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CD Review

Milton Babbitt

Evil Empire

  • Quatrains 1
  • Manifold Music 2
  • My Ends are My Beginnings 3
  • Soli e Duettini 4
  • Swan Song #1 5
1 Tony Arnold, soprano
1 Charles Neidich & Ayako Oshima, clarinets
2 Gregory D'Agostino, organ
3 Alan Blustine, clarinet & bass clarinet
4 William Anderson & Oren Fader, guitars
5 Cygnus Ensemble/Jeffrey Milarsky
Bridge 9135 DDD 50:42
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Try it. You might like it.

Most people know Milton Babbitt (and hate his music besides) because of an article they haven't read, titled "Who Cares If You Listen?" Never mind the fact that Babbitt didn't give it that title (the editor of the pop magazine High Fidelity in which the article appeared thought Babbitt's original title – something like "The Composer as Specialist" – lacked punch) and that most people who froth at the mention of Babbitt's name have most likely heard nothing he's composed.

The article itself is surprisingly mild (you can read an on-line copy at Mainly, it states the obvious, even things that champions of Lovely Tonal Music believe: that there is a widening gap between a great deal of music written after 1910 and the general listening public. I do find a couple of points problematic: that the isolation is inevitable and "potentially advantageous to the composer." I don't doubt that it benefits some composers, at least. There are some artists who will never gain wide acceptance, whose music will never be loved in the same way as Puccini's or Haydn's, or (to put it more crudely) will ever make a buck for anybody. In the abstract, I believe most people would agree with this proposition. The writings of Baruch Spinoza and Philip Levine, for example, appeal to a very small (though very passionate) following. It would take a brave person indeed (or perhaps a Jesse-Helms-caliber ignoramus) to say that they had therefore very little value. Indeed, Beethoven himself probably has fewer fans than, say, Britney Spears. I do question Babbitt's contention that the split is inevitable and permanent. Indeed, I believe events have come around – if not Babbitt's way – now to somewhat of a rapprochement. Serious composers, many of whose views of music Babbitt has influenced, are hitting at least the classical-music public, as shown by the careers of Reich, Adams, Rouse, Kernis, Larsen, Whitacre, Crumb, Golijov, and others. In fact, Babbitt's article, written in 1958, necessarily doesn't even take into account such things as the late works of Britten and Tippett and Davies. I believe it also assumes a rather dated view of history itself: that art moves inexorably along an inevitable, almost predetermined path, rather than "stuff happens." A composer's music may develop, but music in general does not. Composers have, after all, control only over their own work. How could it be otherwise? Babbitt here becomes way too Hegelian for Mrs. Schwartz's little boy, who has never actually seen a Zeitgeist or an historical dialectic.

I used to hate Babbitt too, until I heard the music itself. As with most composers I listen to, I don't enjoy everything he writes. On the other hand, he has created works I wouldn't want to be without, including the delightfully jazzy All Set, Relata I, the dramatic freakout Philomel, the lovely Cavalier Settings for voice and guitar and Beaten Paths for marimba, and some really exciting piano music I've heard only live. Some of it's even fun, a word not normally associated with this composer. I've seen many people scrunch up their foreheads and grit their teeth, as if they were in for either a trip to the dentist or a music-theory analysis made audible, and then relax as the music came to them. I listen to Babbitt as I listen to anybody else: the music has to work on either my heart ("wow, that's beautiful") or my mind ("wow, that's neat") before I want to know how it's put together. It's not the same thing as Puccini, of course, because there's only one Puccini and there's only one Babbitt. It's also not the same thing as Webern, although there are obvious points of take-off from one to the other. Composers worth their salt say things in their own way, despite shared procedures or even materials.

The music here receives première recordings. Some of it I like very much; some of it I can leave alone. I'll get the leave-alone part out of the way first. Manifold, for organ, simply doesn't grab me. Frankly, it sounds like mud. Some of my reaction is undoubtedly due to a dislike of a lot of organ music, some due to the thick registration and textures. Intriguing rhythms tend to get buried. Less would be more, as far as I'm concerned.

On the other hand, Quatrains for voice and two clarinets sets a marvelous poem by Babbitt favorite John Holländer, who supplied the text for Philomel. Much of the attraction of the piece for me lies in the possibilities of sonority inherent in the combination – possibilities Babbitt seizes. The timbres of the two instruments and voice are remarkably similar, thus setting up opportunity for ambiguities of entrance and line. But this type of ambiguity would get old fast if the composer also didn't find ways to distinguish the forces as well. Babbitt does this as well, creating lines both complex and of a strikingly individual, independent stamp. I'd mislead if I said this was lyrical in the way most listeners think of lyricism – that is, in a nineteenth-century way – but, then again, different people sing in different ways. Quatrains happens to enchant me – another word I don't normally associate with this composer.

Babbitt makes things hard for himself in My Ends Are My Beginnings for solo clarinet and bass clarinet. Fans of early music will probably recognize Babbitt's reference to the Machaut Ma fin est mon commencement. Essentially Babbitt's work, in three sections, consists of 15 minutes for solo clarinet. Furthermore, there isn't a lot of contrast between movements. Bach, after all, in his solo suites uses different dances to distinguish different movements. Babbitt's "song and dance" pretty much stays the same from movement to movement. It's three of the same kind of piece. However, Babbitt gets his variety within a section, each one a virtuoso expressive workout for the player. Fortunately, Babbitt lucks out with his performer, clarinetist Allen Bluestine, of Speculum Musicae, who somehow manages to turn his clarinet into a cello and Babbitt's Webernian thistles into exquisite, communicative song.

By the time we get to Soli et Duettini for two guitars, at least one of Babbitt's predilections becomes apparent: a fascination with the juxtaposition of the same or related instruments – the seamless moving between homogeneity and contrast of sound. I found this piece hard to get to know, and I certainly can't at this point claim mastery or even familiarity. But I do like it. It seems to evoke the soul of the guitar, to suit down to the ground the instrument's expressive character – reflection, intimacy, and mercurial mood switches. You catch yourself, in the words of disc annotator Matthias Kriesberg, leaning in.

Swan Song #1 – for "broken consort" of flute, oboe, mandolin, guitar, violin, and cello – at first glance appears as the joker in the pack, an ensemble that exploits color contrasts. But even here, Babbitt tries to inhabit his half-world with the juxtaposition of mandolin, guitar, and pizzicato strings, and the subtle differentiation of plucks. The music steps lively, in an almost Stravinskian way, with that same precision of sonic imagination and razor-sharp rhythm. It boasts, I think, the most immediately-attractive surface. This and the Quatrains are my favorite pieces on the program.

The performances are all first-rate. I've mentioned Bluestine, but I should also especially cite soprano Tony Arnold and clarinetists Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima for their singing accounts. Arnold manages the trick of not performing new music, but music. Babbitt thus doesn't become a special case or a nine-days' wonder, like (as Dr. Johnson says) a dog walking on its hind legs. We get simply extraordinary music-making from all parties.

One small quibble: Matthias Kriesberg's mostly entertaining and even informative liner notes are marred at the beginning by a self-congratulatory tone – that Babbitt's fans should pat themselves on the back for their small numbers. This to me makes no sense. I would no more congratulate myself for liking Babbitt than I would for liking Vaughan Williams or chocolate ice cream, for that matter. I listen almost exclusively for pleasure (although pleasure isn't simply one thing, but many-sided), not for a gold star on my tastes. This kind of "the chosen vs. the Philistines" does Babbitt no good at all.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz