Saturday, March 10, 2012

In Memory of Milton Babbitt, 1916 - 2011

Milton Babbitt was known to the wider public as the author of "Who Cares if You Listen?", an article published by High Fidelity in 1958 to the scandalized readership. To the contemporary music aficionados, he was a founder and epitome of "total serialism", as well as one of the first to seriously utilize synthesizer in composition (on the famous RCA Mark II).

Indeed, Milton was outspoken in his fondness of the synthesizer music, even though he moved away from it after mid-seventies. "The medium provides a kind of full satisfaction for the composer.... I love going to the studio with my work in my head, realizing it while I am there and walking out with the tape under my arm. I can then send it anywhere in the world, knowing exactly how it will sound." This might create an impression that Babbitt is an ultra-rational internationalist. As a matter of fact he is musically deep-rooted in the American South's popular tradition. "If you know anybody who knows more popular music of the 20s or 30s than I do, I want to know who it is... 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 stole their arrangements; we transcribed them, approximately. We played them for a country club dance one night and for a high school dance the next." Like Webern, Milton keeps very tight control of his compositional material; like Berg, however, he uses a very wide range of expressive possibilities under the constraints of the serialism or any other compositional techniques he chooses to employ. Philomel is a good example.

"Philomel for soprano, recorded soprano, and synthesized sound" is probably the best known Babbitt. 'It was commissioned by the Ford Foundation as part of a program enabling solo performers to request pieces from composers of their choice. In this case, the performer was soprano Bethany Beardslee', who records this astonishing performance; even the usually very critical composer give the unusually high praise. The libretto was written by the American poet John Hollander, with the story based on Ovid's interpretation of the Greek legend of Philomela, the ravished, speechless maiden who is transformed into a nightingale.(*1) For those readers interested in modern poetry, reading the sonically highly organized libretto alone could be an exhilarating experience. For someone as insensitive to poetry as I am, it is the combination of sound and text which is most fascinating. In Philomel, new ways of combining musical and verbal expressiveness were devised: 'music is as articulate as language; language (Philomela's thoughts) is transformed into music (the nightingale's song). The work is an almost inexhaustible repertory of speech-song similitudes and differentiations, and resonant word-music puns (unrealizable without the resources of the synthesizer).'(*2)

However, in a sense Philomel is a singular piece among Babbitt's oeuvres. One can find more "typical" Babbitt in the other 3+1 works in the same album. 2 of them are recordings of "Phonemena": 'for soprano and piano' and 'for soprano and tape'. There are 24 consonant sounds and 12 vowels utilized, certainly not a surprise in light of the serialism. Both versions were originally intended for Beardslee as encore pieces according to different concert setups, here performed by the soprano Lynne Webber. As much as I admire Webber's technique, I wish it was Beardslee who recorded it, judging from her amazing performance in the Philomel track.

The 4th track is the solo piano piece "Post-Partitions", so named because Babbitt had composed "Partitions" 9 years earlier. It is illuminating to have both works played back to back, as in Robert Taub's performance Milton Babbitt: Piano Works, which I prefer due to the better elucidation of imitative counterpoint.(*3) The last track "Reflections", a piece for piano and synthesized tape, is another example of total serialism, in which dynamical values of 12 levels are serialized.

Overall, this is a fascinating listen. Even if only the performance of Philomel (of nearly 19 minutes here) reaches immortality, it alone warrants very very urgent recommendation.

Milton Babbitt, a composer, theorist and teacher died on 29th Jan 2011 in Princeton, N.J.. He was 94. The world is worse off without his wit and sharp-tongue.(*4)
Note: This post is mainly to test the blog function and is copied from my own amazon review.
(*1) Brief synopsis: 'King Tereus of Thrace, though married to Procne, ravished her sister Philomela and, to enforce her silence, cut out her tongue. But Philomela wove a tapestry depicting the crime and sent it to Procne; together they executed a hideous revenge, serving Tereus the limbs of his son Itys for dinner. When told what he had eaten, Tereus pursued the sisters into the forest. Just as he was about to overtake them, the gods transformed them into birds.' Procne is the swallow, Philomel the nightingale, and Tereus the hoopoe, 'which fouls its own nest.'

(*2) Quote is taken from the Grove. -- The best other online source of Philomel I know of is the OHM website.

(*3) Bear in mind that I was first exposed to Taub's recording and was in Taub's recital, while he was the pianist-in-residence in the Institute for Advanced Study, famed for hosting Einstein during his later years.

(*4) I am gratified to find out there is a surge of demand of Babbitt's recordings as a lot of them are "temporarily out of stock" at this point. Among other Babbitt (-exclusive) recordings I can heartily recommend are:

Milton Babbitt: Piano Works - Robert Taub
Milton Babbitt: Occasional Variations
Babbitt: Concerto For Piano And Orchestra/The Head Of The Bed

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