Modern music: Babbitt

I'd had some acquaintance with Babbitt's music from the late 1980s, but can't say as it was ever a passion: Basically it's difficult to perform, and the performances weren't that crisp (& not only according to me, but as a consensus of the time...), leaving everything as a bit of a struggle for the listener.... Anyway, particularly given Babbitt's prominence at the time, I thought I'd just wait for different interpretations. And time continues along....

But it was a few years ago now that Erik Carlson's new recording of the Babbitt string quartets on Bandcamp was brought to my attention.... Once the dean of US new music, now on Bandcamp. OK. But I liked Carlson's performances — with the Ars Combinatoria String Quartet — & was listening to them occasionally.... A few weeks ago, though, basically in the context of finishing up some other composer projects, I decided to spend a little more time seeing what else was available from Babbitt. That started with Carlson's Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album (including the Quartets, and also the first recording of the orchestral Relata II, released in 2020 along with an orchestral piece by Jürg Frey as well...), which includes pieces spanning nearly 60 years of Babbitt's career. And after three days, I was hooked: I felt as though I'd learned so much by listening to Babbitt intensively during that period — & the amount of recorded music available didn't fill the three days, i.e. there were reauditions — that I felt compelled to write this page. Before I get to some other comments, though, I also want to note a couple of other new Babbitt recordings, both from 2018: Ah Young Hong released a new recording of the classic Philomel (1964) for voice & electronics (on the album A Breath Upwards), while Mari Asakawa included two Babbitt works on her solo piano album The Flow of Music. While the former seems to mark a new generation of interest, the latter also advanced the interpretations technically. (I'm still not that into solo piano for this era, but these short works by Babbitt are both clever & musically relevant.) "Armed" with these new, more accurate readings I was then better able to hear the music on the older albums, to "fill in the gaps" so to speak....

In writing this page, though, I'm not attempting the same sort of formal summary as I might in some other situations. There simply isn't enough of Babbitt's music available to hear yet, pace interpretations as well, to say with much confidence what are his most important pieces.... There's also no Babbitt organization, or at least I didn't stumble upon one, meaning no official source of information: Instead I worked off the Wikipedia entry, which lacks such basic info as forces & lengths.... And at first I wasn't intending a Babbitt page, then I thought I'd better add a note to express interest (& possibly help to solicit new recordings?), and then I came to think I had something more substantial to say.... That conclusion also derived from the notion that people had lost interest in Babbitt's music. I mean, his discography is not particularly large nor recent, although obviously Carlson et al. do suggest an ongoing or renewed interest already [1], but then I discovered that a new book devoted to Babbitt, Thinking In and About Music by Zachary Bernstein, is due out very soon: It's supposed to integrate Babbitt's own substantial discussions of music theory with his actual music — suggesting that Babbitt basically invented "music theory" as a discipline in the US — & so to provide a new layer of analysis to the music. So I'm going to read that book soon, but decided to go ahead & write this page now. I want to preserve some thoughts at this moment, particularly from the current state of the Babbitt discography, because I'm anticipating that more new interpretations will be coming...? (Another thing I noted is that there were many glowing comments about Babbitt's music online. This clashed with much of what I used to hear, before people seemed to lose interest.... I mean, who are these people?) In any case, a lot of Babbitt discussion does already exist as I write this, and for the most part, I don't know what it is: In other words, I've decided to proceed directly from sound sources (once again).... (And what with the book about to appear, I decided not to pursue Babbitt's own writings much, at least not yet, either.)

