Call It What You Will (2012)

In Memoriam Milton Babbitt

I. Proleptic
II. Six Têtes
III. Anyone's Anodyne
IV. A Passing Nepenthe
V. Successive Subsumption
VI. O Haupt
VII. Analeptic
Milton Babbitt

From 1998-2002 I was a member of a small group known by others at Juilliard as “The Babbitt Students.” Milton used to say that he was a composer who moonlighted as a music theorist, but this understates the impact on the music world of his vocation as a part-time professional professor. Though I did not know him socially (that is, outside of Monday lessons and the occasional concert), it was clear that even in the most casual situations anyone around him could not help but learn from him. His legendary fluency with language also left its mark: there is an entire lexicon of “Babbitt words and phrases” that his students know by heart, but that one never dared use in conversation or discussion for fear of appearing the poseur. Similarly, to the extent that he developed a curriculum for his compositional instruction, it centered around his reading of a slim canon of pieces – mostly German – each of which reflected and informed his “thinking in and about music” as he would have put it, in its own way. My composition Call It What You Will, for violin, piano, and synthesized sounds, was written in honor of his teaching, his language, and the music he loved. I have thought of it as a gift to him – a piece I hope he would enjoy.

The title of my piece is a “Babbitt phrase” one heard at least a half-dozen times per lesson, most often when he was about to affix a traditional label to something in order to keep up smooth discourse while letting it be known he took no responsibility for furthering its use. Less frequently, on lucky days he would use “call it what you will” to introduce a student to something of his own invention or cultivation, e.g. (I am paraphrasing a statement I must have heard him say a dozen times in four years) “Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, in contrast to his previous practice of what he called ‘composing with the tones of a motive,’ allowed him to develop the kind of complexity he had sought in so-called tonal music, so that for the first time he could have an atonal piece be – call it what you will – a unified totality, in its capacity for successive subsumption and cumulative containment.” (Successive Subsumption is the title of the central fifth movement of my piece, around which the entire composition is built.) Each movement uses one of the seven different combinations of the “three” members of the ensemble – a compositional device Milton used from the beginning of his career.

The opening and closing movements are entitled Proleptic and Analeptic, Milton's favored words for temporal reference forward and backward within a piece, respectively. The first movement consists of a series of vignettes for violin and piano which refer to structural or motivic features of the other movements in order, save the fifth movement; the first and last of these are “broken” quotes of the openings of Babbitt's two pieces for violin and piano – Sextets and The Joy of More Sextets. The title of the second movement is a pun on his “sextet” titles. It is a set of six preludes played by the synthesizer – three tonal canons and three twelve-tone preludes – over which the pianist plays short excerpts from six musical minds (or “heads”) of the past, each of which many of us studied in lessons with Milton. They appear in chronological order in the piece: Bach's D-sharp-minor fugue from the first Well-Tempered Clavier book, the variation movement of Beethoven's opus 109 sonata, Brahms's opus 116 no. 4, Schoenberg's opus 23 no. 3, the last movement of Webern's Variations opus 27, and Stravinsky's Movements for piano and orchestra.

The third and fourth movements are titled Anyone's Anodyne and A Passing Nepenthe, phrases that appeared once in Milton's article A Life of Learning and once again in modified form in a short spoken recording about his article The Composer as Specialist made for a CD entitled Soli e Duettini. The sentence as it appears in this recording reads, “After all, in the university the physicists' pursuits were treated with respect – even awe – while the composers' were treated as trivial pursuits; and even the musical monuments of the past to which lip-service was paid were regarded as anyone's anodyne, a passing nepenthe.” These titles are meant to reflect his rightful conviction that compositions ought to be regarded as works of thought. The Anyone's Anodyne movement refers to a particular musical monument of the past which was of great importance to a young Milton Babbitt, viz. Mendelssohn's violin concerto (a piece he quotes briefly near the beginning of his solo violin piece Melismata). The electronics accompany the violin on trichords from two all-trichord rings (i.e. rows that “wrap around” and which contain all twelve trichord types), taking one trichord from each ring on alternating beats; meanwhile the texture, rhythm, and contour mimic a passage from the slow movement of Mendelssohn's concerto. The fourth movement, A Passing Nepenthe for solo piano, is a veiled take on Milton's show-tune piano playing. The few times I heard him play I was struck by his ear for voice-leading and chromatic mixture: it was like popular music informed by Brahms. It was in that vein, then, that I wrote this movement. The harmonies are tetrachords which all come from an all-tetrachord ring; as a bonus, the first eight pitch-classes in order form an 8-note row whose constituent tetrachords in order are the combinatorial tetrachords, a row I used in several pieces I wrote while studying with him. A second bonus – this ring is missing the pitch-class D, which opens the next movement.

The fifth movement, Successive Subsumption, is the only to use all three instruments, and is built on a 16-aggregate combinatorial array using one of the all-trichord rings from movement 3 as a traditional row. This row serendipitously has the hexachord from Schoenberg's 4th string quartet – a staple in the Babbitt classroom – with some pitch-classes in the proper order. After a presentation of the row, quoting the Schoenberg quartet, the remaining aggregates use the 15 four-voice partition types; the whole movement is divided into four sub-movements of four aggregates each. The first two sub-movements quote heavily from the Schoenberg quartet, at the proper pitch where possible. The violin, piano, and electronics each has its own mode of progression that exists somewhat independently of the other instruments.

O Haupt is the sixth movement, for solo violin. A close listening will reveal that the highest pitches of each beat form the chorale melody O Haupt Voll Blut und Wunden which Bach set several times in the St. Matthew Passion. Harmony and counterpoint come from aggregates derived from the discrete trichords of the chorale melody. Analeptic, the short last movement, is for electronics alone. A second definition of “analeptic” as a restorative has obvious connections to the titles of the third and fourth movements, while the music recasts the Babbitt quotes from the first movement with filtered noise.