AMN Reviews: Milton Babbitt – Works for Treble Voice & Piano [New Focus Recordings fcr349]

The vocal compositions of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) probably are not as well-known as his instrumental work, particularly classic early serial pieces like All Set or Composition for Twelve Instruments. But they reflect Babbitt’s deep engagement with the systemic possibilities and expressive potential of dodecaphonic music, as well as his interest in language as a medium of expression made up of sounds. On Works for Treble Voice and Piano soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck show the range of Babbitt’s writing for voice by presenting a chronologically arranged survey of his published work for piano and soprano or contralto, spanning the years 1950-2002.

The set begins on a somber note, with Babbitt’s 1950 setting of William Carlos Williams’ poem The Widow’s Lament. The music follows the flow of Williams’ words and creates a mood appropriate to the words, the setting for which, like Williams’ poetry, is plain and direct even while maintaining its atonality. The following year Babbitt set German Expressionist poet August Stramm’s text Du to seven short movements. The music is exuberantly atonal; Babbitt’s setting of the text brings out the consonant-driven musicality of the German text. Sounds and Words (1960) and 1969’s Phonemena—the title of the latter reflecting Babbitt’s love of wordplay–take the musicality of language to its logical conclusion by breaking it into phonemes and setting those as texts. The music features extreme leaps, as if it had been liberated by the text’s freedom from conventional meaning. In an exception to the voice-and-piano program, Phonemena appears here as well in its second iteration for soprano and tape (1975). The six-movement A Solo Requiem (1977), which like Phonemena is from Babbitt’s second compositional period, is a setting of texts from several different poets for soprano and two pianos, Beck here being joined by pianist Eric Huebner. This composition, a memorial to Babbitt’s student Godfrey Winham, again shows how Babbitt’s sensitivity to language allowed him to elicit affecting moods from the ostensibly cerebral angularity of atonal music. From Babbitt’s third and final period are In His Own Words, a spoken word tribute to composer and jazz pianist Mel Powell with texts taken from Powell’s writings on music, and Virginal Book, a setting of a John Hollander poem for contralto, both from 1988; Pantun (2000), featuring Hollander’s translations of Malay poetry; and 2002’s Now Evening after Evening, an atonal pastoral setting for an eclogue by Derek Walcott.

This is a fine recording of an aspect of Babbitt’s work that deserves to be better known.

Daniel Barbiero