But the "sound survey" approach does work better when most everything has been recorded. In Babbitt's case, it's difficult even to know what are his major works: The String Quartets run through his oeuvre, so seem like an obvious reference point, but they're also tilted more toward earlier in his career.... There's the Concerto for piano and orchestra (1985), available in a recorded performance since the 1980s, and clearly a major summation.... Unrecorded (& unheard) works of potentially similar interest are then Concerti for violin, small orchestra, synthesized tape (1976), Ars Combinatoria (1981), Piano Concerto No. 2 (1998) & Concerti for Orchestra (2004), while for smaller forces, there's also Quartet for piano and string trio (1995) to go along with Quintet for clarinet and string quartet (1996), the latter having been recorded in 2007.... (It's also quite possible that some pieces with cryptic titles should be added to such a list.) In many ways, I'll thus be proceeding according to what performers have felt they could render, i.e. according to what is available, rather than from any "principles" derived from Babbitt's extensive works list. (And even for smaller works, I constantly found myself thinking "Wow, this is great music...." Different pieces obviously have different goals & constraints, but all of it seemed quite successful — pace interpretive difficulties.) And as far as chronology, Wikipedia does mark a "Second Period" spanning from Babbitt's first (1961) to last (1979) work for electronics: Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be any "decisive event" in Babbitt's career, but his catalog becomes more voluminous as time goes on.... (Did he change his working methods, perhaps becoming more efficient with computers? There's no mention in what I've seen so far....) In any case, I'll soon discuss what I've come to think of as the "main" available recordings individually below....

Since Babbitt was also a mathematician, my interest might seem to be implied, but Babbitt isn't really an "outsider" in a similar sense, and in comparing e.g. to Xenakis (as recently surveyed here), Babbitt's musical mathematics is more combinatorial & algebraic & (so) involving of prior musical relations (i.e. internal to "music"): One might say that dodecaphonic music organized tonal music more broadly, and Babbitt's serialism does the same with dodecaphony (i.e. according to broad supersets, etc.), while Xenakis might be said to involve more in the way of physics & natural phenomena.... Of course, any of this could suggest elitism, and that seems to be the main charge against Babbitt's music. And since I've had the opportunity to spend many hours studying music & related topics, I'm not really in a position to critique that notion per se, but per Adorno, there's also something to be said for fighting at every conceptual level. Are we to leave the scene of "intellectualism" to the right? (Such a train of thought would appear to parallel exactly Adorno's critique of "social realism," & its ultimately disheartening properties. I mean, I came from manual labor, as far as that goes.) Beyond that, Babbitt seemed to become a lightning rod for any & all criticisms of "academic music" & the like, including for his "composer as specialist" remarks (& why are some fields allowed specialized jargon without much complaint?), but also simply for his prominence at the climax of the Reagan administration's crusade against modern art. Indeed, let me even suggest — again absent reading his own writings, but going by the music — that the critiques of positivism with which Babbitt was (eventually) lambasted are actually misplaced: I mean, I don't think that anyone has been more critical of positivism than I (am), but where I hear this issue actually playing out is in the "closure" of the Western chromatic scale via equal temperament, i.e. the way that it posits & adopts a finite & invariant set of musical notes. This was basically the dream of positivism, i.e. in the more general sense, was it not? But the musical version is also a fiction, meaning that one can adopt it for the purposes of artistic exploration.... In other words, while (during this same era) I very much wanted to move beyond the Western chromatic scale, I'm not going to attach a kind of "moral failing" to retaining this kind of epistemic closure. (It would only be a failing if it prevented other musics, which has sometimes been the charge....) In any case, not only did the peak of Babbitt's compositional career happen to fall right across the US academic "culture wars" (which were mostly an effort to insure that US universities produced students with skills that yield profits, but certainly didn't help Babbitt as an old white man either, his work evidently seeming not especially important to either side in the conflict...), but his "closed" chromatic scales also meant that the piano was able to retain a central — at least conceptual — position in his output. The latter is what marks his music as old-fashioned for me, more than anything else.... (Still, Babbitt composed for a variety of instruments, including solos.) Of course, culture wars also meant starving the music scene (i.e. the particular music scene for which Babbitt had been writing) for resources....

