Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is the composer that many love to hate. He of course has his committed defenders, but they are a distinct minority. My opening statement is of course harsh, and indeed anyone who actually met the man was impressed by his great geniality, erudition, and wacky humor. He was the classic eccentric professor, and in many ways a true genius. Babbitt did have a vision of music that was both rooted in the circumstances of his era and deeply personal. His math and science background hooked up with his innate musicality to create a music that really had never been heard before. (Even the total serialism of his European peers, such as Boulez and Stockhausen, somehow sounds more "classical" than Babbitt's). In his quest to create a music of total unity and correspondence between all levels and parameters, Babbitt was a strange sort of transcendentalist. His work was a sort of research that was its own justification -- his famous article "Who Cares If you Listen?" (not his title, by the way) did evoke the academic frontiers of music he inhabited as a sort of pure R&D not that different from what was being done by the particle physicists just down the road at his institution, Princeton.
With that introduction you may think that I'm going to be merciless with this release, but just the opposite. Babbitt is not my favorite composer, but he was true to his vision. Whether or not his music moves us in an expressive manner, it is a deep reflection of the culture he inhabited, and in many ways it continues to exercise influence, even on those who would deny it most strenuously. BMOP gives us a broad portrait of the composer, in works from 1948-2002, and the pros and cons of Babbitt's art are gloriously evident therein.
I've joked that if we carbon-based life forms are ever supplanted by silicon-based ones, Babbitt will be, hands down, their favourite composer (maybe after Bach). Though on the acoustic surface the music seems uniformly atonal and athematic, study of the scores does reveal an extraordinarily clever composer, who is able to make groups of pitches, intervals, and rhythms move in a dance of similarities and transformations that is unerringly logical. You may not always hear it (unless you study a very long time) but with practice you can see it, and have that seeing lead you back to a different way of hearing. That of course is the basic critique of Babbitt, i.e., all brain and no heart. And it's not too far off, but there is an ear, albeit one that is most fascinating by aspects of musical forma nd technique most of us haven't even considered.
I know it may seem I'll never get to the music at hand, but it's important to realize that this release by its very quality forces one to ponder such issues, and that's a real part of art and aesthetics. The six pieces fall into two groups. On the one hand we have three earlier works from 1948-1967, and on the other three later ones from 1979-2002. For me, the first half is by far the more successful and compelling. Composition for 12 Instruments (1948/54) is a spare, intense, "Webernesque" score, but animated by a particularly American energy. It also gradually grows into an increasingly continuous and overlapping texture of notes that suggests a real directed process. All Set is one of Babbitt's sweetest and wittiest scores, a sort of pseudo-jazz for a real combo instrumentation that chugs along with a certain darkish charm but ultimately wins you over. And Correspondences (1967) for string orchestra, with a tape part generated by the RCA Mark IV synthesizer, is a constant blizzard of attacks. I think it's one of the composer's most successful works for electronics and acoustic instruments, in part because the timbral difference is far less extreme than in some other cases. When I listen I feel as though it's a marvelous evocation of the information onslaught we all endure daily, a perfect storm of data deluging us.
The remaining pieces move me less. Paraphrases (1979) is for chamber winds with piano (almost Babbitt's "band Piece" -- what a thought). I find it genuinely abrasive and don't find the rubdown exhilarating. From the Psalter (2002) for soprano and string orchestra, despite Lucy Shelton's absolute master of the wildly disjunctive vocal line, seems an example of what I might call "counter-vocal" writing. On the other hand, The Crowded Air (1988), an 90th birthday gift to Babbitt's close friend Elliott Carter, seems to project a certain lightness and wit, perhaps the fruit of its compression (only about three minutes long).
Ultimately it's a mixed bag here, but I do want to emphasize that the absolutely sure and focused playing throughout caused me to reconsider many of my prejudices, and to hear Babbitt with ears that con appreciate at a historical distance what was once perhaps too threatening. The man remains important, from his engagement with early music technology, to information theory/culture, to an endearing nerdiness that nowadays is much more fashionable than in his era. Believe it or not I'll keep this in mind as a Want List item; it provides a genuine service, presenting a composer too easily caricatured and dismissed without the consideration he deserves.