Although most readily associated with the mid-20th century ascendancy of serial composition in America, Milton Babbitt’s work remains exemplary of a kind of music that even into the 21st century remains challenging and ultimately rewarding to listen to.
Babbitt (1916-2011) came to serial composition early after having played saxophone and clarinet in jazz groups and pit orchestras in his teens. At age ten he heard a piece by Schoenberg while visiting relatives; this proved to be something of a conversion experience which eventually led him to study composition with Marion Bauer at New York University (1934-1935) and then privately with Roger Sessions from 1935-1938, after which he went to Princeton University as Sessions’ assistant. Following secret work for the government during World War II, Babbitt returned to Princeton, where he remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1984. His 1946 dissertation on twelve-tone music represented an early systematization of serial compositional theory; during this same period he pioneered the extension of serial ordering principles to musical parameters other than pitch. While at Princeton in the late 1950s he helped found the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, famous for its RCA Mark II synthesizer.
This collection of six compositions, beautifully performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, stands as a kind of survey of Babbitt’s work from the 1940s through 2002, with each decade save the 1990s represented by one piece.
The earliest work included, 1948’s Composition for Twelve Instruments for a mixed ensemble of winds, brass, strings (including harp) and celesta, was the first of Babbitt’s compositions to use serial organization of durations. Beyond that, it represents Babbitt’s effective engagement with Schoenberg’s concept of composing with sound color. During the almost purely horizontal first two-thirds or so of the piece a line is constructed by way of a rapidly moving series of timbral changes. The melody maintains a cohesive shape and forward motion—it just happens to be distributed across the ensemble with one or a handful of notes given to each instrument at any one time. Towards the end of the piece the horizontal distribution of pitches is compressed into vertical structures via overlapping instrumentation.
In contrast to the pointillism of Composition for Twelve Instruments, All Set (1957) for an octet of alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, trombone, vibes, piano, double bass and trap drums, allots larger shares of melody to the individual parts. This isn’t a jazz composition so much as a composition that alludes to jazz not only in its instrumentation but in some of its formal elements as well. The horns play quasi-bop unison lines, the piano “comps” astringently, and the fragmented pizzicato bassline seems to anticipate the broken walking lines of 1960s avant-garde jazz. Solos and duos alternate with ensemble passages, and there’s even a bass and drum solo about where one would expect it in a jazz performance. BMOP’s realization emphasizes the pulse and a sublimated sense of swing, making its version akin to the piece’s premiere performance–by a jazz orchestra including Bill Evans–at the 1957 Brandeis Creative Arts Festival for which it was commissioned.
Correspondences (1967) for string orchestra and tape is an expressive work, but one whose expressive qualities consist in concise and discontinuous clusters of pitches which seem to be conveying an urgent message in a kind of telegraphic shorthand. Set against the polyphony of melodic fragments is a battery of pre-recorded sounds originally created on the RCA Mark II. These chime-like, metallic sounds supply a cooler contrast to the quickly shifting dynamics and dramatic attacks of the strings. Paraphrases (1979), for ten winds and brass plus piano, is dominated by dissonant vertical structures elaborated through often sharp contrasts between the bright timbres of flute and oboe and the muted sounds of the tuba and trombone. Crowded Air of 1988, composed for a concert in celebration of Elliott Carter’s 80th birthday, is a succinct, appropriately dense polyphonic work for an unconventional ensemble of strings, winds, piano, marimba and guitar. As with Babbitt’s other work, this one make maximum use of instrumental combinations, the plucked guitar and pizzicato bass adding a piquant and propulsive quality to the mix.
The final piece in the collection is From the Psalter (2002) for soprano and string orchestra, which sets a text drawing on 16th century poet Sir Philip Sidney’s versions of Psalms 13, 40 and 41. The vocal part couches conversational speech rhythms with decidedly unconversational leaps of register, all the while maintaining a continuity of line. The string parts also feature broad intervallic leaps, but these are often accomplished by dividing the line among string sections, which are themselves divided.
Despite their differences, the six pieces collected here share a kind of paradox characteristic of Babbitt’s work in general. That paradox consists in the way that Babbitt creates a continuity of line through a discontinuity of orchestration. Babbitt’s surfaces are often fragmented in terms of timbre, rhythm and register, but to step back and hear this at a degree of remove is to hear the playing out of a coherent line, albeit one carried by many voices. And this paradox points to a second paradox. Much critical attention has been paid to Babbitt’s complex pre-compositional structures and to the question of whether or not they are audible in the sound of the music. There paradox here is that the surfaces, with their interlocking meshes of pitches and timbres, are in and of themselves compelling objects of an often rich beauty.