Again, I guess I'm a "specialist" myself, but I've been finding Babbitt's music incredibly relevant, fundamentally because it's been teaching me so much (belatedly) about music. (And not to be arrogant, but I think it's fair to say that I knew a lot about music already....) And Babbitt's music is certainly intricate, meaning it's also more at the mercy of performers, but so much of its musicality springs from American popular music, jazz in particular! It's specifically the rhythmic precision involved that troubled earlier performers, but that's also one reason that I suddenly found Babbitt's music so much easier to hear lately: I'm accustomed to contemporary improvisors dealing with similar rhythmic density & precision. (I might even suggest that Babbitt worked through similar practical concerns as did Anthony Braxton during the 80s & 90s.... One might further interrogate e.g. their evocations of the uncanny....) In other words, Babbitt's music "really" seems performable now (i.e. accommodating its rhythmic vitality), even as such a rebirth is barely underway.... The music is then full of jazzy references, but arrayed in an elaborate (& spacious) counterpoint: Indeed, let me now note Babbitt (perhaps paradoxically) as a postmodernist! Although his earlier output suggests a sort of modern constructionism, his later music projects a broad (contrapuntal) web of allusions, various glosses & references, almost constantly, coming & going through the texture.... And these often amount to sorts of musical puns, in which Babbitt often indulges for titles as well (& honestly some of his titles grate on me), but taken to a different level in terms of criss-crossing musical references embedded in a more general structure. (Basically Babbitt is demonstrating to the listener, among other things, various relations that various music has in common.... And that such a voyage of discovery can be quite stimulating.) Babbitt's music is "deconstructive" in other ways too: It's perhaps most obvious in his use of voice — & song settings, almost all to legible English texts, form a huge part of his overall oeuvre — in that a single singer (usually a soprano) is spread pointillistically across the texture. (Babbitt accomplished this originally with the help of electronics.) The result is a sort of personal-impersonal quality. But the musical lines within Babbitt's overall polyphony don't tend to align with particular perspectives in general, i.e. they're regularly split between performers (i.e. generalizing how e.g. voices of a fugue might split between hands on a keyboard), and might move at various odd "angles" through the ensemble (to the point that Babbitt might e.g. "roll out" a vertical structure horizontally, e.g. in the violin solo Melismata (1982)). In fact, one reason I haven't found Babbitt's vocal pieces to be as compelling is that they retain a (dispersed) narrative quality, i.e. a beginning & ending & even a direction established by the text, while the more "abstract" instrumental works project a non-narrative sense for me: Their beginnings & endings can seem almost arbitrary (which can be defined as a defect...), basically exploring a variety of musical relations over some prescribed period.... (If the reader has read much of my theoretical output, the relevance might be more clear.) And in that sense, the music definitely seems to arrive from a "composer's point of view," rather than from that of any of the musicians. However, Babbitt did return to an (even exclusive) emphasis on human performers for most of his career....

So Babbitt obviously preferred human performers — & loved the female voice — but was basically forced(?) to turn to electronics as a way to render his music accurately... i.e. as a practical issue. However, his position (i.e. being a mathematician too, but also his obvious connections) also meant that he was basically the only person working with the RCA Mark II synthesizer! (This was laborious work, with sounds constructed bit by bit, Babbitt's most prominent strictly electronic work apparently being Occasional Variations (1968-71), a piece that challenges perceptions of similarity, but usually around a central line, rather than Babbitt's more typical far-flung instrumental counterpoint.... Note that, besides accurate rhythms, this work involved varying timbre too, more or less from the start.) One might suggest that electronic music was thus "music for the present" for Babbitt, whereas that for human performers was targeted more for the future.... In all of this, Babbitt comes off as a very American composer, especially in terms of pursuing the latest (technical) developments — and that extends (perhaps) to his relative lack of pieces in standard formats/titles like symphony or sonata.... Besides heralding postmodern art via his webs of allusions, though, Babbitt also suggests (quasi-Deleuzian?) notions of relation in his first orchestral works, Relata I (1965) & Relata II (1968): The appearance of Carlson's recording of the latter makes it the best-interpreted of Babbitt's orchestral pieces on record (while the former is also still available in a more mainstream release...), and basically shows his early expansion into such a broad (relational) palette. (The pieces already mentioned in this paragraph basically lead into the pair String Quartet No. 3 & String Quartet No. 4, both completed in 1970....) And although Relata II hasn't been as compelling for me as some later music from Babbitt, it does (continue to) exhibit some important concerns: It's in one movement, with various layers of continuity operating (perhaps at different speeds) throughout, and involves a wide variety of instrumental color. Moreover, hopefully such descriptions suggest a feeling of musical choreography, particularly as better precision in the interpretations allows more layers of activity & relation to be heard, producing a sort of hall of mirrors (& per previous remarks, perhaps with no feeling of up or down, or beginning or end...), a nonlinear & non-narrative world that nonetheless coheres.... There's also usually a strong sense of musical equality involved, not only according to the serial principle of using all notes (& as initiated by Babbitt, rhythms etc.), but in the way that Babbitt writes his counterpoint. (European serialism was, after all, supposed to be a response to fascism. Is this really what rubs so many people the wrong way?) And frankly, this is what "bands" want! They all want to have fun, while playing (roughly anyway) equal parts in creating great music... & it's Babbitt who really forged this sort of jazzy ensemble serialism. (His more specific style might even be called "paradoxical" — the term actually appearing in the liner notes to the All Set album below... — in the same sense as Joe Morris applies to European free improvisation....) Let me just call this "harmony" per se, though! But then what I really enjoy here versus some of the free improvised material is the sense of multi-spatial counterpoint, especially in the "punning" (allusive) quality of Babbitt's later music, where it seems that not only is a lot happening, but many notes come to mean more than one thing.... (This is why interpretive clichés to blur or linger, particularly while catching one's thoughts, work so poorly with Babbitt: A note or notes might be a "climax" from some perspective, but they're still only going to be passing tones from another, such that undue savoring will break other lines in turn....) And this sort of dense web of allusions is compared further (by pianist Marilyn Nonken, on her solo piano album American Spiritual) e.g. to the details of Bosch, or indeed to a "fabulously intricate mobile," a kind of superposition of Calder.... Finally, let me note the topic of musical dynamics: My "first" three days listening to Babbitt felt like a clinic in dynamics. The music can be loud (with various "random" blasts), but there's an entire range operating (& varying) at all times. I'd been familiar, at least conceptually, with the notion of serially varying dynamics, but suddenly really hearing it still blew me away. I can't even suggest any comparable musical output in this regard. Those three days completely changed how I hear music. (It's the simple truth. The rest here is an attempt to explain such an outcome....)

