One of the early motivations for creating electronic music was that the composer could directly control the sound of their composition, not relying on the variable interpretations of performers. The problem of performers distorting the composers intentions is a big one in music, and in the other performing arts. Some of the most beloved and famous performers are flagrant distortionists, most generally of familiar music of the past. For music, especially when it has no programmatic content, this can destroy the integrity of the piece. A composers intentions is in the sounds that are produced, their pitch, timing, intensity and coloration. Distortions of those aspects of the music can make the composers’ conception disappear.
Another motive for many of the early electronic composers was that they would at least get to hear their music. Public performance opportunities for the more conventional modern composers are rare. For a composer whose music is, in fact, box-office poison*, they are about non-existent. Performers who specialize in new music, though generally strict observers of the composers instructions, are rare and seldom presented. So, some of the more technically adept composers in the 1950s and onward produced finished pieces which existed in their definitive and final form, on tape. As with all music that is produced, most of it is somewhat less than a roaring success. Though some of it is a complete success.
Early on the possibility of combining a tape and live performance was used and, in the opinion of some people, the two produced some of the more interesting pieces in the genera. Some people found that pure tape music tended to be sterile. There are great pieces of pure electronic music produced. Adding one or more performers, though, did add more than you could get on tape.
This is about one of those pieces, Milton Babbitt’s setting of John Hollander’s poem Philomel c. 1963 for tape and soprano. More specifically, it is about the recording of the piece that was first issued in the late 60s with the great soprano Bethany Beardslee, for whom the piece was written. You can hear the first part of that here.
In the classical story, Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, king of Thrace, who cut out her tongue out so she couldn’t tell her sister, Procne. Deprived of her ability to speak, Philomela wove her testimony into a tapestry and showed it to Procne. They took revenge by cooking Tereus’ son Itys and feeding him to his father. When he found out, Tereus pursued the fleeing sisters through the woods. When he was about to catch up with them Procne was transformed into a nightingale but the tongueless Philomela was turned into the relatively inarticulate swallow. Hollander didn’t follow the original Greek version but that of Ovid who had Philomela turn into a nightingale. The poem attempts to create what her mental state might have been like after her transformation**.
The first time I heard the recording was as assigned listening in an elective university course on music in the post-war period. I’m not sure exactly what year it was but it couldn’t have been long after the recording was first issued. One of the students in the class gave the rote complaint about Babbitt’s music being “musical mathematics”. This was the first lesson in variations of experience. “Musical mathematics” was already a hackneyed charge more than thirty-five years ago. Variations on it have been said about composers going back into the 18th century, whenever someone resented what they took to be the “inaccessibility” of a composers music. In Babbitt’s case, it was sometimes justified by the fact that he was familiar with some pretty sophisticated math, though I don’t think the music supports it. And saying it after hearing this particular piece is kind of flabbergasting. Philomel is a disturbing mono-drama about the pain of violation and the agony of being torn out of your life and forced to live on remembering your unrecoverable past experience but being entirely torn out of that life and having to live on in confused pain. The Philomel sung by the soprano is reflected, enhanced, in parts of her, recorded on the tape which also deliver parts of the text. It’s pretty gripping stuff.
Even given the resentment of an unsympathetic student being assigned to listen to it, how anyone could fail to see the super-heated emotional content of it is interesting only in that it shows a difference in how people hear the exact same things.
I liked the piece, and the others on the album and bought the recording, both on vinyl and, later, on CD. I’ve listened to it many times over a period of many years. The recording on vinyl took on all the modifications of pops and scratches, which became a part of the accustomed experience of listening to it. Then on CD with those predictable accidentals removed and, I’m reluctant to point out, greater recording clarity. But it was, for all intents, the same performance, unvaried by more than those minor differences.
But over the years, my experience has changed radically. First, and most of all, in the ensuing years, the issue of two men producing a monodrama about a woman’s mental state has come to the fore front. The implications of that didn’t register on me the first times I heard it, I’m pretty sure. Then I was interested in the music and Beardslee’s phenomenal vocal abilities. The fascination of what Babbitt was able to do with the most primitive of synthesizers, already antique just a few years later, was also of paramount concern to me back then.
Two men writing a piece dealing with that story which their gender would necessitate they see in a fundamentally different way in which two women would have likely seen it. Writing it on behalf of and at the request of Bethany Beardslee. The questions and conclusions that you draw from that, alone, change, fundamentally what you perceive when you listen to it. Given the history of the myth, probably told if not invented by men, definitely in Ovid’s rendition, Hollander’s modern version might be the least patriarchal which exists. If there is are versions by women which aren’t attempts to follow the patriarchally informed tradition, they would be interesting to read. It would be interesting to hear someone like Pauline Oliveros’ version of the story. I’d definitely buy the CD.
More generally, even if the poet and composer had been women, you could not be the same person you were thirty-five years ago. Like Philomel, you would have endured change, painful transformations in the world and who you are. Though you can remember it, you can’t recover the past. The loss of the easier views of life have to give way to a different way of seeing the world. A lot of that is due to our own mistakes and crimes. And, it shouldn’t be forgotten, Philomel did kill a child as part of her revenge. That is also something that I’m sure didn’t register in my early hearings.
The goal of creating an unalterable musical experience was understandable for all of the reasons given. But there is no way to control how a listener or an audience is going to experience that music. Not on the first hearing, there is no way to force someone to hear what is there. Not in subsequent hearings, when the same person will hear different things and have different responses. That is a given with live performance, it won’t be the same even twice. But even for one listener hearing a recorded performance, there is no way to go back to the point before it was heard. The information gained by listening informs subsequent hearings. We change, even as the sound stays the same.
Note: You might want to read what Milton Babbitt had to say about Philomel many years after he wrote it. Note the obvious difference in how the piece was presented in a theater with four speakers and how it would be different from hearing it in a stereo recording. The notes for the album also say that Beardslee dramatized the piece in ways that an audio recording couldn't reproduce.
* In music as in none of the other arts, people seem to resent that there is music that is produced for a specific audience that most other people don’t like. Why people get so angry about temporary musical experience that they can almost always avoid is interesting. Sometimes. But as Babbitt pointed out in the 1950s, their angry rejection doesn’t have to matter to those who do want to hear it. Composers can choose to compose for the interest of a smaller, more specific audience. It’s strange that their writing what they want to should upset people not involved with that interaction by their own choice.
* *My personal interpretation of Hollander’s poem is that it is a depiction of the pain of violation and fundamental, inexorable change in the post-war, nuclear period. Especially in the third section in which Philomel talks about her constant pain which she can’t articulate. People who remembered the world before WWII and the bomb must have felt like they’d been transformed into a different kind of being lost in a strange place. It can seem like that even to those of us who don’t remember that world but whose world changes constantly and, often, in ways that are fundamentally painful.