Posts Tagged: Milton Babbitt

Sep 16

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.

Sep 16

Ekmeles at Gettysburg College

3 Angels

Ekmeles travels to Gettysburg College for a residency, culminating in a concert performance featuring contemporary favorites for one to four voices.

  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (1988)
  • Kaija Saariaho – From the Grammar of Dreams (1988)
  • Milton Babbitt – Three Cultivated Choruses (1987)
  • Giacinto Scelsi – Le Grand Sanctuaire (1970)
  • Ben Johnston – Rose (1971)
  • Liza Lim – 3 Angels (2011)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Vykintas Baltakas – Instruktionen zur Durchführung… (2007) U.S. Premiere

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Feb 11

Complexity and failure

“How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives.” – Donald Barthelme ‘Nothing: A Preliminary Account’

The physical manifestation of the fear of failure is surely an element in the performative practice of complex music. Concentration on many levels of notation flying by at breakneck speed almost guarantees a slipup here and there. Is learning and performing a complex score really then a Sisyphean task? I would like to argue that complex scores require a redefinition of, or at least a reconsideration of the idea of failure in performance. A certain kind of failure is a necessary and aesthetically important part of all performance. The details of just how we fail and why are worth examining.

Firstly I would propose that the moral character of the performer is engaged by complex scores. Acknowledging the inevitability of failure does not absolve the performer from the responsibility to realize the score as faithfully as possible, using all the tools at his disposal. Likewise, if the composer intended for his work to be realized graphically or approached from a quasi-improvised angle, one would hope he would be clever enough to use notation which suggests as much, rather than the extremely detailed instructions we find in many complex scores.

The information density of complex scores represents in some ways not an evolution and continuation of notational practice, but a break which implies important performative consequences. The performer is transformed from an imperfect conduit for the composer’s ideal vision, into an integral and indispensible contributor to the work.

I recently read an article in Perspectives of New Music entitled “Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the ‘New Complexity,’” written by Stuart Paul Duncan. My writing here is in many ways a response to that article. It got me thinking about what the article refers to as the “High-Modernist” model of musical performance, and the break from that tradition that many complex scores represent. Some people take the progressive-historicist view that music notation, beginning at first as mere mnemonics, moving to a two line, four line, five line staff, specifying instrumentation, dynamics etc., moves along a straight line towards its goal, which is the ultimate specification of all parametric information. Certainly scores have become more and more prescriptive as time has gone on, but, as Duncan argues, not always for the same reasons. The “High-Modernist” model of notation and performance might be defined as a direct and absolutely prescriptive communication from the composer to the performer. The score is the work in an ideal form, towards which each performer strives; what is desired above all is accuracy and fidelity. With the increasing density of information communicated by complex scores, it’s easy to see how this kind of accuracy becomes more and more difficult, or even beyond the capacity of the performer, if not the instrument itself.

What to make then, of this extreme density of information? After all, if the composer is after such a complicated web of musical ideas, he could just as easily program it into a computer, rather than spend the time communicating it to us fallible human performers. Paradoxically, the completely prescriptive nature of complex scores involves the performers in a deeper way than a more traditional “High-Modernist” score might. In addition to the hours and hours of engagement with the score required by complexities of notation, rhythm, pitch, or other parametric information, which deepen the performer’s relationship to the work, the conflict between the various physical performative demands requires that the performer function as a kind of filter. If something really is “impossible” as written, whether because of context, or simply the performer’s human limitations, in some cases the performer simply must make a choice of what to do, and what not to do. Conflicting and competing physiological demands in the score can also create unstable and unpredictable sounds. Is this a kind of fakery that proves the illegitimacy of complex notation? I think not. Any human performance contains some artifact of that performer’s humanity; complex music highlights these artifacts, and elevates them, elevating thereby the performance to stand with the score as more of an equal. The late great Milton Babbitt wrote that his scores are indeed intended to be precisely realized and perceived by some ideal performer and ideal listener. In terms of information density, his scores are simpler than say, Ferneyhough’s, but certainly not simple. Does this mean that any imperfect performance (read: at a high enough resolution, absolutely every performance) of his music is a failure? Anyone who has had the joy to hear great interpreters perform his music knows that it most certainly is not. Surely, something about the involvement of actual human performers is necessary for the success of the musical enterprise, despite the fact that an objectively perfect performance which reflects in every way the notation is, depending on your view, either exceedingly rare, or totally impossible. A fascination with this failure and its subtleties is at the core of what we find appealing in any musical performance; the notational practice of complex scores only brings our attention to that failure’s inevitability.

I’ll leave the last word here to Cage: “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third.”

Feb 11

Remembering Milton Babbitt

Do yourself a favor: take the time to watch this new Babbitt documentary via NPR.

Read this remembrance of Babbitt by fabulous soprano Judith Bettina.

Read this remembrance of Babbitt by fabulous composer David Rakowski.

Read the lovely comments from a number of students and friends on this Sequenza21 post.

And then go listen to (or better yet, play) some of the man’s fabulous music. And if you’re in New York City, don’t miss Lucy Shelton performing Philomel on March 2nd at the Italian Academy at Columbia!