So besides the String Quartets — of which the Ars Combinatoria String Quartet renditions are all second (or third) recordings (& shorter in each case)... — what sorts of threads run through Babbitt's oeuvre more broadly? One such is definitely the violin & piano duo, beginning with Sextets (1966), moving on to The Joy of more Sextets (1986), and then even to Little Goes a Long Way (2000) & his final piece, An Encore (2006): These explore the same technical world via different facets or from different emphases (& the latter two, shorter works, are available from Carlson...). Of course there're the various poetic settings as well, beginning already with Babbitt's Broadway musical, Fabulous Voyage (1946; never performed). And there're the various, usually short solo pieces: There's e.g. a wide variety of pieces for piano, many short (as noted above), and with no clear theme. There's e.g. Babbitt's solo guitar composition, Sheer Pluck (1984), leading to guitar supplanting piano in some late pieces (e.g. Swan Song No. 1 (2003) thus taking on a greater intimacy...), plus further notable solos Beaten Paths (for marimba; 1988) & Play it again, Sam (for viola; 1989) — the latter two sounding to me like quite notable additions to their repertories. Those are among the Babbitt pieces to have been recorded more than once too, joining e.g. Philomel, Composition for Twelve Instruments (1948/54), All Set (1957) & the string orchestra & electronics work Correspondences (1967), but I'm mainly going to focus on longer (& generally more broadly colored) works. Turning now to notable albums, the pieces to be featured here come to around four hours of music (almost an hour & a half of that being from the String Quartets).... I'll address these albums in reverse chronological order:

