About this Recording
8.559259 - BABBITT: Soli e Duettini
English  German 

Milton Babbitt (b. 1916)
Soli e Duettini

One prepossessing characteristic of Milton Babbitt’s music is that its lines jump around a lot. However intrinsically appealing, this gains something from the fact that they also do not. The jumps sample streams of slower activity, communicate between them. This addition slows the frantic motion - better, changes our impression of it without slowing it: what is highly agitated is also carefully grounded, even gently regulated. Polyphony of movement defines Babbitt’s sound: fast and slow, disjointed and regular, manic and glacial—dichotomies peculiarly unavailable even while suggested by singular multiplicity of motion.

The phenomenon may be clearest with slower action suspended, as at the beginning of Around the Horn. Three oddly spaced pitches are revisited, gradually brought into motion (the lower ones resist longer). Such “polyphonic” hearing is not pressed so obviously by the free, wide-ranging tunes that open None But The Lonely Flute or Soli e Duettini, but it is available there, too, retaining and connecting distinctive points in the fantastic contours. Babbitt typically makes every note figure in several melodies: at least the melody of its immediate predecessors and successors (possibly rather unlike it) and the slower melody of notes like it (possibly removed from it in time). These melodies often reflect one another across disparities of character and speed; but more fundamental than any resemblance is the simple fact that they are all there. The essence of Babbitt’s sound is several things going on at a time—even with only one note.

Babbitt’s writing may not change much for groups of instruments: combining their tunes into an ensemble tune need not differ in principle from combining tunes within one of their parts. The creation of a virtual polyphony in a single line, one of the oldest tricks in the book, gets an idiosyncratic reading in Babbitt’s actual polyphony. Often the ensemble plays one melody, with the capacity occasionally to hold a note over into the next, or introduce a few notes at a time.

Babbitt’s multilayered melodiousness can be assimilated to the one characteristic always attributed to his music, its being twelve-tone: the slower lines are the rows (roughly). But to view Babbitt’s polyphony as a device for high-density transmission of the series is to choose a grimly functional interpretation over alternatives more engaging, and more apparent. Better to err in the other direction and imagine the series working, often behind the scenes, to keep skittishness from being sheer scatter. The result is distinctive motion: adroitly unnatural, with startlingly agile objects moving to more than one place at more than one speed, rearranging ordinary associations between effort and expression, mixing stress and lightness.

The most spectacular results may be in Around the Horn (1993), performed by William Purvis, for whom it was written. The title’s pun predicts the piece’s conduct: the horn has to be almost everywhere in a two-and-ahalf- octave range almost all the time. Before hearing the piece, it is hard to imagine how horn music could move like this; upon hearing it, it is hard to imagine how Purvis achieves such facility without denaturing his sound, which is always highly charged, finely inflected, and utterly characteristic of the instrument. Besides mixing high and low, loud and soft, the music varies sharply in character, suddenly delicate or wild or heroic, perhaps following with a deflating aside. The horn’s traditional associations play into a striking harmonic trait: “diatonic” figures, including plenty of major triads, against a distinctly nondiatonic background. One further association is with the virtuoso horn playing of Gunther Schuller; the piece is dedicated to the memory of his wife Marjorie.

In None But The Lonely Flute (1991), again the line moves constantly through a wide range; but since this requires no exceptional effort on the flute, the impression is different. An ordinary quality of the flute gets extraordinarily free play (one reviewer wrote of “pure fluting”); it speaks easily, in exceptionally long, clear phrases, whose internal variety is voluble rather than dramatic. Gradually these phrases grow reluctant to end, potential endings undermined by the return of preceding details. There are no major changes, no marked sections—just a long, long tune.

The lines of Melismata (1982) attain their length in a different way. The title suggests their sense of floridly ornamentating something slow, a sense that must arise from the clearer presence of a beat, and a different mix of fast and slow. Very striking is the possibility of a long note at almost any moment. The registral movement is different, too: the entire range often seems to be in play even when parts of it are not actually sounding; passages of narrow range seem contracted.

