Last February, as we discussed plans for OpenICE, the musical program series that we’re presenting in collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble, my thoughts turned to two documents published during the second month of the year. Like the air mass that was then stalled over Illinois, they can be described as “polar” inasmuch as 1) they represent diametrically opposed views regarding the creation of new music and 2) they elicit chilliness.
The Zhdanov Decree, issued by Soviet authorities in February 1948, castigated such eminent composers as Shostakovich and Prokofiev for their alleged formalism. “Formalism” refers to compositional decision-making that is influenced more by goals pertaining to the music’s sonic construction than by other potential objectives (e.g., representation of narratives or emotions). Stalin’s regime denounced formalism as a mark of bourgeois decadence. Its official artistic philosophy, Socialist Realism, demanded music that supposedly reflected the spirit of the people.
“Many Soviet composers, in the chase after a false conception of innovation, have severed themselves from the demands and artistic tastes of the Soviet people [and] enclosed themselves in a narrow circle of specialists,” complains the Zhdanov Decree. Menacingly, it authorizes “measures…aimed at an improvement in musical affairs.” Strike the wrong chord in the ear of a bureaucrat, and you could be consigned to a Siberian gulag.
Hence, composer Milton Babbitt was lucky that his essay, published under the headline “Who Cares if You Listen?”, appeared in the U.S.A. in February 1958 rather than the U.S.S.R. in February 1948. Babbitt embraces the trends that the Zhdanov Decree condemns. He observes that after “a half-century of revolution in musical thought,” much of the music created by formally trained composers is technically sophisticated in such specific ways that anyone without highly specialized musical knowledge can’t comprehend it. Consequently, its audience is limited to people with the esoteric expertise necessary to analyze its sonic construction in real time.
Babbitt doesn’t consider this unfortunate. “On the contrary,” he argues, “this condition is not only inevitable, but potentially advantageous for the composer.” He advocates “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.”
Neither Babbitt’s views nor those expressed by the Zhdanov Decree seem satisfactory to me. As a folklorist and bluegrass musician, I value music’s potential to foster community. Nonetheless, having studied and practiced composition, I appreciate the prerogative of composers to pursue their own artistic callings, even when they yield music that listeners may not comprehend. The dichotomy that these documents posit seems false, or at least exaggerated.
OpenICE seeks a salutary midpoint between these opposite, chilly poles. It warmly invites us to hear music as complicated as anything Babbitt imagined and contemplate it from our own perspectives, trusting that we’ll attain valid insights whether or not we fully grasp the sonic intricacies. Determining how to reach that midpoint is challenging, but it seems a goal worth pursuing.
Last year, OpenICE put musicians in conversation with accomplished practitioners of other professions, from astronomy to gastronomy, encouraging them to consider how each might elucidate the other’s work. This year, our friends, The Dilettantes, are helping OpenICE audiences to engage in creative thinking and discussion about the music with the performers and one another.
Experience the results during our next OpenICE event, “ICE Cellos,” Sunday, March 6, from 4 to 6 PM, at the Promontory, 5311 South Lake Park Avenue, Chicago. Thanks and congratulations to Jane Beachy and Angel Ysaguirre of Illinois Humanities for their impressive work on this series!