All Set from the Boston Modern Orchestral Project doesn't include any works that I'd place right at the top of Babbitt's output, but it does include some seminal pieces, as well as e.g. Paraphrases (1979) with its take on variation form across a mixed chamber ensemble (via what Tenney might have instead called cognates...) in a relatively straightforward setting. There's also The Crowded Air (1988), a very short piece for a mixed ensemble of eleven instruments written for Elliott Carter's 80th birthday: Perhaps because it's short, this little performance is really able to sing & dance... despite its dense counterpoint. Already several years prior is then Clarinet and String Quartets, featuring the only rendering of Babbitt's Clarinet Quintet (a piece following the central String Quartet No. 6 (1993) chronologically...): The performance has some strong moments, showing some great jazzy counterpoint, but is also asea at various points as well.... (That they chose to inject track breaks is a bad sign for maintaining contrapuntal continuity, and they don't.) A few years before that were then Septet, But Equal from Paul Zukofsky & an untitled Bridge album. I think I remember the Clarinet Quintet album appearing (& getting a mixed reception, so I didn't dive in...), and I probably saw the enigmatic program from Bridge (with its very ugly cover), but I definitely missed the album by Zukofsky (now readily available online): The title of Septet, But Equal (1992)... uh... irritates me today... but Babbitt's piece does really seek equality! That entire production is a little rough around the edges, but the music still comes off relatively well (including the simpler Four Play (1984)...), revealing this — seemingly almost pastoral — mixed chamber piece (including piano, but also three clarinets...) as clearly one of Babbitt's summits. (It does predate String Quartet No. 6, but sometimes seems like the bigger summation to me, particularly as these sorts of colorful & thorny "broken consorts" seem so central to Babbitt's sound.) It comes off kind of harshly at times too, but I've generally been in awe.... And the Bridge album contains Babbitt's last major chamber piece, Swan Song No. 1, now featuring both guitar & mandolin (yielding a more intimate ensemble sound, as noted above): Although some comments make much of Babbitt focusing on the middle of the texture & hence eschewing contrapuntal extremes here, the intertwining (even balladic...) lines are actually quite intricate & would also benefit from more precise performance.... (Still, I do think that this piece & indeed much of the later music is more accommodating of rhythmic imprecision than some other works in the middle of Babbitt's career.... I might further suggest that the relatively narrow & overlapping ranges suggest e.g. a sort of Ars Subtilior conception of counterpoint....)

But those albums were released in the 21st century, basically illustrating the (residual) interest in Babbitt since the late 1980s, i.e. when he was prominent. And I did listen to the available Babbitt albums back at that time: As noted already, I struggled with the combination of music & performance, and thought it best simply to wait for better interpretations.... (Do recall that I'd largely forgotten about Babbitt in the interim. It seems that many people forgot about him.) Many of these older recordings are still available (i.e. from New World Records), though, and I've actually found that the more recent (& more precise) readings have made it easier for me to hear the music in the earlier readings. (I basically have more sense of how it "ought" to be, and kind of "listen through" that way, making mental corrections.... It comes to seem easier, actually, much like e.g. hearing equal temperament itself....) To that end, I've been able to revisit the major pieces on Concerto for Piano and Orchestra & Sextets & Joy of More Sextets: As noted above, the Piano Concerto No. 1 seems like a big summation for Babbitt — as does the chiseled & enigmatic String Quartet No. 5 (1982) shortly prior (& each of these pieces does seem absolutely massive, given the density of the counterpoint...) — even as his approach to the orchestra can seem a little distant. (I have to believe that the various solos Babbitt wrote between the two piano concerti suggest a refinement of orchestration.) Still, I've come to value this piece individually, piano focus & all. (And I should probably mention Transfigured Notes (1986) from this era as well, a reworking of Schoenberg for string orchestra, available in mainstream recording: It's perhaps Babbitt's most accessible piece.) The concerto performance obviously took considerable labor, even as it never really seems to flow... remaining quite studious. It's also strange to think back to my mindset when I first heard Piano Concerto No. 1 (as e.g. at the time I wasn't particularly pursuing orchestral music in general...), etc. I might even have retained The Joy of more Sextets — clearly one of Babbitt's greatest works — for ongoing listening, but I confess that I was put off by the title. (I simply couldn't imagine telling anyone that this was a piece of music I particularly enjoyed. I still think it's an obnoxious title. And yes, this project has come to seem like another trip down memory lane, in this case including my own youthful insecurities....) Sextets is less forgiving in performance — & less allusive, per Babbitt's later style — but also clearly a masterpiece of its period, albeit absurdly named for a violin & piano duo.... It leads into not only the third & fourth String Quartets, then (still from relatively early in his oeuvre...), but Occasional Variations, Relata II, etc. (And I should note String Quartet No. 2 (1954) explicitly as well — the first being withdrawn — as an early, but quite accomplished, serial interrogation of classical style as emerging from late Beethoven....) Of course, what this music needs isn't only precision, but a certain rhythmic lightness & limpidity as well, but maybe that will come.... (One might thus say that Babbitt was composing for the future, i.e. when musicians could actually perform his music. And "composing for the future" has become an established activity, i.e. as grounded in Beethoven, but is it actually a good idea now? Despite my enthusiasm for the music today, I do have to question the basic premise of future-work, or at least its ongoing utility in this era....) In any case, something I've also learned through revisiting these older recordings is basically per the theme to the Babbitt article, Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History (1972): As per remarks on the postmodern above, I hear Babbitt's music confronting the epoch in general, and thus I hear similar influences as on my own style. Indeed I've come to develop a (writing) style of single movements with various contrapuntal strands of continuity, accommodating a variety of textual allusions (which I don't think most readers notice much...) over a broad field of relations. (I've been emphasizing relationality, generally speaking, in postmodern artistic theory & practice — as some readers will know.) And it feels bizarre to be making this observation now, but I've come to the inescapable conclusion that Babbitt's music (or its milieu more broadly...) has influenced me far more than I realized at the time. I end up hearing so many of the contours of my own intellectual world there.[2] (The big exception is, of course, what might be figured as around the rejection of positivism, pace the nuances above... or else simply as emergence from interstices, vectorial i.e. Laruellian heresy.)

