AMN Reviews

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

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Milton Babbitt/Boston Modern Orchestra Project – All Set [BMOP/sound 1034]

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.


Modfest Previewed

From Chronogram Magazine:

On January 23, Joe McPhee and Friends (Richard Teitelbaum on keyboards and Thurman Barker on drums and percussion ) will perform. McPhee is a multi-instrumentalist (and Poughkeepsie resident) who solos on tenor, alto and soprano saxophone, trumpet, pocket trumpet, trombone, clarinet, cornet, didgeridoo, and flugelhorn. He also sometimes sings. Though McPhee, at 70, is a major figure in avant-garde jazz, his music is not hysterical or ear-splitting. His playing is gracious and considered. I asked McPhee what he calls his genre. “I call it ‘Po music,’” he replied. “’Po’ is a language indicator to show that provocation is being used to move from a fixed set of ideas in an attempt to discover new ones. It refers also to words like possible, poetic, positive, etc.”

Electronic music pioneer Milton Babbitt, who is 93, will engage in a public conversation with Vassar music professor Richard Wilson, followed by a performance of Babbitt’s work by the Argento Ensemble (January 24).

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Performances Reviews

In Brooklyn, Yesterday’s Avant-Garde as Today’s Durable Works

From, a review of recent Darmstadt shows.

Precious little linked most of the composers who participated in New Music, New York, a nine-evening concert series presented by the Kitchen in June 1979. Then located in SoHo, the Kitchen was a home for a wide range of musical doings: Fluxus happenings, the nascent Minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, experiments by rock refugees like Robert Fripp and performance artists in the process of defining themselves.

What New Music, New York provided for its disparate participants was a sense of unity and purpose, a rallying cry that proposed that the creative urges expressed at the Kitchen were worthy of the attention paid to “uptown” composers — modernists like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt — and worthy of critical evaluation and financial patronage too.

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Jazz Prospecting From Tom Hull

More reviews from Tom Hull:

The Bad Plus: For All I Care (2008 [2009], Heads Up): Front cover adds: “Joined by Wendy Lewis.” Lewis is a singer, based in Minneapolis, don’t know much more. Her presence pushed the piano trio to doing more cover songs, which leads to some not very interesting generational issues. They date their classics from the 1970s with Pink Floyd and Yes, and mix them in with the 1990s as represented by Nirvana, Wilco, and Flaming Lips. Aside from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” they are songs I’d happily never hear again, given a sharp jolt by the band then waxed into torpor by the singer. Between the touchstones are some short quasi-classical instrumentals Igor from Stravinsky, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Milton Babbitt — the latter repeated in an alternate version. B-

Larry Ochs/Miya Masaoka/Peggy Lee: Spiller Alley (2006 [2008], RogueArt): Ochs is one of the saxophonists in ROVA. I had read a rave this release in Stef’s Free Jazz blog, knew that I’d never gotten so much as an email response from the label, but was curious enough to approach the artist. After an amusing round of emails, Ochs sent me a couple years’ output, which I’ll slowly work my way through. Thought I’d start here. Masaoka plays koto and Lee plays cello, so there’s a dominant string motif here. Ochs plays tenor and soprano sax, the former listed first but the latter seems the more temperamental fit — in any case, he tends to defer to the koto lead, coloring in rather than blowing ahead. Likewise, Lee plays more like a bassist, just a little off pitch. Good example of mutual listening, three musicians feeling their way through difficult and unforseen terrain. B (***)

Gerald Cleaver/William Parker/Craig Taborn: Farmers by Nature (2008 [2009], AUM Fidelity): Artists listed alphabetically, although Cleaver gets co-credith with Steven Joerg for production; all pieces attributed to all three, also alphabetically. I’m filing it under Cleaver, a journeyman drummer who’s played on a lot of good records and is slowly building up a short list of unspectacular ones under his own name. Taborn is a pianist who came up in James Carter’s quartet. Better known these days for his Fender Rhodes, but plays acoustic here, poking around abstractly, with muted Don Pullen flashes. Best thing here is when Taborn picks up a jagged groove and the others knock him about. Parker, of course, is superb in his supporting role, and brilliant as a soloist, at least when you can hear him clearly. Recorded at the Stone, NYC, rather offhandedly with a bit of applause at the end. Nice pictures, especially on the back cover. B (*)

Nels Cline: Coward (2008 [2009], Cryptogramophone): Solo guitar: acoustic (some), electric (mostly), effects (lots), some extra overdub junk. Solo records often sound like practice; this a bit less than the norm, but not the exception either. Rather, this plays a like a notebook of ideas, some of which can be developed into something, others discarded. As such, it oscillates more than usual between the annoying and intriguing. The latter more often than not tend to be rockish, dividends perhaps from Cline’s slumming with Wilco. B [Feb. 10]

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Milton Babbitt at the Miller Theater


Noting the fuss over Elliott Carter’s impending centenary, partisans of Milton Babbitt’s music are getting their ducks in a row. Mr. Babbitt is 92 and apparently in good health, and 2016 will be upon us in no time. So on Wednesday evening the Miller Theater devoted a Composer Portraits program to Mr. Babbitt’s string quartets. The composer was on hand for an informal postintermission discussion with James Levine, long an avowed Babbitt fan. And Mr. Carter was seen in the audience, probably to hear what the young whippersnapper was up to.

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