milton babbitt 'who cares if you listen?' also s/d

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed

his disc on tzadik I recall to be ok in bits but i didn't get too far. there's a disc on new world that sounds like an awesome collection. I haven't heard it.

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Saturday, 23 July 2005 09:31 (seventeen years ago) link

whats does S/D mean? I'm sorta new to this.

Horridmonsta (MichaelCostello1), Saturday, 23 July 2005 16:13 (seventeen years ago) link

milton babbitt is the part in the serialism bible where i go grab a beer

you will be shot (you will be shot), Saturday, 23 July 2005 16:18 (seventeen years ago) link

as schnittke would put it, he never got past the "puberty rites of serial self-denial"

you will be shot (you will be shot), Saturday, 23 July 2005 16:20 (seventeen years ago) link

does it mean Search and Destroy. I see lots of people saying that in threads.

Also, what does that mean??

Horridmonsta (MichaelCostello1), Saturday, 23 July 2005 16:21 (seventeen years ago) link

click on "FAQ" at the bottom of the page

you will be shot (you will be shot), Saturday, 23 July 2005 16:22 (seventeen years ago) link

Well, there goes an hour of my Saturday morning!

About the essay, first of all: I think it's well known that Babbitt didn't choose the title and regrets being known by it. (The first of the alternative titles mentioned in the opening of the essay was the one Babbitt evidently wanted.) But he did write the essay, in his characteristically dense and punning-without-stopping-to-catch-a-breath fashion. So ... one recording that's particularly relevant to the sentiments of that essay is the collection "Soli e duettini," performed by The Group for Contemporary Music on Koch. It includes two of his most appealing late-period works (Whirled Series for alto sax and piano; Melismata for solo violin), plus a reading by Babbitt himself of his essay "On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer (from 1989). Joseph Dubiel's liner notes for the release are also illuminating.

There are obvious objections to be raised to WCIYL beyond its provocative title. For instance, supposing you accept that Babbitt's music is akin to work in abstract mathematics, which is appreciated by other specialists but incomprehensible to the rest of us. On one view, the value of abstract mathematics is that eventually, some of its results have practical applications in the sciences and engineering, and that is its benefit to society. But I don't think anyone, not even Babbitt himself, envisions a more accessible "applied music" falling out of his abstract practice.

About the composer and his music more generally: there's probably no more extreme case of a composer adopting a radical stance and holding his ground despite being misunderstood and eventually "left behind" by changing musical fashions, to such an extent that he now seems old-fashioned. And there's possibly no more extreme case of a composer creating music that invites -- and perhaps even requires -- listening strategies divergent from the only approach to the music in which the composer himself has shown any interest. If you want to gain a better understanding of the mechanics of Babbitt's music, then some of the following might be worth reading. Listed in order from most to least accessible: his Words and Music (transcripts of a series of lectures); Andrew Mead's The Music of Milton Babbitt (which gets repetitive as a result of hashing through the details of piece after piece); and The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt, a recent and affordably priced volume from Princeton University Press -- but not an easy read!

Maybe it's worth attempting a vastly simplified summary of how a typical Babbitt piece "works" in technical terms. He is, as is well-known, a twelve-tone composer. What this means in his case is that each piece is based on a particular ordering of the twelve pitch classes of the chromatic scale -- a twelve-tone "row" -- transformed and combined in systematic ways in order to generate material for the whole piece. More specifically, he has developed various strategies for combining multiple transformations of a row, such that the content of columns is also regulated. So the background pitch structure of a Babbitt piece can be pictured as a two-dimensional "array": in each row you find linear statements of transformations of the twelve-tone row, and in each column you find content that is consistent in some principled way (often, each column is made to include all twelve pitch classes without duplication). Rhythm is organized by analogy with pitch, so that the pattern of pitch intervals determined by the row gets translated into a series of time intervals. In earlier works, the details are different, but typically the rhythmic structure can be said to be based on another "array" of the same type as the one governing pitch structure. At this point, various other musical parameters are rallied for the purpose of expressing the structure of the arrays. For instance, each row of the pitch class array might be expressed as pitches in a different register and/or carried by a different instrument or performance technique. And each row of the timepoint array might be associated with a different level of loudness. So Babbitt's music ends up being richly detailed in part because it takes a lot of detail to express the complex underlying structure.

