babbitt hed
babbitt pullquote

Measured by index space in Paul Griffiths’s Modern Music, Milton Babbitt is the most important living American nonexperimental composer, and apart from John Cage, the most notable American composer of any kind. But Griffiths can't show nonspecialists why they should care. Babbitt's Second String Quartet, he says, "is based on an all-interval series which is introduced interval by interval, as it were, with each new arrival initiating a development of the interval repertory acquired thus far, each development being argued in terms of derived sets." This comes close to what George Bernard Shaw dismissed as "parsing" and parodied with an "analysis" of "To be or not to be." Shakespeare, as he says, "announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends." Musical parsing is far more defensible now than it was in Shaw's time -- styles vary so much that musical grammar can't be taken for granted – but Griffiths does too much of it. He doesn't say how the structures he talks about really work -- just how do derived sets "argue" (whatever that means) each new "development"? -- and only in passing remarks about the "wit" and "surface rhythmic appeal" of one piece and the "sure musical continuity" of another to tell us how Babbitt's music sounds or how it might make a listener feel.
This isn't entirely his fault, though, because Babbitt talks about music the same way. After some useful thoughts about why Schoenberg's Violin Concerto is hard to perform, he goes on (in liner notes for the CBS recording) for perhaps one-third the length of this article about its 12-tone set structure, as if nothing else mattered, adding a few words about a recurring basic form of the set as a sop to "those listeners who depend on surface similitudes to provide coherence and continuity in the first stages of their acquaintance with a work." Part of his problem is that as a self-described "logical empiricist" he's willing to make only "verifiable" statements about music, which leaves out any necessarily unverifiable reference to the passions that make people want to compose it or hear it. He's like a cryptographer who'll talk about the structure of the Japanese codes but won't tell you whether their planes are in flight toward Pearl Harbor.
Sing Along
With Milton

Babbitt is both too sensitive and too sensible to pretend that the "unverifiable" things aren't there or that 12-tone structure in itself could make anything worth hearing, but his unwillingness to talk about what music might mean makes his non-theoretical criticism oddly trivial. (Compare, for example, his bland description of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron with David Lewin's essay linking the opera's compositional structure to its dramatic meaning, both reprinted in Norton's Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky.) He values performers not for their verve or inner feeling but for their ability to carry out a composer's precise directions; in High Fidelity some time ago he said that they have the same role in music that printers do in literature. In his section of Soundpieces (an absorbing collection of interviews with composers just published by the Scarecrow Press) he defines interpretation, which most people regard as a performer's creative work, as nothing more than decisions about compositional elements (details of dynamics in Chopin, for example) that the composer didn't happen to specify. He talks as if composition were the only worthwhile musical activity, or at least as if compositional detail was the only thing worth listening for. (His admirer Michel Phillipot warns against confusing "purely aural pleasure" with music.) All this leads people to call his music "mathematical." He answers that this is a misunderstanding of mathematics, which can only describe things and never be the thing itself, and that mathematical models could be made to describe Bach's or Beethoven's way of composing as well as his own. But that's not the point. People who call his music "mathematical" are using the word metaphorically, to say that human feeling is missing. Instead of rebuking them, Babbitt should speak to the question he surely knows they're asking, and tell them what the human value of his work might be.
Let's look at him now in a different way. In program notes for Dual, a piece for cello and piano played by Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish on a Group for Contemporary Music concert presented February 22, Babbitt says, in part: "The title of this one-movement work is intended to intimate, well beyond the peripheral pertinence of its obvious homophone (in the sense of ‘dueling banjos' and the more gentlemanly, if sanguinary, art) and of the traditional 'duet' and 'duo,' the central and pervasive musical expressions of a duality relation, interpreted variously inter- and intradimensionally....[I]t is just the progression from the local to the global in relational implications which should provide the listener with the means of achieving that cognition of cumulative containment and successive subsumption which human memory in general, and musical memory in particular, requires for a musical work to be entified, eventually, as a unified, closed totality -- as an all of a piece of music." Can anyone doubt that the man who wrote this is -- not to mince words-just a little bit mad? He's something of a pedant, obviously, and may well do some pretty profound compositional thinking, but to write English that way Milton Babbitt -- Conant Professor of Music at Princeton University, a man of the highest academic and intellectual prestige -- has got to be just a little bit mad.


