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Abstracts of Papers

Milton Babbitt: A Celebration of His Life and Music

 

What's Not to Like? An Appreciation of Milton Babbitt's Music and Musical Thought
Andrew Mead, University of Michigan School of Music

Milton Babbitt has often been held up to scorn in both the popular press and in certain academic circles as a figure who would take all pleasure from engagement with music. The focus of much of the animus against him is his by now legendary article for High Fidelity Magazine, or more aptly, the title given that article by the magazine's editors, "Who Cares if You Listen?" Babbitt has also resolutely avoided language about his music that would plead its case, beyond sometimes complex and clever allusions to its structures. His music's reputation, far better known than the works themselves, is one of cold, high-toned intellectuality, prompting a whole range of prima facie rejection. But just because Babbitt won't talk about it directly doesn't mean that his music can't provide listeners with an emotional charge, and for many who have been drawn to his music it is a sense of sheer delight in the experience that has proven to be the attraction. I will use figurative language to describe my own experiences with selected passages from Babbitt's works, and then consider how these experiences are enabled by the context and structure of the passages in question. I will in turn consider how Babbitt's choices of what and what not to say about his music are consistent with the pleasures I find in it.

 

Babbitt as Author
Stephen Peles, University of Alabama

In some respects we think of a composer's thought as being most clearly expressed in his or her music, and rightly so. In the case of Milton Babbitt, however, we also have his writings. Indeed, in this respect Babbitt is unique among composers of his generation, both for the extent to which he has committed his thought to print as well as the extent to which his writings typically address issues that previously had not been regarded as relevant to a composer's work qua composer.

This paper surveys the roughly fifty years of essays and articles which constituent Babbitt's literary output to date, the intellectual contexts in which these writings were produced, and the consequences they have had for the reception of Babbitt's music and thought.

 

Parametric Counterpoint: Babbittonian Ideals in Composition and Performance
James Romig & John McMurtery, Western Illinois University & The Juilliard School

James Romig and John McMurtery will demonstrate how Milton Babbitt's innovations have impacted contemporary compositional method and performance practice. Romig will focus on Babbitt's structural paradigms, specifically the partition-array construct, while McMurtery will discuss and demonstrate the necessity for coherent articulation of simultaneous parametric architectures. The presentation will include excerpts from Babbitt's None But The Lonely Flute and a complete performance of Romig's Sonnet 2.

 

Precursors to the Formation of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center
Ralph Hartsock, University of North Texas

This paper will explore the precursors to the CPEMC, the Composers' Forum of May, 1952 at Columbia, featuring Vladimir Ussachevsky (revealing the actual date of this embryonic event), the concert of Otto Luening's and Ussachevsky works at the Museum of Modern Art in October 1952, and their collaboration in Rhapsodic Variations in 1954. This is followed by the works of Edgard Varese (Poeme electronique) and the formation of the grant, with Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions to form the Center. The original concert repertoire featured on May 9 and 10 of 1961 is examined, and the web of controversy it spawned in the press, particularly from Paul Henry Lang and Jacques Barzun.

 

The Rhythm of Resemblances: Structure and Surface in Babbitt's Post-Partitions
Anthony K. Brandt, Rice University

The conventional notion of rhythm refers the immediate sequence of musical attack-points. Notions of rhythm have been expanded to include harmonic rhythm and, sometimes, formal rhythm. However, rhythm is a much vaster terrain, operating at many different structural levels. Any time two or more events are connected by a listener as being related, they create a "rhythm of resemblance": were the events near or far from each other? How many events are grouped together? For instance, the development sections of classical works typically intensify not only the surface rhythms but also the rhythm of resemblances: thanks to motivic fragmentation, related events occur closer and closer together.

Milton Babbitt's music, as exemplified by his work "Post-Partitions," provides a particularly fertile exploration of the rhythm of resemblances. The complexities involved in apprehending the deeper structure of his music are very demanding. These include the fact that perpetual variation is built into the genetic code of the music; the speed of unfolding is rapid; dynamic and polyrhythmic performance is necessarily approximate; the polyphonic structural features are extremely dense; and there are surface distractions which divert the ear.

However, listening to his work is to be submerged into a field of resemblances, which create rhythms of incredible suppleness. Indeed, the overpowering unity of his vision enables a particularly thorough concentration of meaningful associations. In Post-Partitions, gestures of repeated notes, dynamic and registral extremes, linear fragments and more are all connected by the ear, creating a maze of rhythms which grow out of Babbitt's carefully formulated patterning. The full "reality" of Babbitt's music is impossible to apprehend on a single hearing: rather, each new hearing brings fresh connections and fresh rhythms. While Babbitt's underlying structures may be aurally remote, they are responsible for the bountiful proliferation of rhythms. Indeed, I will argue that the"composing out" of the underlying array is a process of rhythmicizing the resemblances.

