Friday, August 28, 2015

Milton Babbitt: String Quartet no. 2

performed by the Composers Quartet

There was until recently no YouTube Video to share, but one has appeared, and I'm not sure how long it will stay up. 
There's only one (studio?) recording of this piece, to my knowledge, and this is it. 
There are links below to the beginnings of individual sections within this recording.

Babbitt makes his processes as intelligible as possible and leads his listener from one step to the next after all the possibilities have been investigated. The result is an exhilarating piece, self-contained and exact. And the beauty is not purely formal: there are many incidental pleasures in the springing deployment of string effects, as well as elegant changes of gear at the junctions between the four principal sections. 
(Griffiths 1974)
After four other articles this week, we're finally here. The string quartet.
(Also, if you don't read anything else, skip to the bottom of this article for a.... notice.)
Written in 1954, it is the composer's first published, completed string quartet. His string quartet number one was withdrawn and never published; I seem to remember at some point hearing or reading that it was never finished, but it has been performed at least once or twice, in whatever form it exists. I'll quote from that article later.
Years ago, when I was just kind of starting to read about and listen more seriously to classical music, I turned to really modern serialist composers. It was with the same motivation that a student on the first day of his algebra class flips to the very end of the textbook to remark about how crazy the stuff is they'll eventually get to.  And there's also that disconnect, that bit of incredulity, that I'll be able to do it when we get around to it.
In any case, in reading around about Boulez and Stockhausen and some of these names in serialist music, I came across the below, a video I have shared a number of times already on this blog, including in an article just a few days ago.

As I've said before,  what struck me the most was that this composer was not some lunatic mad scientist who crawls down into an evil lair to concoct spells of wicked music. He's a white-haired, seemingly soft-spoken, incredibly intelligent, friendly, polite, even humorous professor, with a family and students and all the rest. That was compelling.
But I didn't come across it again for at least a year or so. Every once in a while I'd pull up one of his pieces on YouTube (there were more uploaded then), and listen with amazement for thirty seconds or so at my complete lack of understanding or appreciation.
But one day, I want to say when I was either ill or very tired or something (by this time I'd bought the only album of it available that I'm aware of), put it on repeat and took a nap. I hadn't fallen asleep, but in not trying so hard to understand it (or something), it was suddenly beautiful. Granted, by this point, I'd already kind of gotten my modern feet wet with Webern and Berg and some of that, but it was this strange epiphany, and I suddenly fell in love with the piece. I listened to it constantly, and while I didn't really understand it, it became familiar, I began to know what was coming up next and anticipate it. It all felt... normal.
It really is a beautiful work, and one of my favorites of his quartets. It's perhaps the easiest to 'follow' or pay attention to and not get lost in detail. I think.
But after this epiphany, as with any other, I had to share it with someone. Problem is, I don't know how to explain it; I don't understand it, but something clicked, like turning a key in the right direction or getting an image of something lined up perfectly so you see it square on.
And this was how I described it. I'll also be sharing some quotes from one Mark Zuckerman, from his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University, an article titled On Milton Babbitt's String Quartet No. 2, also from Perspectives of New Music, back in 1976.
I interject those sources there because I'll be using them, but also because I'm almost entirely positive I hadn't read Zuckerman's article when I thought of the best way to explain the piece to someone. I am quite sure it felt to me like the best way to explain it independent of other sources, but regardless, Zuckerman says it very well.
--It’s like looking at a diamond. Each way you turn it, every time you change an angle, an entirely new experience is created because of the facets and angles and the way it refracts light. Babbitt’s music takes an idea as its starting point, and then turns and angles and repositions it in myriad ways to give many different angles or viewings of the same object, and it’s fascinating.--
That's what I'd written a very long time ago, before having done any real research about this piece. Dutilleux took his interlocked perfect fifths from Ainsi la Nuit as his starting point and slowly manipulated them until there wasn't any variation available, but so much change had taken place.
Babbitt's changes and progress take place, obviously, serially, but there are a few things we can latch onto if we're interested in understanding what's going on with this piece, at least a little bit of it, anyway.
Aaron Boyd, interviewed in the above-linked article about the Zukofsky Quartet's performance of these works (named after/in honor of Paul Zukofsky) says this about this work:
I remember when we played the second quartet in December. We played it alongside a Fritz Kreisler quartet -- this nice, melodic Viennese piece -- and people preferred the Babbitt to the Kreisler. Vivien Schweitzer, the reviewer for The [New York] Times, said that the piece, serialist warts and all, was the more musically friendly of the two. It's not this icy cold mathematical journey. It's great music.
First, as we've discussed, let's just take a listen to it. You might notice a few things just from the first ten seconds, if you can put those ten seconds on repeat. For one, the piece begins in unison, with two of the four instruments playing an interval at octaves. Maybe you

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Milton Babbitt: Composition for Twelve Instruments

performed by the people listed here, directed by the very friendly Erik Carlson
"... entire twelve-tone compositions may be seen to be consequences of the structure of the original sets on which they are based, thus revealing "those attributes of set structure which maintain under the systematic operations only by virtue of the particular nature of a set, or the class of sets of which it is a instance, together with a particular choice of operations."" 

