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Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt


Soli e Duettini

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Occasional Variations
American composer Milton Babbitt (1916 - ) has been an important figure in experimental music for decades. Drawing early and lasting inspiration from Viennese 12-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg, Babbitt became a prominent exponent of post-tonal composition. Twelve-tone, or serial, music seeks to provide ordered control over all twelve pitches of the Western scale, ensuring a regular circulation of the entire pitch spectrum. Babbitt extended this method of composition to exert the same rigorous organizational principles over other musical elements: rhythm, dynamics, phrasing and musical form.

He has been equally influential as a music theorist and teacher, advocating the importance of music's place as a researched discipline in the halls of academe. A professor for many years at Princeton University and the Juilliard School, Babbitt has primarily been championed by musicians who specialize in new and challenging music, often found in university settings. Indeed, in such articles as "The Composer as Specialist", Babbitt seems to suggest that music's R&D wing must follow their own creative vision rather than the vagaries of populist sentiment and appeal.

As such, Babbitt has, unfortunately, attracted some negative critical attention by conservative critics such as the New York Times's Bernard Holland (see last month's column), who suggest that modernist composers are responsible for the erosion of classical audiences due to their music not being "accessible" enough. True, Babbitt's music is filled with complex shapes, textures and gestures. Much like his loquacious speaking manner, in which every sentence is filled with a variety of references and a wealth of ideas, each phrase in a Babbitt composition is rife with musical information. This is not necessarily music that is easy to apprehend fully at first blush, but there is a case to be made that it is the richer for it!

In a culture addicted to instant gratification, this might at first seem like a hard sell -- but why should a musical work reveal all of its splendor on the first listen? Why can't a composer write music that demands attention and interest on the listener's part? Those willing to give Babbitt's works a fair hearing will find that a wide variety of compelling music awaits them.

Milton Babbitt is full of surprises. While he is primarily known for writing in a serial style, he also has a keen interest in early jazz and popular music. Many feel that this has had an impact on the flexibility of rhythm in his classical compositions. Babbitt combines post-tonal composition with jazz in All Set (found on Spectrum New American Music, Nonesuch), an infectious work for jazz ensemble.

Not content to write for acoustic instruments, Babbitt was also an early pioneer in electronic music, working on the RCA Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (see OHM the Early Gurus of Electronic Music on Ellipsis Arts). Interestingly, some of Babbitt's most enduring compositions that use electronics combine them with another resource of which he is particularly fond -- the female voice. He has also written compositions that pit tape parts against instrumental ensembles and soloists in man versus machine duels.

Like his close-contemporary Elliott Carter (whose music we will explore next month), Milton Babbitt remains active as a composer; if anything, both are even more prolific in their "latest" period than in previous years. Perhaps this is due to a mastery of their respective compositional languages, or perhaps it is a testament to the continued vitality of octogenarians and even nonagenarians in this day and age. But whatever the reason for Babbitt and Carter being able to continue to compose vital music, adventurous listeners can truly reap rewards from this autumnal burst of productivity.

What follows is a short list of recordings -- a Milton Babbitt "starter kit," if you will. With a composer such as Babbitt, who has produced many works in a diverse array of genres, I cannot hope to provide a complete survey. What's more, several key compositions, most notably the Second Piano Concerto, are as yet unrecorded (hopefully this will one day be remedied!). However, the CDs below should provide a sense of Babbitt's highly individual, detailed, and adventurous compositional oeuvre.

1. Philomel (New World Records)
This recording presents several of Babbitt's chamber compositions for voice, piano and synthesized tape. The title work is considered a seminal piece of early electronic music. Philomel combines a live soprano vocalist with treated recordings of the soprano voice and sounds from the RCA synthesizer. Don't let the vintage of the technology (the work was premiered in 1964) fool you -- Babbitt achieves some impressive and imaginative sounds, both using the RCA and by manipulating the vocal recordings. The disc also includes two versions of Phonemena, one for soprano and tape and another for soprano and piano. Phonemena uses a text made up entirely of phonemes; the composition's title gives a sense of the Babbittian predilection for puns. Also included are the solo piano work Post-Partitions and the piano/tape piece Reflections.

2. Soli e Duettini (Koch Records)
This double-disc recording presents a plethora of Babbitt solos and duos, played with precision and devotion by members of the Group for Contemporary Music. All nine of the included pieces are from the 1980s and 1990s, yet they show a wide range of stylistic and compositional invention. Particularly effective and affecting are Around the Horn, performed by french horn-player William Purvis, flautist Rachel Rudich's reading of None But the Lonely Flute, the duo Whirled Series, featuring alto saxophonist Marshall Taylor and pianist Charles Abramovic, and the large-scale (eighteen and a half minutes) violin solo Melismata, played by Curtis Macomber.

The second disc features a reading, by Babbitt, of his essay "On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer". The essay provides listeners with some very interesting biographical perspective and a chance to hear the inimitable character of Babbitt's expressive sepulchral voice. It also demonstrates how Babbitt's witty, florid and detailed prose provides a textual analogue to his approach to musical composition.

3. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (New World)
The orchestra, as an institution, has not been kind to Milton Babbitt -- he has received relatively few performances and even fewer recordings of his orchestral works. In spite of this, the strength of compositions like Transfigured Notes, Correspondences and Relata I demonstrates that large-scale pieces are indeed a cornerstone of the Babbitt repertoire. Particularly effective are both the First and Second Concerti for Piano and Orchestra. As the piano has been an integral part of many of Babbitt's chamber and electronic works, it should be no surprise that it appears in two of his most persuasive orchestral compositions.

The recording of the First Concerto on New World features the American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Charles Wuorinen (a Pulitzer prize-winning composer whose works will be featured in an upcoming File Under ?). The piano soloist is new music stalwart Alan Feinberg. The CD also features the vocal work The Head of the Bed, with soloist Judith Bettina and the new music ensemble Parnassus.

4. Occasional Variations (Tzadik)
John Zorn's label Tzadik has just released this disc filled with treasures, some previously unreleased. The Sherry Quartet's performance of 1993's Sixth String Quartet is a long overdue recording of an attractive late composition. It is complemented by the Composers Quartet recording of 1959's Second String Quartet, one of Babbitt's strongest chamber works.

There is also a 1971 piece, Occasional Variations; the first sampling of Babbitt's unadulterated tape music (without any accompanying instruments) to appear on record in a while. For good measure, 1984's Composition for Guitar is ably performed by William Anderson. This collection provides a good cross-section of a number of periods in Babbitt's career. Many thanks to Professor Andrew Mead, of the University of Michigan, for his help in compiling the list of recordings. Thanks also to Duke University Library for their permission to use the Babbitt photo from the William Gedney Collection.

Next Month: Elliott Carter

-- Christian Carey



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