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Time Within Space

Remembering Milton Babbitt, The Path Least Taken –

At age 76, Milton Babbitt received his PhD from Princeton University for his thesis on 12-tone theory—an event in and of itself unremarkable, and one the composer himself hardly noticed. That it came forty-six years after the thesis’s submission makes it somewhat more intriguing. By way of explaining the delay, the university claimed its readers in the music department at the time had simply not understood it. Impossible to understand, unplayable, unimpeachably academic—such are the stigmas notching the years gone and criticisms leveled against Babbitt’s far-ranging oeuvre. Yet there are also listeners who, without comprehending the high math architecture of Babbitt’s music, have discovered a bottomless cabinet of lyrical reflection and mystery to explore.

Babbitt’s innovations in the electronic music laboratory and the traditional orchestral setting eventually resulted in a critical and unprecedented bridging of the two. In the early 1950s he (along with Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening and Roger Sessions) co-founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, the home of the RCA Mark II Electronic Music Synthesizer, which was the first such synthesizer in America, and on which Babbitt generated some of his most important compositions. “I could produce things faster than any pianist could play or any listener could hear” he said in an interview. Thus, in superseding human abilities, he established and justified the use of the tape deck and loudspeaker as instruments in the orchestra setting, without threatening its demise. It was also Babbitt’s innovation to extrapolate the rigor of 12-tone set to rhythm, duration, register, and overall structure, not just tone and pitch as Arnold Schoenberg had done. Thus he was a maximalist to the minimalism of Adams, Reich and Glass. These developments, in sum, have had an inestimable (and unappreciated) effect on modern music, from post-Romanticism to Noise. And to his inheritors he bequeathed a path of departure from Schoenberg, taken by Berg and Webern and all those who leapt from the 12-tone precipice, into the abyss. But Babbitt leapt further and landed deeper.

Underpinning all of Babbitt’s published work is a highly-ordered two dimensional system of 12-tone composition. The two dimensions are best visualized as x/y-axes of set segments and set aggregates, respectively, constructed to flow on different time scales, one faster than the other. With the two sets of similar structures progressing at different rates, a novel counterpoint is achieved. The effects of a 12-tone counterpoint on the span of time in music are impossible, it is true, to fully conceptualize since the varieties are all but infinite. Without launching into a digression on the constituencies of tonal and atonal vocabularies, we may at least say Babbitt’s networks of relation and differentiation, as stemming from the counterpointing of his sets, allows for nothing less than a reevaluation of time and space, or rather, time within space—musical time series in non-linear dimensions—a concept reinvented by some in the space-rock era. The subsurface of the music is further diversified by increasing the number of non-redundant aggregates to the point of dispensing with stasis altogether.

If this doesn’t make any sense, the door is still open to you. In fact, I think listeners who have little or no technical understanding of music have a great advantage over those who practice music, inasmuch as they are freer to come to it as a sublime mystery rather than as a demonstration of aptitude that must be constantly scrutinized vis-à-vis their own. To appreciate a Babbitt piece is not solely to behold the precision splendor of its architecture; not merely the solving of an advanced Sudoku. Though an intuitive sense of intervallic pattern changes is what allows us to see through the surface (just as it does with tonal music, about which need understand nothing), we do not need to be cartographers to walk the interior. It is, I think, more simply a matter of repeated, concerted listens.

Indeed it would be remiss to say that Babbitt constructed music from abstract aggregates and inflections, on paper as it were, without recourse to the actual process of listening. Ironically, within the tight hyper-rational structures there is, as in all metrical-syntactic art forms, an even greater propensity for creative freedom. As Andrew Mead as pointed out, “it is possible to hear the ghosts of jazz and American popular song lurking beneath the surface of his most abstract compositions.” Of Babbitt’s childhood in the Deep South (so deep that he was a neighbor of Eudora Welty’s) he recollects, “I grew up playing every kind of music in the world, and I know more pop music from the ’20s and ’30s, it’s because of where I grew up. We had to imitate Jan Garber one night; we had to imitate Jean Goldkette the next night. We heard everything from the radio; we had to do it all by ear. We took down their arrangements […] we transcribed them, approximately. We played them for a country club dance one night and for a high school dance the next.”

String Quartet No. 2 (1954), from Occasional Variations, Tzadik
performed by the Sherry Quartet, released 2003

It has never been the program of modern classical music to lay dead in the canal of the untrained ear, nor to have been an act more important to the composer than the listener. It is not a different language, in the historical sense; only a different register. If Schoenberg and Webern and Berg and Babbitt sound unengaging, it is not because indeterminancy and abstraction and mathematics and sudden dynamic shifts are somehow unbecoming of music, or because of how rapidly Schoenberg and his followers (not to mention electronics) accelerated the process of change. Fifty years from now the register will be common. Though often accused of ivory tower elitism (especially due to the title of an article in High Fidelity magazine, “Who Cares if You Listen?”), Babbitt’s relationship with the audience was intimate. Of course he cared if they listened, he just didn’t care whether they liked it or not.

Composition for Guitar (aka Sheer Pluck) (1984), from Occasional Variations, Tzadik
performed by William Anderson, released 2003

Behind the thorny high math façade was Milton Babbitt, the little funny smiling man who played the Cole Porter songbook from memory on the piano, whose puns spilled over top of the seriousness of his work (e.g., “Joy Of More Sextets” ); the non-stop conversationalist who was spoke with great pleasure of second-order hexachords and baseball, who was, in Mario Davidovsky’s words, the last of the Romantics. By this he meant Babbitt was the last to ascribe to art the transcendental power located by the Romantics. Beyond him, Auschwitz.

The Joy of More Sextets (1986), form Sextets and The Joy of More Sextets, New World Record
Performers: Alan Feinberg, Rolf Schulte, released 1988

Milton Byron Babbitt was born in Philadelphia on May 10, 1916 and died in Princeton, NJ on January 29, 2011.

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