Cygnus Ensemble

Milton Babbitt and the 21st Century

Milton Babbitt was positively thrilled with the riches he found as he explored music grounded in something other than its traditional grounding in scale degrees (the 7-note scale, roughly based on the overtone series).  He created the vocabulary that is still used to discuss this music-that-avoids-scale-degree-orientation.  I will mention two terms he coined--"pitch class" and "set class".  Perhaps think of them as the high 20th C. modernist way of thinking about pitches and chords.


Musicians learn how to hear any pitch in relation to any major or minor scale--

A as the 4th scale degree in E major;  B as the altered (Lydian-inflected) 4th scale degree in F major.
The regrounding of music that arose giddily in the 19th & 20th centuries came first
through the implications of symmetrical harmonies--notably diminished 7th chords, as in Wagner's Tristan
Prelude; later, music was based on highly chromatic tunes that continually bewilder our scale-degree
oriented ears, keeping us confused about the key at any given moment. 
This culminated in Schoenberg's radical reorientation where each composition is
grounded solely in a 12-tone row, supplanting the 7-note scale altogether.


Babbitt, well before 12-tone music fell  out of favor, had been exploring
combinatorial arrays and superarrays, and later *counterpoints of arrays*,
where each instrument unfolds it own array.  This was his way into the 21st Century.   More on this HERE
Babbitt's student (at Princeton in the '70s)  Frank Brickle goes to town with this, constantly
playing with our sense of pitch class and scale-degrees, sticking to the new grounding, but
constantly punning with the old scale degree order. Another Babbitt student, Jonathan Dawe, takes
tonal music and fractalizes it, infecting pitch with pitch class.  I believe Babbitt admired Dawe's music
for the way it is grounded in pitch and regrounded in pitch class by turns throughout a given work.


For the last 25 years or so pitches (notes that can be heard clearly as scale degrees) have come back into favor, the result of a long rebellion against what we might call "mere pitch classes".     Too often, eager young composers adopted the new grounding of music without knowing how to make it work.  The sad result was music *reduced to pitch classes*--where the new grounding was no longer a positive development, but felt rather more like a fall from grace.


This rebellion against *mere pitch classes* was carried out by some very brave souls.  The new musical grounding established by Schoenberg created a proud group of followers who maintained, for a time, a stronghold in the musical establishment, most of them ensconced in academia.  Babbitt is widely thought of as the lynchpin of this old modernist establishment, and is still hated for that by some.  Enemies of these entrenched modernists called them "academic composers",  following a pattern established by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Vienna secession.


The brave souls who rebelled were composers like Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, David Del Tredici, George Rochberg, John Adams & Steve Reich, who  had to overcome the great prejudices of this musical establishment intoxicated or entrenched in pitch class.


Morton Feldman was a special case whose (quite systematic) compositional
procedures do a perfect job of undermining scale degrees, yet Feldman was
immune to the changing winds, was a hero of many who broke with the 12-tone cabal.


These mavericks changed the world.  Today, a work by a living American composer will not necessarily scare away those who buy tickets for the symphony, or for performances of chamber music.  This is a promising development.


The pitch class contingent did not give up, however.  Many die hard modernists were inspired by Glass and Reich and accepted the challenge to continue the modernist practice (avoiding scale degree orientation), but to do so more clearly and effectively.   Milton Babbitt rises to this challenge, but this was less because of his concern for his adversaries, more to do with the way his ears learned to work over the years.  And, while his music was continually evolving, it was never his concern that his music should be easy or popular.


Swan Song No. 1 might be seen as Babbitt's response to the 21st Century musical reality.  It is one of the most thorough arguments for a détente between the diatonic and the chromatic interval cycles.


The Cold War terminology here is a deliberate,
loving tribute to Alex Ross, who has
helped define our 21 Century musical dialgue.
He dubbed Babbitt a "cold war composer" in
his magnum opus, The Rest Is Noise.


The chromatic interval cycle:

The diatonic cycles are the 5th cycle and the 4th cycle:
do this sequence ascending and backwards for the 4rth Cycle

Any 7 consecutive members of the 4rth or 5th cycle are the
notes of the diatonic scale--the 7-note scale of hallowed tradition.
7 consecutive members of the 5th cycle differs from the 7-note diatonic
scale in the way the composer uses them.  More on that HERE


For Babbitt,  the 5th cycle is a musical reality that cannot be ignored, AND he wanted to make that which works for the 5th cycle work for the chromatic cycle as well.  The chromatic cycle is also a musical reality!   If 3 consecutive 5ths is lovely, why should we not lavish as much love and devotion upon 3 consecutive members of the chromatic scale?   Babbitt was concerned with this issue for decades.  His setting of The Widow's Lament, a relatively early work, is all about this issue, making the two cycles work together.  Schoenberg & Webern, out of a passion for the overthrow of the 7-note scale once and for all, systematically avoided harmonies that might remind us of the old music.  Babbitt did not feel he had to avoid pretty harmonies, and his harmonies get prettier and prettier into the 21st Century.

Go HERE for a look at how Swan Song No. 1 mediates between the two interval cycles.


I've tried to explain how Babbitt's use of combinatorial arrays offer a way out of the now universally scorned "12-tone-row-density", that reeks so much of "mere scale degrees".   The evolution of Babbitt's procedures suggests a 21st Century sublimation of the old 20th C. grounds.  Click HERE for that discussion, which also touches on Brickle's work which flirts with scale degrees (even more than Babbitt) while still remaining firmly re-grounded in pitch class.   I see this 21 C. sublimation of 20th C. grounds as a meeting place of composers like Ives, Brahms, Schoenberg, Meltzer, Babbitt, Del Tredici, Glass, a vantagepoint where all this work has greater meaning and resonance for being somewhat reconciled with one another.


Another important point to be made about Babbitt is that he corrected Schoenberg's misguided teleological thinking.  I'm working on a discussion of this issue HERE.


More here perhaps later, particuarly if I can make any of these discussions more user-friendly.  And send me your suggestions, advice and objections, please!


--William Anderson



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