Anyway, perhaps this discussion will be helpful. I'll soon turn to reading the new book from Bernstein. And I'm optimistic that more relevant recordings will appear soon too. (Will I then need to rewrite this rather loose set of impressions? Maybe. At this point, it's a more rambling series of thoughts than most are here....)

Supplementary notes

  1. I should note already that Carlson's album has expanded beyond its contents from when I wrote this essay: It now includes two early synth works, the first brass fanfare (overdubbed?) & another version of The Crowded Air.
    - 16 May 2021

  2. And initial impressions of Bernstein's book — not having really started reading yet (pace some intervening projects) — only reinforce a sort of curious spectrality: It closes with a discussion, specifically, of gesture. Yet I spent no time studying Babbitt beyond hearing a few works as noted.... Of course, he's obviously some decades my senior, so I can hardly claim any kind of parallel development.... (This personal bewilderment is probably uninteresting to most readers, except perhaps in the general sense of music-as-thought — a Babbitt kind of notion, apparently.)
    - 16 May 2021

  3. Having taken the time to read Bernstein's book this week, a few thoughts:
    First, I guess I was hoping it'd highlight some Babbitt masterpieces that I could then aspire to hear, but I didn't get much out of it in those terms, i.e. identifying more Babbitt works that I might especially enjoy: Bernstein spends some of his longest discussions on earlier works, i.e. those establishing what would become Babbitt's typical procedures. And Bernstein also defers to Andrew Mead on such issues... but Mead's book on Babbitt is from 1994!
    Second, Bernstein declares (emphatically) that Babbitt did not serialize dynamics, that it's a misunderstanding, and so he wasn't a "total serialist." And then for a long time, he doesn't discuss dynamics, even though I (still) think they're very notable. (I'd been thinking about dynamics being used to articulate a sort of spatial geometry, i.e. of near & far, e.g. per the Calder analogy....) But he does start mentioning dynamics in the "completeness" discussion, in particular as a means of delineating the rhythmic serialism ("time-point system") & then with various gestural exceptions, as well as ways dynamics correspond in pitch classes (or instrument groups), etc.... There's clearly more to say about this.
    Finally, I want to note a couple of "relations" to other composers that aren't noted explicitly in the book: It appears that in Composition for Tenor and Six Instruments (1960) Babbitt undertook various experimental procedures around extrapolating musical relations that he wouldn't continue, including efforts to determine the largest symmetries of the piece via the smallest rhythmic particles. Such an effort corresponds to that of Messiaen, particularly in Catalog d'oiseaux (1956-58) — where it's also suggestive of a sort of Catholic "Book of Hours" — & likewise corresponds with the "competition" (not really) between the two composers to produce the first serial rhythmic procedures in the 1940s....
    And then, I can't help but compare notions of "exhaustive completion" (of various serial "lists") & "closed totality" around Babbitt to the "gamuts" of Cage. Of course, Cage's Number Pieces do simply begin & end arbitrarily, i.e. move across their gamuts via chance operations....
    Hopefully the book will indeed drive new interest from performers.
    - 30 July 2021

Back to modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
7 April 2021