On one level, this complexity is pretty arbitrary. If we say the details are "expressing" the underlying structure we'd better acknowledge that no human "receiver" has a chance of decoding those expressions and reconstituting the underlying structure. And that's the basis for many a negative critique of Babbitt's work. But I think the "cryptography" critique misses another point. As complex and arbitrary as these machinations may seem, they do have immediate and appreciable consequences for the musical result. For instance, if rows of the pitch class array are differentiated by register, then whenever there is an empty row in a portion of the design, there will be an audible "gap" in the registral space of the music. Indeed this is one of the most immediate characteristics of Babbitt's music: its unusual mobility across different registral configurations. In Canonical Form, for solo piano, the opening of the piece is confined to the very lowest register of the instrument, and the higher registers emerge one-by-one as the music unfolds -- all of this as a result of the structural conceits that Babbitt has put in place.

My main point, I suppose, is that there is a connection, a very complicated and often indirect connection, between Babbitt's hyper-structuralism and the appealing qualities of his best music. I'll get to the S/D of specific compositions in another post.

Paul in Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Saturday, 23 July 2005 17:02 (seventeen years ago) link

Right, so I've already mentioned Whirled Series and Melismata. Here's a few more recommendations. I haven't bothered with performers/recording details because (1) google and (2) a lot of it is out of print anyway.

Selected vocal music: The Head of the Bed; A Solo Requiem (only on LP, long out of print)
Selected electronic music: Occasional Variations
Voice plus electronics: Vision and Prayer; Philomel; Phonemena (version with electronics)
Solo instrument plus electronics: Images (sax), Reflections (piano)

Especially lyrical instrumental pieces: Consortini; Groupwise
Especially effervescent instrumental pieces: lots of solo piano works; Sextets and The Joy of More Sextets (violin and piano)

Uncharacteristic but appealing earlier works: All Set (for "jazz" combo); String Quartet No. 2

Curiosity but not very good: Three Theatrical Songs (second-rate show-tunes)

Paul outta Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Saturday, 23 July 2005 17:21 (seventeen years ago) link

Also, I sort of think the best way to get into this music, if you're on the fence, is by immersing yourself in it, to the exclusion of any other music, for a week or so. This is dense, layered stuff that really does reward repeated hearings, and after a while you start to appreciate that Babbitt has his own conventionally "expressive" musical rhetoric in spite of himself.

Paul outta Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Saturday, 23 July 2005 17:24 (seventeen years ago) link

why do i dislike babbitt so much and yet adore those "new complexity" composers? ferneyhough, barrett, dillon, finnissy, etc.

the problem may well be that babbitt is neither traditional nor radical enough.

you will be shot (you will be shot), Saturday, 23 July 2005 17:51 (seventeen years ago) link

"who cares if you make music?"

?ÎÓDDDJHKHVBNM (eman), Saturday, 23 July 2005 18:02 (seventeen years ago) link

why do i dislike babbitt so much and yet adore those "new complexity" composers? ferneyhough, barrett, dillon, finnissy, etc.
the problem may well be that babbitt is neither traditional nor radical enough.

I think Babbitt is *more* radical. The goals of the New Complexity composers (most of whom I enjoy, probably more than I enjoy Babbitt on balance) are often rather traditionally expressive -- or hyper-expressive. They value virtuosity, they conjure emotional states, they construct narratives that connect to other things in the world. Their technical means are mainly eclectic: they pick up different tools to aim towards different effects.

In contrast, there's Babbitt's almost zen-like adherence to a particular structured practice, which isn't enlisted in support of achieving any expressive goal. The structure is the main thing (although not quite the only thing) Babbitt wants to express, and the primary mental experience he wants to conjure in the listeners mind is the pleasure that can arise from apprehending a complex and deeply interconnected structure.

