Disparate styles?

The program for our upcoming performance at Gettysburg College has been chosen with the aim of illustrating a broad range of styles, and combinations of the four voices we’ll be bringing (Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo; Tomás Cruz, tenor; and me, baritone). While a potpourri of differences can be refreshing, I always find the commonalities lurking behind seemingly disparate elements to be more interesting.

I’d like to take as an example two of the quartets we’ll be featuring: Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses, and Ben Johnston’s Rose. At first glance, even the pairing of the composers seems as diametrically opposed as you could find. Johnston’s work has a regular rhythmic pulse, ringing consonant harmonies, scale-wise melodies, and traditional phrase shapes. Babbitt’s choruses, on the other hand, have complex aperiodic rhythms, rapidly changing harmonies, and fragmented melodic leaps.

Of course this is a terrible oversimplification and a simplistic view of both pieces.

Ben Johnston’s harmonic language results in clear, ringing chords, but it is built on a complex theoretical structure related to the composer’s formative work as assistant to the grandfather of American microtonality, Harry Partch. For a primer in Just Intonation, see our earlier post here. Johnston’s music is built on tuning relationships defined by the overtone series. To put it simply (or at least briefly), each prime number partial over a given fundamental gives us a new kind of interval. The 3rd partial supplies us with perfect fifths, the 5th partial with just major thirds, the 7th partial with the natural horn or barbershop seventh, and the 11th with a tritone a quarter step low. Johnston’s octet Sonnets of Desolation uses all eight voices singing in huge stacked chords using all of these overtones together, to create a rich and impressive sound. His earlier work Rose is in its own way a more radical theoretical exercise in tuning, despite sounding a bit like a folky Renaissance piece. It is entirely based around the 3rd and 7th partial, totally omitting the 5th, and thereby omitting any just minor or major thirds (6:5 and 5:4). In my correspondence with the composer he explained to me that the lack of 5th partial relationships in the piece was actually conceived as a kind of aesthetic rejoinder to fellow composer La Monte Young, who habitually employs far higher partial relationships than Johnston, but always skips the 5th. I find it funny that what was originally planned as a proof for the inviability of a certain harmonic approach actually shows it off quite beautifully.

Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses is an entirely different beast. While the harmonies fly by and are constantly changing, they are built from remarkably simple and repetitive structures in each voice. The very first thing we hear in the piece is the soprano singing an ascending Ab minor triad, and sure enough, both the soprano and mezzo sing nothing but arpeggiated triads throughout the rest of the movement. The first bass entrance is D3, E3, A2, echoing a traditional root position IV V I progression. The tenor and bass sing only this chord and its inversions throughout the first movement. Despite the extraordinarily traditional building blocks, Babbitt combines the lines to form a rich variety of harmonies, ranging from root position triads to astringent dissonances.

I think Babbitt and Johnston are in a way both ‘maximalist’ composers, when it comes to harmony. Johnston uses Just Intonation to seek out both perfect consonances and more intense dissonances, and Babbitt’s rigorous combinatorial approach leads to an incredible variety of harmonic possibilities. They are both musical explorers, seeking out new modes of expression, and working tirelessly on lifelong personal projects.

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