Alex Ross notes the passing of Milton Babbitt, one of the many important 20th century composers who I've never heard of. It's much easier now to sample new and unusual music, what with YouTube, than it was in the before-time. In high school my musical horizon was basically limited to what was played on the radio and what I played in orchestra, and I didn't listen to the radio much. Once I was reading about serialism, and desperately curious as to what it actually sounded like, I called in a request to some contemporary classical radio show on the local college station, asking to hear Pierrot Lunaire, which had been mentioned in the book I was reading. "What part? It's kind of long..." asked the radio show guy, to which I had no reasonable answer, since I didn't know the work at all. To my astonishment, he put it on, or some of it anyway, no doubt driving away most of the few listeners he had. And I too, couldn't sit through the whole thing, even though they were playing it for me. It just didn't make any sense, particularly on a first listening.
Now, of course, if I want to hear what a few minutes of Pierrot Lunaire sounds like, it's a click away. The Dag Jensen recording of the Jolivet bassoon concerto has shuffled to the top of my iPod almost enough times to start to sound listenable. And YouTube allows me to post this lovely video of an arrangement of Babbitt's Semi-Simple Variations by the avant-garde jazz trio The Bad Plus. It doesn't really explain the work as Babbitt saw it, which to me seems to be more mathematics than art, but drums, bass, and dancing women goes very far in turning it from math into actual music. For more on the math, you can try reading the 43 page paper Ross cites, but since the author didn't seem to reference the mathematical meaning of semi-simple, one has to wonder how deep the analysis could be. As music, though, it's so dense, with so little repetition, that it's not easy to listen to. (Isn't music repetitive by definition?) But it's short, and that makes it easy to listen to over and over again. And slowly, the ears start to adapt, and gradually accept what was previously random sounds and rhythms as its own kind of music.