Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Controversy over Milton Babbitt's Who Cares if You Listen?

Here is what the Wikipedia said about the controversy over Babbitt's article:

In an interview with Gabrielle Zuckerman for "American Mavericks" on American Public Media in 2002, Babbitt admits that the "story" of "Who Cares if You Listen" had "pursued" and "angered" him. He goes on to state that the article was originally a lecture entitled "Off the Cuff", and that the title "Who Cares if You Listen" was not authorized by him. In fact, some years earlier, he stated that the title he sent to High Fidelity was "The Composer as Specialist" .... It should, however, be noted that, "the article was injudiciously cut and given its inflammatory title by an editor" .... In the interview, Babbitt suggests that the published title "had little of the letter and nothing of the spirit of the article", and protests, "Of course, I do care if you listen" .... 
Mr. Tommasini was not the only one to have pointed out that Babbitt's protests about the title "may sound like revisionist spin control". Whether the article's contents were reflected in the title is a matter of controversy. On the one hand, "Mr. Babbitt will go to his grave famous for, among other things, a piece of prose whose published title—Who Cares If You Listen? ....

What the Wiki article did not make clear was the genesis of the article. It started as an "extemporaneous talk presented to a select audience" at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood Festival in the summer of 1957. In the audience was Roland Gelatt, then the editor of High Fidelity. He invited Babbitt to publish the talk. Babbitt at first declined, giving the reason that he was partially speaking off the cuff and that there was no written text. However, a tape of the talk was found and eventually Babbitt agreed to publish an edited transcript in the February 1958 issue of the magazine. Ever "a canny editor", Gelatt substituted a far more provocative title "Who Cares if You Listen?" for Babbitt's original "The Composer as Specialist". It ignited heated debates and the semi-private talk became the most reprinted and discussed article in the history of twentieth-century music. Not even Pierre Boulez's inflammatory and scathing "obituary" of Arnold Schoenberg, entitled Schoenberg est mort! (Schoenberg is dead!), has stirred a comparable rippling effect. -- For those who hasn't read the article, perhaps the wise thing is to withhold the judgement before reading Babbitt's original article. (It is not very long, by the way.)


  1. Hello, thanks for this post! I was wondering, do you happen to know of a source for this informative anecdote?

  2. Hello Danielle,

    My memory is hazy, but the following two sources should provide useful information:

    Milton Bibbitt, "A Life of Learning: Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1991". American Council of Learned Societies.

    Milton Babbitt, The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt, edited by Stephen Peles, Stephen Dembski, Andrew Mead, Joseph Straus. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2003.

    Hope this helps,