Arguably, Babbitt is radical in the "wrong" way: his radical idea is about how a piece can be made, and how its means of construction relates to its value. He's not very concerned whether there's anything recognizably radical in the result, on the surface.

Also, Babbitt has never been interested in exploring new performance techniques that way a Barrett or Ferneyhough does so thoroughly. (But Finnissy, too, is conservative in this respect...)

Paul outta Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Saturday, 23 July 2005 18:31 (seventeen years ago) link

i see where you're coming from. and this is where my own biases shine through: i view music as expressive despite itself. that "zen-like adherence to a particular structured practice" is, as far as i'm concerned, a dead end. that music is able to support babbitt's theoretical density is bewildering, and merits philosophical consideration. i am as intrigued by babbitt's methods as i am by cage's, *but* (and here you may be right in pointing out that such thinking is traditional, in opposition to babbitt's) language isn't music. since discussing babbitt's compositions takes precedence over performance practice, why compose? to translate such talk/thought into sound seems almost a freak accident, and whatever expressivity arises from the process is certainly unintended. on the other hand, when ferneyhough intentionally inserts unplayable passages into his scores, he wants to attract attention to the performer's response to this seeming "impossibility." there's a certain human element, which, like i said, is present in babbitt's music only despite itself. and in a sadly unengaging way at that.

you will be shot (you will be shot), Saturday, 23 July 2005 19:08 (seventeen years ago) link

Sure, that's a sensible critique; you've obviously given the music a chance and found it doesn't give you the things you want.

And I guess that's where we differ, somewhat. I find the results of what Babbitt does to be oftentimes interesting and sometimes really beautiful: the sparkle and agility of his piano writing, the transparency of his ensemble textures, they way in which a melodic line will hold stubbornly to a single pitch in one register while spilling forth a profusion of notes in another.

And I think if you really pause to consider the choices that remain for Babbitt to make, beyond everything that's determined systematically by his serial procedures, it's not fair to call the human element "accidental." It's not just the case that his music is built the way he wants to build it; surely it also sounds the way he wants it to sound, including the sparkle, the transparency, and the irregular flow. It's regrettable that he's always been to fastidious to say much about the *sound* of his music.

Paul outta Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Saturday, 23 July 2005 19:58 (seventeen years ago) link

(horridmonsta - search/destroy is just a mode of question to be found around here: what records/tracks, or in this case, compositions, to *search* and what others to *destroy*)

I'm looking at the back of the tzadik disc now - it has has string quartet no2 and no6. It starts with the latter and it absolutely wore me down. It also has 'occasional variations': not too bad on the one listen, I found. and then a piece for guitar: v average sounding, that one, but I've heard far too much gtr and maybe just need to get into another frame of mind for that type of piece. I'll follow the advice and immerse for a while. will get the new world disc (philomel etc) and report someday...maybe he gives the ultimate expression to an attempt at non-expressivity. dislike of sound talk is reminiscent of ppl who improvise as a means to make music.

played a charles wuorien (those two are lumped together in my head) disc today (again on tzadik): i really love 'new york notes' (small ensemble + tape part) and liked 'time's encomium' and 'lepton'.

thx everyone

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Saturday, 23 July 2005 22:11 (seventeen years ago) link

I like Wuorinen, too (but NY Notes is not my favorite, for some reason the tape part doesn't appeal to me ???)

"dislike of sound talk is reminiscent of ppl who improvise as a means to make music"

What do you mean by this? (Sorry I'm not grasping it...)