But after reading what he says, wouldn’t anyone with a taste for the bizarre, at least, want to know how Dual sounds? On third or fourth hearing, those "pervasive musical expressions of a duality relation" -- those that depend on "surface similitudes," anyway- -- begin to be audible. Plucked notes on the cello alternate with bowed notes (so quickly sometimes that even Krosnick, the expert cellist of the Juilliard Quartet, was left gasping); the highest register of the piano alternates with the lowest; insistently repeated single pitches are juxtaposed with disjunct musical lines that leap and squirm; sections mainly for the cello alternate with sections mainly for the piano (the main progress of the piece, in fact, is from piano music with cello commentary to cello music with piano commentary). Two-note phrases – duality -- are everywhere, sometimes in one instrument, sometimes divided between both, often nested within each other to produce -- and this is just the simplest of numerous possible examples -- such phrases as the cello line in measures 32 and 33, which (taking both pitch and Babbitt's precisely specified rhythm, dynamics, and articulation into account) I might turn into words as "you too, two! You too, to you(you)." All this turns zany after a while, as if the director of a two-character play had put two of every set piece and prop on stage, and made up each actor with two putty noses. Babbitt's dualities are more pervasive and less obvious than that, of course, and anyone who loves a master of literary wordplay like Vladimir Nabokov, say, should – eventually -- be able to enjoy them. But since Babbitt insists that his music can't be understood on first hearing, why did the Group play three pieces on their concert instead of a single piece three times? And I'd suggest that the proper pairing for Babbitt is not Stefan Wolpe, who despite his own formidable complexity comes off bland in comparison, but Mozart, whose equally transparent and unpredictable but less intense music would put Babbitt's in fascinating relief.
In any case, those twisting and squirming lines give plenty of "purely aural pleasure," though you have to listen hard at first to discern them. (People who have trouble following Babbitt should try to imagine themselves singing along with his music as they hear it; for me, at least, that produces a state of mind in which it's easier to log in each event as it happens.) The piano has moments of rarefied repose at the very top of the keyboard, which, thanks to Babbitt's compositional rigor, register not just as intriguing tinkles but as unexpectedly wistful melodic wisps, both carefully planned and intuitively right; but odd still, because they're so high. At the other extreme, cello and piano combine in their lower range to sound tenebrous and brooding, but still ringing and clear.. never homogeneous sludge but instead a precisely calculated interweaving of distinct and astonishing shades of brown. His ensemble writing looks fussy in score but in performance always sounds lively, pristine, and clear. The notorious complexities of his Relata produced the effect, as played last season by the American Composers Orchestra, of brilliant pinpoints of light.

Sing Along
With Milton

Babbitt's 12-tone structures are audible as well, or at least nearly so, though the effect is rigorous and quirky, rather than ringing and bright. Serial music is badly misunderstood, dismissed as arbitrary when in fact it could hardly be -- at least in some ways -- more coherent. The first few, isolated cello notes in Dual sound as right as they do partly because each one combines with the piano to complete the same three-note chord. You may not consciously hear this, but, as Babbitt likes to say, it's also true that the opening theme of the Eroica symphony is an E-flat major triad whether you hear that or not. I could turn his analogy against him, of course, by asking why anybody needs to understand his12-tone sets; if Beethoven's triads mean something to people who don't understand them, Babbitt's 12-tone structures might, too. Other details perhaps do have to be consciously heard to make their effect, though for all I know they too may have subliminal force. Like any Babbitt piece, Dual is a labyrinth of closely packed information: every detail means something, or -- which to me is the awe and almost the horror of it -- could mean something. The F sharp, E flat, and B natural isolated in the highest register of the piano in the first two measures return in measure six as the first three notes of a melodic phrase, accompanied by the B flat, G natural, and C natural that were the next notes heard in the highest register at the end of measure two and the start of measure three-and these are just the most obvious connections that could be made between two parts of the pieces chosen almost at random. Babbitt likes to say that moments in his music can be memories of what came before, and presentiments of what is to come. Serial technique produces ever-new associations of familiar elements giving everything that happens the power of an omen. Following a Babbitt piece in close detail is like reading entrails or tea leaves; every rearrangement in every bar might mean something. So many rearrangements are possible that you never know what the omens really mean: new developments seem, if not arbitrary, then at least willful. This is a sort of higher-order zaniness, something unpredictable and even wild that transcends Babbitt's logic, and finds its way into something I haven't mentioned yet, which I'll call Babbitt's mode of musical speech.
This is taken for granted by people who like Babbitt's music and even by Babbitt himself, but it's likely to be what anyone who's never heard his music before would notice first. At a lecture-recital sponsored by the New York University Composers Forum on February 27, Babbitt spoke calmly, with his usual affable grace, about the structure of the music to come. But he didn't prepare us for what we actually heard, at least not for the torrents of notes, jumping from one end of the piano to each other, shifting speed every few seconds (though the notated tempos are generally constant: changes in apparent speed are produced by difficult to perform and always varying subdivisions of the constant beat); he didn't mention that his music lacks both regularity and any connection to everyday emotional and musical life. It's easy for him to take this for granted because in the past 35 years or so it's become commonplace in his circles but what does it mean? It's easy to see that irregular rhythms serve Babbitt's compositional purposes for a reason suggested by as unlikely a person as John Cage, who complains that regular rhythms cause sounds to be heard not for themselves but as part of a group: if Babbitt used regular rhythms, the pitch relationships that mean more than anything else to him would similarly be submerged in irrelevant rhythmic groupings. He needs irregular rhythms to put those rapidly changing pitch relationships in strong relief.