That simple quote is perhaps an indication of the complexity of the piece we'll be dealing with today.
I must say, for yesterday's piece, I found that the more I read about it and looked into it, the more I needed to look into it, and that's a slippery slope. The above-linked article, as stated, is part one of two about this piece, and to be honest, part one was enough. The second paragraph of Part Two begins thusly:
Part 2 attempts to re-interpret the layered structural conception of the composition in terms of recent developments in theoretical physics. The result of this re-interpretation is that we are able to view twelve-tone musical structures in a new way. (Hush 1983, p. 103)
Um, can we not? The article continues to speak of quantum mechanics, lenses, photographic plates, holograms, "enfolded or implicate order," all very very long excerpts. Perhaps the most salient point he makes (or just as far as I read) was on page 111, in section 2.3:
The structure of the Composition is asynordinate, since it is constituted of aspects of different degrees of implication. For example, the third order hexachord remains the most implicit aspect, while other aspects, such as R-related dyads, are abstracted to quite a considerable degree in the explicate order.
What that all means to someone who doesn't understand it is that not everything that happens in this piece is happening always at the same time; it can't. What we'll see today is that the properties of this work are far more complicated and intricate than that of yesterday's piece. As a result, I'll only touch on a few of the differences, using yesterday's article as a point of departure.
If you've done any digging for any Babbitt works in the past two or three days that we've been talking about him this week, you may have noticed that recordings of his works are far and few between. To my knowledge, this piece today is one of the only recordings of a Babbitt work I can think of that's been professionally recorded more than once. There are a few other performances up on YouTube of some of his other works, live, or whatever, but they really are rare, especially relative to all the versions of everything else being played in the Classical music world. It makes Webern and Schoenberg recordings seem like Beethoven sonatas in comparison.
Did that make sense?
In any case, I was surprised and thrilled a few months ago, as a result of yet another Google search on Babbitt to find the above recording, on both YouTube and Bandcamp, linked above. The only other recording I've found of this piece is here, and it was probably the earliest... maybe? Although maybe not the premiere. So perhaps Carlson's recording is the third one. Anyway, I was thrilled to find a new, clean, and more lively version of this interesting work, a full two minutes shorter than the Shapey recording.
In fact, let's begin with a very simple explanation of the piece as taken from the Shapey YouTube video mentioned above:
Although in a single movement, Composition for 12 Instruments divides obviously and externally into two sections, which are complimentary insofar as the explicitly presented materials of one function as the source material for the other.
I don't know about obviously, but it's in keeping with what Hush says in his analysis.
So if you guys followed along in yesterday's discussion, we ended by saying today's work would be an interesting contrast. For one, the concepts and structures behind the work are

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Milton Babbitt: Composition for Four Instruments

played by any of the people in the recordings listed here, or as below (more detail on the performers later, but they are listed in the YouTube video's info

