting on a huge piece like Pleiades; I spent months building new instruments for it. Why do we do it?

The work itself is awe-inspiring, but you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself humming it while walking down the street, or listening to it in the car. Rather than straining to argue for why Pleiades should compete with every other kind of music for attention at every moment of the day, Doug called it “sometimes music,” meaning that it’s okay to acknowledge that the music benefits from the context of a curated event with dedicated listeners, and to even highlight that fact.


So Percussion/Meehan Perkins Duo performing Metaux from Pleiades

What I love about the concept of “sometimes music” is that it sidesteps the thorny, problematic, and anachronistic implication that some musical styles are more advanced than others. It allows its advocates to encourage others to tune in, rather than to engage in tedious, insulting dialogues about which kind of music is up or down. We don’t have to believe in just one kind of music for every moment in our lives, and few of us actually do.

It also gives us a justification for going to extreme lengths in our dedication to the music we make and write. We call something “special” because we believe it is worthy of our time and energy, and we want it to have some kind of life.

This week, a YouTube clip caught my attention, courtesy of my colleague Ross Karre. It’s a performance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for 12 Instruments, directed by the terrific violinist Erik Carlson.

I clicked on it to listen and continued to peruse Facebook. To be honest, I’ve never heard a piece by Babbitt that I’ve liked. It’s not that I don’t respect his work or his immense legacy; his music has just never caught my ear. As the track progressed, my focus gradually turned from perusing to real listening. There was a certain swagger and breathlessness to this recording. At times, I even felt a groove slither out of the dizzying pointillism.

And I liked it.

The piece was written in 1948, and I’m sure I’ve heard it before. The text itself has presumably not changed since it was revised in 1954. But it felt fresh and new during this listening.

For some reason, in this performance the music didn’t feel opaque to me. I wouldn’t say that it felt inevitable either, but I was strangely relaxed when listening to it, delighting in the interplay of instrumental colors. It feels like a bunch of really smart people constantly finishing each other’s sentences, or like watching one of those skits from the old Comedy Central reruns of Whose Line is it Anyway?

I’ve usually associated Babbitt’s music with an aura of intellectual austerity. But how much of that association is actually a direct result of the score, which has not changed in 60 years? I didn’t associate what I was hearing with that cold austerity at all. Could the studied effortlessness that the performers displayed been having a tangible effect on the way I perceived the music?

To me, this is “sometimes” music. Babbitt said as much in his infamous essay “Who Cares If You Listen,” which most of us know was not the title he intended. Finding a foothold in his work for the first time caused me to go back and reread that essay. Actually, in that article Babbitt allows for the possibility of writing “almost never” music.

“And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”

I found myself not hating the essay nearly as much as I did as a young student. I still have personal arguments with many of the assumptions and labels that he uses (“serious,” “advanced,” etc) but I’ve long since settled those internal conflicts, so I focused more on other questions.

My younger self was unable to move past the sense that Babbitt was trying to establish hegemony of his aesthetics. The 34-year old me sees an artist who seems to be saying, “Why not? Why can’t I create something new, even if it is inaccessible to some? Why may I not have the freedom to make work that doesn’t conform to normal expectations of a creator/audience relationship?” Far from fearing hegemony, I actually agree that he or anybody else should have that option.

I’ve chosen a very social life in music. It gratifies me to find repertoire that engages and challenges people in equal parts. Listening to this performance made me question my notion of what that kind of music might be. There aren’t many days where I’m knocked off-balance like that.

It happens, sometimes.

3 thoughts on ““Sometimes” Music

  1. Brendan Faegre

    Thanks for your article, Adam. It’s a great reminder that there is no need to engage in an argument over which type of music is “superior” when we could instead tackle the much more interesting topics of context and meaning within these individual types of music.

    After reading about your recent experience with Babbitt’s music, I feel compelled to share a Milton Babbitt interpretation that also allowed me to enjoy his music. It’s a version of Semi-simple Variations by The Bad Plus.

    Babbitt’s serial rhythms are actually pretty funky, and playing his music tight really draws that out. I saw TBP perform this live at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle many years back, and thoroughly enjoyed watching a drunken mob dance around to Babbitt. It’s astounding what interpretation and context can do to make “sometimes” music enjoyable for MANY

    Reply
  2. bgn

    So what is the opposite of “sometimes music”? What sort of music doesn’t benefit from the context of a curated event with dedicated listeners?

    Reply
  3. Adam Sliwinski

    Brendan,

    Yes, I’ve checked out that Bad Plus performance before. It’s great! I suppose in that case, the context was altered enough that I saw it as a creative reworking of Babbitt’s material, so it didn’t really lead me to reevaluate his music as I hear it closer to its original context. The performance I cite here is straight off the score, but it has a special vitality that sent me on this journey.

    bgn,

    My intention is not to exclude other types of music from needing curation and dedicated listeners. I agree with you there. I mean more to emphasize that certain types of music (like our Xenakis performance in the article) really need that context very badly…that it’s ok for somebody like me who plays this music to want to put on a Wilco record when I go for a walk, and to reserve Xenakis for “sometimes.” I don’t believe it makes me any less devoted to his music.

    Also, as a performer, you are constantly gauging the feedback you get on certain pieces. There are times when you push to include music that strikes many non-music professionals as abstract or opaque. My emphasis here is that instead of soft-pedaling the music, promising that everything will be ok and nobody will get hurt, you go in the other direction: there is a unique intensity to this music that doesn’t always fit into everyday life, and that’s why we think you should come to hear it.

    Obviously, these categories are totally subjective, which is part of the question I’m grappling with in the article.

    Reply

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