But what does the irregularity not just of rhythm, but of tempo, timbre, register, and gesture mean culturally and psychologically? Michael Gielen, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, is only the latest to say (in a recent Arts and Leisure interview in the New York Times) that it reflects our current "Age of Anxiety," but that's far too facile. Babbitt suggests a comparison to Joyce, and to modernism in general, but that just passes the buck to art, literature, science, and philosophy (and Joyce, anyway, has a strain of healthy vulgarity you'd have to go far to find in Babbitt, and even further to find in Charles Wuorinen or Elliott Carter). This irregularity of musical speech ought to be the central critical problem for anyone writing about modern music. Any attempt to account for it would be another article as long as this one, so I'll only say that because he's so zany it suits Babbitt more than it suits others; that its most important effect is to distance modern music from everyday life; and that the failure to ask what it means has led to aberrations that are hard not to take as signs that a whole generation of advanced musicians has lost track of the connection between its music and its emotions. One of these signs is George Rochberg's decision -- when he wanted to write music with feeling in it -- to abandon 12-tone writing (though not atonality) and develop an intentionally retrogressive style that sounds much of the time like a combination of Mahler and late Beethoven. Another is the puzzling and ultimately sad discrepancy between the profoundly rich 12-tone score of Roger Sessions’s monumental tombstone of an opera, Montezuma, and dramatic content simple-minded enough to have come from a 1950s Hollywood epic. Doesn't Sessions know what his own musical language is for? One final sign is that so extreme and eccentric a composer as Milton Babbitt can be such a paragon of academic respectability.
For in the end I do find Babbitt eccentric. He's a superb musical craftsman, and I think, an authentically great composer, though in some ways hard to take, but he's also zany, wild, and -- I say this again with admiration -- more than a little bit mad. His music and the whole school he represents, are products of the 1950s, as much symptoms of the eruption of tumultuous subterranean forces into aboveground life as monster movies, rock and roll, the beat generation, and abstract expressionism. But in Babbitt's case the eruption is controlled, disguised, and unmentioned, the secret nobody will acknowledge or even name. In a videotaped interview with Ann Swartz of Baruch College, Babbitt calls himself "a man of the university," whose music "reflects the life of the academy, in the best sense of the world." That's partly true, of course, but there's much more there. There's no point in thinking that Babbitt should do or think anything but what he does; I wouldn't want to be without his theoretical essays or his often unjustly scorned, often blindly praised, unsettling, provocative, infuriating, airy, light-hearted, deeply felt, and (on third or fourth hearing) irresistible music. But I can't help thinking that he's sold himself short by trying both to extend the boundaries of his art and to remain academically respectable, and by acknowledging only the verifiable (and therefore trivial) aspects of his amazing work. If -- like Joyce, Jackson Pollock, or John Cage -- so passionate a man had chosen to define himself as an artist and not as an academic, what might he have achieved?

Village Voice, March 16, 1982

Other Village Voice columns from the '80s:

Cage Speaks Faster When the Street Gets Noisy

The Cage Style

Feldman Draws Blood

The Struggle for Form [about Meredith Monk]

Beethoven Howls

The Secret of the Silver Ticket