“... the general lesson of Composition for Four Instruments is that a list comes to life when uniformities of its construction are tampered with- suspended, even eradicated- by its compositional realization"
This work was written the year after yesterday's piano piece, in 1948. It's a quartet for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, an ensemble Babbitt would use again at least once more in another work I quite enjoy. I hope you read yesterday's article and that it made sense, (for one, that's good; I'm glad, but also) because we're going to continue in a similar vein today.
The third piece of Three Compositions for Piano played with the idea of voices like that of a quartet, just on piano. In this work, we have those different voices.
Composition for Four Instruments is in one continuous movement of about 15 minutes, but is in fifteen sections. We didn't talk much about it yesterday, but the idea of a tone row shouldn't be new anymore to either of my readers. If it is, go back and check out the (now four-part) series on twelve-tone music here.
Also, I'll link to them below, but I've benefited greatly from and really enjoyed reading two articles from someone I've had the privilege to talk to about Babbitt's work, one Paul Zukofsky, violinist and conductor and more. His website, Musical Observations, has lots of recordings and resources, but check out the two Purloined articles listed in the publications section, which I will link to individually below. What he explains in these articles is required reading not only for this article, but for the rest of the pieces this week.
I contacted him about a few of Babbitt's pieces in particular; he was quite close with the composer (an understatement), and therefore has incredible insight into all aspects of these works. Who better, then, to explain some of the fundamental ideas behind them? Although, he emphasizes strongly that it is not only not necessary but almost irrelevant to understand what Babbitt (or Haydn or Chopin or whoever) was doing or thinking when he wrote these pieces. That may be true, and it's a testament to the man's work that such complexity and can be so beautiful, but an understanding of these techniques can only increase one's appreciation for these works (for this listener).
I'll also be referring to this JSTOR article by Joseph Dubiel, the third of three essays on Babbitt published in Perspectives of New Music, from which the opening quote comes. If you're really into this stuff, that journal has lots available about Babbitt, but the more I read, the more I tend to get bogged down in the details, many of which I don't understand.
Okay, that all being said, there are a few main sections to today's article: explaining the theory (which Zukofsky and others say is irrelevant), how the music sounds, and what I think about it, probably in that order.

  1. Serial Stuff
  2. The Sounds
  3. The Main Point? (if nothing else, read this and come back for the rest)

Serial Stuff

As with yesterday's piece, the serialism isn't only of the pitch classes (notes), but their dynamics, duration, and now the orchestration. You're gonna love this. The fifteen sections are defined by the instruments present for each one. Each different section uses a different subset of the quartet, each combination of the four instruments being used only once: four solos, four trios, six duets and one tutti. The last major constraint is that each instrument plays only once within each pair of sections. So after the clarinet solo, the next section is flute, cello, and violin. The clarinet returns after that, accompanied by the cello, and the piece progresses thusly.
We'll talk later about the interactions between these sections.
Wikipedia mentions another fascinating quality of this orchestration in reference to the frequency of the solos:
The four solos occur with decreasing [sic, recte: increasing(?)] frequency (at intervals of five, four, and three sections), "converging", so to speak, on the final quartet, which is just two sections after the violin [sic, recte: flute] solo (Dubiel 1992, 84).
Composition for Four Instruments (instrumental list)

(I think Wiki meant decreasing intervals or increasing frequency. I tried to fix it.)
The structure of this piece is a fantastic example of serial techniques being applied to really every aspect of this work. That's all quite easy to see, but what's more complicated is the use and development of the tone row(s) for the piece. Because it seems very complex (and because some authorities don't necessarily agree on exactly how it's used and developed), we won't talk about it much here. Wikipedia begins its discussion of the piece by saying:
The first section of the piece begins with a solo in the clarinet, using the (014) trichord or its retrograde. The notes of this solo are separated by register into four distinct voices, though the notes of any one trichord are usually interrupted by notes from other trichords in other registers, making it hard to hear these structures individually (Howland 2010, 40). Babbitt presents several instances of tone rows in the opening bars of the piece. A note-by-note analysis of the first nine measures reveals two such tone rows, the first beginning at measure one and the second at measure seven. A closer look at the separation of the opening into the four registers reveals two additional tone rows. The set of notes contained in the two high registers form a tone row, as do the notes in the lower two registers.
You can see it gets complicated. To put it (over)simply, the tone row (or tone rows) is broken down into four sections of three, and the rows are developed in chunks, piece by piece, apparently never laying out or revealing the

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Milton Babbitt: Three Compositions for Piano

performed by Robert Taub. The CD is available here

The first of these three pieces is above on YouTube, and if it's even the 
least bit intriguing, I would highly recommend buying the album.  