 

Mel Powell and the Evolution of American Modernism
Jeff Perry, Louisiana State University

This paper explores the mature aesthetic of Mel Powell (1923-1998) and its birth in Powell's early immersion in 1930s jazz and his subsequent studies with Paul Hindemith. One of the few twentieth century composers whose style at mid-century could accurately be termed neo-classical, Powell's subsequent discovery of the music of Webern and other European innovators led to a series of works from ca. 1959 until his death that define an authoritative dialect of American post-tonal modernism. I will outline certain key tenets of his compositional working method as a key to the style and substance of works such as the Filigree and Haiku Settings of 1959-60 and the second String Quartet of 1982. In such works, Powell's insistence on the interplay of asymmetry and periodicity separates his compositional ethic from that of European contemporaries such as Boulez and Stockhausen. Powell's lifelong friendship with Milton Babbitt and their collective advocacy of a distinctly American response to the problems of musical modernism in the post-Second World War period makes an appraisal of his work at this symposium especially appropriate.

 

Building on Babbitt: Form in Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet
David H. Smyth, Louisiana State University

Milton Babbitt has taught many of us a good bit about Schoenberg's Fourth String Quartet. Generations of Babbitt's colleagues and students share his fascination with the work, and have built on the foundation his pioneering efforts provided. I can think of no better way to honor a scholar than to carry on that tradition of inquiry. In this presentation, I take as a starting point a pithy observation about the form of the first movement from Babbitt's 1983 Madison lectures. I compare this to what Schoenberg himself wrote in some program notes for a recording, and then develop a new reading of the formal design of the movement. Taking cues from both Babbitt and Schoenberg, I trace a succession of combinatorial row families presented as recognizable themes through the entire movement, and correlate this succession with a sonata-like design. While other analysts have approximated such an effort, none has noted that in this movement Schoenberg traverses the gamut of combinatorial row families, and that he does so in a manner that suggests a deliberate exploration and exhaustion of the contents of the so-called "Babbitt Square" in coördination with a modified sonata design. Even more remarkably, the row families unfold in an ordering that subtly reinforces the oft-remarked implications of a shadowy d-minor "tonality." Mr. Babbitt's response will be requested.

 

Milton Babbitt, Bethany Beardslee, and Women's Voices
Elizabeth Keathley, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Milton Babbitt's Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized accompaniment, premiered by Bethany Beardslee in 1961, marks a watershed for twentieth-century composition and performance. Although earlier works had incorporated the recorded human voice into electronic compositions (Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, 1956; Luciano Berio's Thema: Omaggio a Joyce, 1958), Vision and Prayer's coupling of electronic sounds with live vocal performance made unprecedented demands on the singer's technique and musicianship, influencing subsequent avant-garde vocal composition. One significance of the resulting repertory for extended vocal technique is that it permitted women performers to assume a position of creative power and prestige--literally to have a voice--in a modernist culture that was in some respects hostile to them. Babbitt's Philomel, composed for Beardslee in 1964, thematizes the process of a woman finding her voice and demonstrates a mutual influence between vocal technique and compositional choices of electronic timbre and articulation. Finally, although the literature tends to emphasize the serial and technological aspects of these two works of Babbitt, their clear rootedness in vocality shows that they are, above all, human.

 

"Serialized" Rhythm, Derived Sets, Combinatoriality, and Invariant Trichords in Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments, op. 24, III. (sehr rasch)
Joseph Brumbeloe, University of Southern Mississippi

An analysis of the serial and rhythmic structure of the third movement of Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments, op. 24, presented in order to explore several theoretical ideas first introduced by Milton Babbitt: derived sets, hexachordal combinatoriality, invariance, and the structural function of rhythm in the twelve-tone medium. Webern's Concerto features an all-combinatorial derived twelve-note set that preserves trichordal content (and at times order) under several operations. Much of the piece is comprised of events involving groups of three, thereby deploying these trichords as either three discrete melodic notes or as a three-note chord. The movement is articulated into five sections, based primarily on rhythmic procedures. Frequently, a repeated rhythmic figure is featured that encompasses twelve notes and corresponds to a row. I will attempt to demonstrate that Webern's choice of rows in each section is a result of correlations among the invariant trichords. Several ideas are found in embryonic form in Webern's Concerto related to the structural functions of both pitch and rhythm sets; the full potential of these ideas eventually are clarified in the writings of Milton Babbitt, and have received their most convincing realization in his music.

 

New York in the 1930s: a Conversation with Milton Babbitt
Nancy Rao, Rutgers University

The interview will focus on Babbitt's musical life in the 1930s. The discussion will revolve around his experience as an aspiring young composer in the modern music scene of New York City that involved a wide variety of musics, among which there existed certain contentions.