Paul in Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Saturday, 23 July 2005 23:03 (seventeen years ago) link

thanks for that post Paul, you make a great argument than most I've heard

the babbitt I like is definitely thirty-cups-of-coffee music and not comforting-evening-with-a-bottle-of-red-wine music

for years all I had was the New World disc with 'Philomel', liked it okay but I get worn down by traditional soprano delivery. it's an obstacle for me with _all_ 20th century concert music, I prefer instrumental Webern & Schoenberg, philistine like that

I like 'Ensembles for Synthesizer' from 64, pure electronic music, classic boopy soundset lights my geek awake & the way the tambres shift constantly with the chisled melodic lines is convincing.

also like the 'Piano Works' disc performed by Robert Taub... and immersed myself for a few days... liked it! relentless pure information, but... once again, convincing

milton parker (Jon L), Sunday, 24 July 2005 00:22 (seventeen years ago) link

out of print but I see it used a lot. sounds excellent mixed loudly over strict tempo music that would otherwise be too repetitive.

have it on now but gotta say there's a Free Design record next in the stack, and it's calling

milton parker (Jon L), Sunday, 24 July 2005 00:33 (seventeen years ago) link

paul - bit of cluttered phrasing last night. free improvisors (bailey et al) talk about their method, how they go about the making of the music, but there is never an attempt to talk about the results of whatever process as a way to defend their ideology.

so that reminded me of what you said abt Babbitt not being that interested in the way his music sounds.

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Sunday, 24 July 2005 11:44 (seventeen years ago) link

Ah, thanks Julio -- that makes sense. (Except I think Babbitt is interested in how his music sounds, just not interested in *talking* about it.)

Paul in Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Sunday, 24 July 2005 13:51 (seventeen years ago) link

If you or anyone else has any suggestions wrt wuorien I'd like to hear

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Sunday, 24 July 2005 19:31 (seventeen years ago) link

Wuorinen suggestions:

[Bridge Records BCD9008]
Spinoff (violin, bass, percussion)
Highly charged, lots of rhythmic appeal

[Tzadik TZ 8101]
Third Piano Concerto
cool opening movement, great transition from manic first movement to sudden stasis in second movement

[Koch International Classics 3-7123-2]
Horn Trio; Horn Trio Continued (amazing pieces)
Trio for Bass Instruments
Trombone Trio
(to clarify: Horn Trio = violin/horn/piano, as is standard; Trombone Trio = trombone/mallet percussion/piano)

[New World Records NW 385-2]
Sonata for Violin and Piano
gorgeous piece that makes very effective use of recognizable thematic returns

[Koch International Classics 3-7121-2]
Second String Quartet
more of a "texture" piece than is typical for Wuorinen

[Koch International Classics 3-7110-2]
Five (concerto for amplified cello and orchestra)
I especially like the second movement (and so does Wuorinen or his webmaster, evidently -- it's a listening clip for this disc at

Paul in Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Monday, 25 July 2005 04:29 (seventeen years ago) link

Paul in Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Tuesday, 26 July 2005 04:46 (seventeen years ago) link

seven months pass...
hey julio, how are you ?

anyway, i like some wuorinen, so i thought i'd try some babbitt out and then i felt like posting my immediate impressions.

so, just listened to "whirled series", which i thought "jumpy" enough not to be boring (correctly within the various scales, not sloppy nor pedantic). Actally, some babbitt piano i listened to last night made me think of cecil taylor.

yeah i like the almost "minimalist" repetition of the possibilities presented with the artful illusion of thoroughness and necessity, as though existing just on the point-ful side of completeness. I also like the forward momentum, not "too jazzy".

as though it's official, it's a statistically useable sample

george gosset, Wednesday, 1 March 2006 08:14 (seventeen years ago) link

(Hi George its been a while since i've seen you. I'm ok. How is Duane?)

I came across the dbl CD on Koch I remember liking it quite a bit although i've not spent the time I wanted on it to post more. I thought that many of the compositions had a (as gg says) jump to it. Its funny how, despite not wanting to "express", he ends up evoking what he listened to. That is part of what constitutes expression to me..

So now I'm interested in hearing 'all set' as i've come across this "history of jazz" essay while browsing at the library that mentioned it as an early link between classical and jazz.

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Wednesday, 1 March 2006 11:28 (seventeen years ago) link

three years pass...

