Milton Babbit/Gertrude Stein/”The Making of Americans”/”The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”

Milton Babbitt was a composer who is probably more famous for writing an essay called “Who Cares if you Listen?” than for any of his actual compositions.  It’s not particularly surprising, if you sit and listen to one of them. Babbitt, for quite a bit of his career as a composer, was fond of ‘serialism’. Stripped down to the bone, serialism is a set of self imposed rules applied rigorously to a composition; in one form, known as twelve tone, all twelve notes in the scale are given equal weight, meaning this song has no set key. It’s a set of self imposed limitations that Babbitt saw as ultimately freeing:

“He [the composer] lives no longer in a unitary musical universe of ‘common practice,’ but in a variety of universes of diverse practice.”

Babbitt was, above all else, an innovator. He wasn’t really seeking something listenable in the conventional sense. Despite his essay’s title (which was submitted as “The Composer as Specialist” and changed by High Fidelity Magazine), he did want listeners, but also knew enough to know that the music he made wasn’t likely to be popular. There’s quite a bit of hilarious bitterness in there as well, to be frank:

“Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”

I’m not sure that I agree that music would cease to evolve if nobody had invented the twelve-tone row. There’s a foolishness in there; Babbitt’s work, is, after all, based in the music composition as it was set down by Europeans in the 18th century, and fucking with that and that alone. There’s a hell of a lot of ways to make music that aren’t based in that, and the inadequacies of that singular approach are just beginning to manifest. 

It’s easier to experiment when writing than it is in music, I would argue, because the limitations are not as rigid to begin with. You can do stuff like a serialist might— there’s a semi famous novel called “Gadsby” which was written without the letter “E”, a weird self-imposed limitation that’s apparently… eh. Another example of this type of writing (known as a ‘lipogram’) is “Ella Minnow Pea” in which the number of available letters lessens as the book progresses. It has substantially more fans than “Gadsby”, and it’s on my list, but… the list is long. 

There are experiments with form, experiments with plot, and even experiments with the manner in which novels are printed (link to the unfortunates essay). There’s a lot of argument about when, why and how ‘experimental’ literature came to pass, but there sure was a large concentration of it in the early 1900s, with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” being the benchmark. Part of a nexus of writers and artists, and a writer herself, Gertrude Stein lived in Paris. She’s noted more as a patron of the arts than an artist, or at least was when I first heard about her. I don’t know how I heard about “The Making of Americans”, but I was really intrigued by it, owing to my weird love of overly long, difficult books. It was not in print, and I tracked down a first edition (I believe a first American edition) which cost me like $60, which was quite a bit of dough for me. 

How is it? You ask. Well, the first 150 pages or so are very difficult. After that, it may involve into a masterpiece which is capable of creating transcendent insight into the nature of humankind. I don’t know, as I only got about that far into it before putting it on the “I’ll get back to it someday” pile. Around 25-30 years have passed since then. (As a side note, you can hear her read an extract from it, which is kind of cool, and will also go a long way to explain why it’s difficult : 

It’s mentioned quite a bit in “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, which I have read… now. Stein considered it her magnum opus, but for a long time, it was something that people talked about, but didn’t really read. This is still somewhat true, though it appears to have changed, at least at the more academic end of the scale.  

“The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” is probably Stein’s most read work. She wrote it quickly, apparently for money. And it worked. In its day, it was a bestseller. The title, of course, is a bit of a joke. Stein is writing about herself from an outside perspective, which is… fine. The idea of a fictional autobiography gives Stein a license to describe her life and work from an outside perspective. It’s also not that interesting, and kind of bitchy in spots. Hemmingway legendarily fell out with her after being described as “fragile”. She dislikes Germans, and writes about that for some length. And so on. 

As a contemporary reader, I’m certainly aware of the subjects of the book; Matisse and Picasso and Hemmingway and Ford Madox Ford and the like are all famous enough, and thanks to the power of the internet, if you’re unfamiliar with someone she’s talking about, it’s easy enough to look it up and get a reasonable summary of who they were and what they did. But I didn’t care, and the book doesn’t attempt to make you care. It’s an endless set of anecdotes about Stein hanging out with writers and artists. To be fair, that was more or less what Stein did with her life, when she wasn’t writing, and I don’t doubt that at the time these were interesting stories. 

So why finish it? To put it simply, I really love the way Stein writes. Little passages like this one, which are both musical, whimsical, and feel as though there is something under the surface are magic to my ears :

“It was not long after that that everybody was twenty-six. It became the period of being twenty-six. During the next two or three years all the young men were twenty-six years old. It was the right age apparently for that time and place.”

Reading “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” for me, is like watching a really great musician play music I don’t care for. There’s an interest to it, in form, in technique, and on occasion there are moments of insight, in the form of things which are more or less aphorisms: 

“Taste has nothing to do with sentences, conteded Gertrude Stein.”

“Basket although now he is a large unwieldy poodle, still will get up on Gertrude Stein’s lap and stay there. She says that listening to the rhythm of his water drinking made her recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and that sentences are not.”

These parts are neat, and to torture my analogy further, it as if the musician is playing music I don’t like, every once and a while he or she pulls off a ripping solo. This illustrates one of my favorite pithy little sayings: “Formidable technical proficiency is insufficient to make interesting art.” If that was the case, we’d all really love prog rock and only admire purely representational art. I’m willing to put up with prog rock on occasion, and representational art can be interesting, but there’s more to expression than all that. 

Moreso than a lot of art forms, writing places the onus on the consumer— you can listen to a piece of music and like or dislike it without knowing how simple or complex it is. If writing is ‘complex’ it automatically limits its audience in a way that music doesn’t. You can listen to a fairly complicated piece of music without ‘understanding’ it’s constituent parts, but there’s a limit to how much of that can be done when reading a novel. The closest thing I can think to a ‘purely abstract’ novel would be something like the Codex Seraphinianus, which is composed entirely with asemic writing. You’re not meant to understand it.  

Stein is a very technically proficient writer. Her often deliberately limited vocabulary, her sense of rhythm, her very deliberate breaking of grammatical convention (which apparently T.S. Eliot was annoyed by) speak to someone who’s a very deliberate craftsperson. It’s fascinating, and it made me want to pick up “The Making of Americans” and give it another shot. Maybe, someday.

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