Play It Again, Sam (1989) is the most mercurial solo. With an often bumptious registral discontinuity come frequent switches in playing technique, shifts in tempo, variation of harmonic flavour, and, most interestingly, almost incessant change in the rate of change in various dimensions. The possibilities even include outbreaks of continuity (often lyrical and high), tempering the potential jokiness. (The title’s famously apocryphal quotation from Casablanca makes a technical allusion to Babbitt’s Arie da Capo.)

Opportunities may be limited in Babbitt’s study for snare drum, Homily (1987), but the score’s afterword draws a promise of transcendence from St John Chrysostom: “And why, is it asked, are there so many snares? That we may not fly low, but seek the things that are above”. Multilinearity is sought in the realm of dynamics, often underscored by use of two different beaters at once. Still this piece may be hard to hear as contrapuntal, since louder strokes so easily dominate softer ones. While Homily’s durational construction is like that of most of the other pieces, it is simpler in effect, showing how contour, timbre, and pitch enliven Babbitt’s rhythm under normal conditions.

Dynamic stratification is easy to hear on the marimba: in Beaten Paths (1988), counterpoint between sharply struck notes and ghostly ones is as vivid as that between high and low ones. This may be natural, given the equivocal registral effect of single marimba tones; the same timbral peculiarity allows the piece’s octaves not to stand out sharply (as in Soli e Duettini or Whirled Series). Registral counterpoint makes Beaten Paths a kind of duo, high and low; but its sectional contrasts come more from sonority than range: changes in the color of the bubbling. The local rhythms are delicate and tricky, inflected by dynamic crosscutting, contour, and timbre.

Babbitt’s ideal of more than one thing happening at a time reaches a technical extreme Soli e Duettini (1989; the second of three pieces with this title). Not only is each instrument’s part a self-sufficient polyphony that might suffice for a solo piece (that literally does in None But The Lonely Flute), but they do not quite share the same series. More immediately, they don’t act much alike: the guitar part is amply polyphonic in itself, and the two parts often slide past each other rhythmically, not interlocking as simply or as often as in the other duos. Susan Palma- Nidel and David Starobin, who negotiate these rhythmic disengagements and reengagements with such grace, are the work’s dedicatees.

The applicability of this work’s title to the entire collection may be a fortuity, but its application to the work’s form is direct: the instruments’ comings and goings create clear sections. This is the only piece for which it would be easy to lay out a “form” — flute solo, duo (long, punctuated halfway by an abortive guitar solo), guitar solo, duo (short), flute, duo (short), guitar, duo (long, ending with a brief flute solo, even more quizzical for coming last). This is not terribly informative (comments on changes of pace would improve it), but it does identify the soli and duettini comprised in this duetto.

A similar list for Whirled Series (1987), this collection’s duettone, would have to mention parts of the instruments’ ranges — “top of saxophone, middle of piano,” “bottom of saxophone, extremes of piano” — and would be very long. Better just to say that the piece traffics in contrasts of this kind; and that the sorting of registers is further inflected by differences between single and mixed ranges in each instrument, and between equal and unequal mixing. More than any plan of succession, the sheer variety of these combinations is easy to appreciate, the escape they represent from any prefabricated notion of the sonorously balanced, and the fluent oddity of Babbitt’s writing for saxophone (one of his instruments).

A particular pleasure is the unpredictability of coincidence between the partners. One twists through a complex lick, the other enters — bop! — to make a little chord out of one fast note, or to stop the figure in its tracks. They can meet any time, doing anything; whether by close coordination or happy accident, who is to say? Babbitt’s ensembles always feature this; Whirled Series is a feast of it. The final passage of fast-and-slow motion, about 45 seconds of exuberant running in place, presents an epitome of Babbitt’s tone, splitting the difference between intensely inner-directed and relentlessly “on,” austere and daft.

It would be good for the appreciation of Babbitt to focus on qualities like daring, wit, and evasion of dichotomies, rather than the usual allegations of order, structure, and rationality. The received unwisdom must depend on the wider availability of words about Babbitt’s music than of his music; the likeliest source of understanding, as of pleasure, remains the music, as presented in projects like this one and by performers like the Group for Contemporary Music, thoroughly impressive even one or two at a time.

Joseph Dubiel


Close the window