Can't really add much that Paul in SC hasn't said, but Babbitt has been getting a lot of plays here recently.

So far my favorite pieces have been the five string quartets (No. 1 is withdrawn). Nos. 2 and 6 are on the Tzadik release with two other pieces, the others are OOP but rather easy to find in LP rips if you're looking in the right place.

The quartets have a sort of "radical traditionalism" that I like — like he has absorbed and sublimated an entire century of quartet writing rather than any kind of self-conscious break with tradition like Lachenmann and others.

Relata I for orchestra is a bracing quasi-Varèsian sound experience. It's pointless to try and accurately describe this music, but I'll say that it has a "thousand points of light" feel that I love.

Much prefer his brand of American music to Cage et. al. There's just more "there" there.

Daruton, Monday, 30 November 2009 18:22 (thirteen years ago) link

one year passes...


scott seward, Saturday, 29 January 2011 22:28 (twelve years ago) link

"I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism."

and, thus, chillwave was born...

scott seward, Saturday, 29 January 2011 22:29 (twelve years ago) link

ah, you can always trust the old serialists to deliver when it comes to quotes about how appalling wider society is. But dude was a bro, or at least his music was good. RIP.

Antoine Bugleboy (Merdeyeux), Saturday, 29 January 2011 22:49 (twelve years ago) link


EveningStar (Sund4r), Saturday, 29 January 2011 23:01 (twelve years ago) link

RIP. I've said before that his "A Solo Requiem" for soprano and two pianos was Babbitt's neglected masterpiece. It was written to grieve the early death of Godfrey Winham, his brilliant student and dear friend, and is one of Babbitt's most lyrical and moving works. I hope his death will at least provide an occasion to revive this work and reissue the wonderful Beardslee/Continuum recording.

Hipster Thermador (Paul in Santa Cruz), Sunday, 30 January 2011 04:16 (twelve years ago) link

^ Great post. RIP.

ARP 2600 vs. Atari 2600 (Ówen P.), Sunday, 30 January 2011 23:22 (twelve years ago) link

24 hour tribute on WKCR coming up at 1AM Eastern Time.

Me and a Monkey on the Moog (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 1 February 2011 03:29 (twelve years ago) link


xyzzzz__, Thursday, 3 February 2011 19:22 (twelve years ago) link

Reminiscences at New Music Box by

Judith Bettina - David Rakowski

Hipster Thermador (Paul in Santa Cruz), Friday, 4 February 2011 03:08 (twelve years ago) link

one year passes...

A flac of the Solo Requiem is available in lovingly vinylripped form on the Wolf Fifth blog, as are a couple of other Babbitt works (and an ocean of further goodness). Just click the composer name in the bar on the right.

I just watched this NPR documentary on the man -- guy seemed like a fun dude! :D

Been babbitting quite a bit the past week actually; have really liked the early Composition for four instruments, the Correspondences for orchestra and electronics, and the fifth string quartet. Repeated listening is indeed u&k.

anatol_merklich, Thursday, 1 November 2012 23:55 (ten years ago) link

one month passes...

Wolf Fifth recently went down due to © hasslez. :( Am downloading stuff at top speed from the Avant Garde Project in case it is similarly afflicted...

Loving ALL the MB SQs I've heard so far! With #2 it seems one can choose any point between a) yow this is some music wtf hurrah and b) I am now listening to a very well-made <babbittvoicefromthatdocumentary> beginner's lesson on how to listen to, and construe in one's listening mind, a serial composition</babbittvoicefromthatdocumentary>, and thus have great fun in only about 13 minutes!

Hammered "Philomel" a few times today, and really do not get what milton upthread meant by "liked it okay but I get worn down by traditional soprano delivery". I have some troubles with trad-sop-delivery as well, but this doesn't register with me as that at all -- maybe more like the musical-theatre tradition, but obviously not *like* that either. Dunno. Maybe Pierrot has confused it all.

anatol_merklich, Friday, 14 December 2012 00:11 (ten years ago) link

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.