A story from last week in my, as of today, soon-to-be nonexistent, theory class at Newton North High Schoolf: The class has about a dozen kids in it, mostly guitar players in rock bands. It’s a more or less straight ahead classical harmony course. Periodically, to liven things up and keep them a little uncertain of what might be going on, I play them some kind of music: so far this year Bulgarian Folk Music (field recordings from the Nonesuch Explorer Series), Bulagarian pop music from the 1930s (Yazoo Records), some 30s Irish-American bands–especially a tune called Leaving Tipperary(also Yazoo), and stuff from the Magic Flute. Last Thursday I played them the Babbitt Occasional Variations (on Tzadik TZ7088). They immediately perked up and wanted to know what it was and when it had been done. One of the kids, who kept on saying, “I can’t believe he did this in 1968,” said it reminded him of Prefuse73. When the case circulated, somebody wanted to hear the Composition for Guitar to see if a guitar piece sounded like that. The word that several of them used a number of times was cool.
The class meets on Thursday and Tuesday, so I hadn’t seen them since then until today. The first thing two or three of them asked was whether or not they could hear it again.
Conventional wisdom is that Babbitt’s music is, in additional to being terrible, user unfriendly, incomprehensible, and pretentiously academic. The product of somebody who had know interest in an audience or what an audience might like and was only doing whatever it was for other “composers.” I never have bought it, and I still don’t. A class a year or two ago also reacted positively to Occasional Variations. One of them said it sounded like music for a video game. That seemed to me apt, although I told them that surely it was more like a pinball machine (I later reviewed it and described it as sounding like music for a giant cosmic pinball machine, which seems to me to be an apt description of a certain amount of Milton’s music).
Maybe somebody will think that they were just trying to kiss up to the teacher (although I just stuck it on without any kind of introduction–so they weren’t cued as to what they “should” think), that anything beats doing figured basses, which is what we were doing then, that this is just a weird bunch of kids, or any one of a number of other things that try to deny that anybody any time anywhere could possibly like a piece by Babbitt. I prefer to think of it a proof that, like any good music, it communicates–even tickles.