Here we are, at a place I have waited for for a very long time. After yesterday's kind of all-over-the-place article, we're finally at the first of Babbitt's pieces. A year or so ago, I wrote this article as I was beginning to contemplate Babbitt's work and to be intrigued by it. And now, here we are at the first piece. Again, it's a bit intimidating to talk about intelligently, but as with Dutilleux last week, I'm going to strike a balance between complete novice and 'somewhat informed.' So here we go.
This piece is the earliest of Babbitt's pieces I've heard, written in 1947. Between 1935 and 1946, he had some incomplete pieces (a few orchestral pieces, including a symphony) as well as a Music for the Mass (a mass), a string trio, a musical (Fabulous Voyage). The only piece listed in the year 1947 in Babbitt's List of Compositions on Wikipedia is the Three Compositions for Piano, but it is easy, as it is with Schoenberg's op. 11, to consider them three movements of the same work even though the title suggests otherwise. It is rather a similar case here, where the middle movement is quieter and slower, thus hinting at the structure of a three-movement piece.
Regardless, Three Compositions for Piano holds a unique place in the timeline of classical music. It is regarded as one of the first pieces, if not the first piece, to exhibit serial techniques that go beyond the confines of the twelve tone row. That is to say, where more than just pitch is serialized into a row or pattern. It's difficult, of course, to mark definitively a moment in history when a thing 'happened' in classical music (or anywhere) for the first time, but Babbitt's work here is a very good candidate for the very first totally serial work in musical history, although Wikipedia does give credit to some early adopters: "Ruth Crawford Seeger is credited with extending serial controls to parameters other than pitch and to formal planning as early as 1930–33 (Tick 2001)." One could argue that this was possibly an idea on the brink of invention (or discovery), as there were many people developing and toying with ideas that Schoenberg and Webern and people had started; many detractors would argue against the idea that total serialism was an inevitability, but I would argue that it was. Regardless, Babbitt, as far as I see it, was the first to make that happen.
In any case, let's take a look at the piece.
Dr. Marcus Maroney's analysis in the paper found here is an excellent resource, and one I will be quoting from heavily because it's explained in quite simple language and is one of the few resources to be found on this work.  He begins thusly:
Milton Babbitt’s influence on twentieth-century music is unparalleled against many other composers of his time. Being passionate both about music and mathematics, he was able to combine both and create composition with vast amounts of mathematic principles and organization behind them. 
Agreed. He continues to describe this work in particular, saying:
This work is organized at the most precise levels, from dynamics and rhythms and their connections with the music, to the combinatorial nature of the work as well. These and much more allow the composition to be maximally diverse.
Um, so... that's all well and good, and if you're like me, the idea of structure and cleanliness and logic and form is appealing to an almost unhealthy degree, but it's quite another thing to listen to the work and try to make sense of what's going on. A musical genius and close friend of Babbitt's once told me that the understanding of the mechanics or music theory behind the piece is really irrelevant for listeners, that it's the result that counts. That is to say, don't get so preoccupied with the compositional techniques that the composer used that it prevents you from just sitting back and enjoying. I'll say the inclination to do that with this music is high, since they are essentially one and the same, the product of those techniques and that theory is what you're

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dodecaphony: Part 4 (a.k.a. Influential People: Milton Babbitt)

Epilogue: Total Serialism 
Influential People: Milton Babbitt
It's been a while. If you haven't read or don't remember a three-part series I wrote a few months back on the beginnings of the twelve-tone system, go check out the first post here. It was written in conjunction with articles on early pieces of the Second Viennese School, and tries to be a bit of a primer in that whole area.
image via Brittanica 
(This article is the final in the four-part series about the early Second Viennese School and serialism, as well as an intro to three works of Milton Babbitt we will be talking about this week. More below). 
In one of those series, I mentioned total serialism (or whatever you feel like calling it), and it's this complete serialist method that takes the advancements of the Second Viennese School to new, challenging heights. While just a year ago, it was a challenge to endure even Schoenberg's more approachable pieces, this even more strict, rigorous form has by now captured my interest for some time
"Listen, don't worry about whether or not the music sounds coherent to you the first time you hear it. What about the first time you hear a sentence in Hungarian? -- assuming youre interested in listening to and learning Hungarian." Milton Babbitt
I would listen with fascinated interest to the first thirty seconds of Boulez's second piano sonata (a piece I keep using as a more extreme example), mostly with wonderment at the fact that someone intentionally sat down and composed those sounds, but then it all finally ran together and I'd have enough and that was as far as I'd get. Babbitt was different. Babbitt was my serial Scriabin. I WANTED to understand his work, to like it, to appreciate it, and one day I listened (again) to his second string quartet and I was absolutely blown away. Stunned, even. While some parts of it still kind of left me scratching my head, it was suddenly wildly interesting.
I must say, this is a technique and a methodology I knew precious little about in practice when I started finding myself so interested in it all. I found the complexity to be not off-putting, but rather fascinating and intriguing. Either your ear or your research tells you that there's something musical going on, and it isn't a typical white bread classical harmonic progression ending in a perfect cadence. No.
But first, let's talk about Milton Babbitt, just briefly. I'm a bit intimidated, though, because his devoted followers, friends, family, the performers and students that knew him and his work best are a very intelligent, talented crowd; Babbitt himself was not only a professor of music but also of mathematics. When you come to appreciate and understand his music, this is unsurprising.
My fascination with this man, who by the way it seems many music majors have heard