Babbitt: Composition for Four Instruments

played by any of the people in the recordings listed here, or as below (more detail on the performers later, but they are listed in the YouTube video’s info

“… the general lesson of Composition for Four Instruments is that a list comes to life when uniformities of its construction are tampered with- suspended, even eradicated- by its compositional realization”

This work was written the year after yesterday’s piano piece, in 1948. It’s a quartet for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, an ensemble Babbitt would use again at least once more in another work I quite enjoy. I hope you read yesterday’s article and that it made sense, (for one, that’s good; I’m glad, but also) because we’re going to continue in a similar vein today.
The third piece of Three Compositions for Piano played with the idea of voices like that of a quartet, just on piano. In this work, we have those different voices.
Composition for Four Instruments is in one continuous movement of about 15 minutes, but is in fifteen sections. We didn’t talk much about it yesterday, but the idea of a tone row shouldn’t be new anymore to either of my readers. If it is, go back and check out the (now four-part) series on twelve-tone music here.
Also, I’ll link to them below, but I’ve benefited greatly from and really enjoyed reading two articles from someone I’ve had the privilege to talk to about Babbitt’s work, one Paul Zukofsky, violinist and conductor and more. His website, Musical Observations, has lots of recordings and resources, but check out the two Purloined articles listed in the publications section, which I will link to individually below. What he explains in these articles is required reading not only for this article, but for the rest of the pieces this week.
I contacted him about a few of Babbitt’s pieces in particular; he was quite close with the composer (an understatement), and therefore has incredible insight into all aspects of these works. Who better, then, to explain some of the fundamental ideas behind them? Although, he emphasizes strongly that it is not only not necessary but almost irrelevant to understand what Babbitt (or Haydn or Chopin or whoever) was doing or thinking when he wrote these pieces. That may be true, and it’s a testament to the man’s work that such complexity and can be so beautiful, but an understanding of these techniques can only increase one’s appreciation for these works (for this listener).
I’ll also be referring to this JSTOR article by Joseph Dubiel, the third of three essays on Babbitt published in Perspectives of New Music, from which the opening quote comes. If you’re really into this stuff, that journal has lots available about Babbitt, but the more I read, the more I tend to get bogged down in the details, many of which I don’t understand.
Okay, that all being said, there are a few main sections to today’s article: explaining the theory (which Zukofsky and others say is irrelevant), how the music sounds, and what I think about it, probably in that order.

  1. Serial Stuff
  2. The Sounds
  3. The Main Point? (if nothing else, read this and come back for the rest)

Serial Stuff

As with yesterday’s piece, the serialism isn’t only of the pitch classes (notes), but their dynamics, duration, and now the orchestration. You’re gonna love this. The fifteen sections are defined by the instruments present for each one. Each different section uses a different subset of the quartet, each combination of the four instruments being used only once: four solos, four trios, six duets and one tutti. The last major constraint is that each instrument plays only once within each pair of sections. So after the clarinet solo, the next section is flute, cello, and violin. The clarinet returns after that, accompanied by the cello, and the piece progresses thusly.
We’ll talk later about the interactions between these sections.
Wikipedia mentions another fascinating quality of this orchestration in reference to the frequency of the solos:

The four solos occur with decreasing [sic, recte: increasing(?)] frequency (at intervals of five, four, and three sections), “converging”, so to speak, on the final quartet, which is just two sections after the violin [sic, recte: flute] solo (Dubiel 1992, 84).

Composition for Four Instruments (instrumental list)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Fl. Fl. Fl. Fl. Fl. Fl. Fl. Fl.
Cl. Cl. Cl. Cl. Cl. Cl. Cl. Cl.
Vn. Vn. Vn. Vn. Vn. Vn. Vn. Vn.
Vc. Vc. Vc. Vc. Vc. Vc. Vc. Vc.

(I think Wiki meant decreasing intervals or increasing frequency. I tried to fix it.)
The structure of this piece is a fantastic example of serial techniques being applied to really every aspect of this work. That’s all quite easy to see, but what’s more complicated is the use and development of the tone row(s) for the piece. Because it seems very complex (and because some authorities don’t necessarily agree on exactly how it’s used and developed), we won’t talk about it much here. Wikipedia begins its discussion of the piece by saying:

The first section of the piece begins with a solo in the clarinet, using the (014) trichord or its retrograde. The notes of this solo are separated by register into four distinct voices, though the notes of any one trichord are usually interrupted by notes from other trichords in other registers, making it hard to hear these structures individually (Howland 2010, 40). Babbitt presents several instances of tone rows in the opening bars of the piece. A note-by-note analysis of the first nine measures reveals two such tone rows, the first beginning at measure one and the second at measure seven. A closer look at the separation of the opening into the four registers reveals two additional tone rows. The set of notes contained in the two high registers form a tone row, as do the notes in the lower two registers.

You can see it gets complicated. To put it (over)simply, the tone row (or tone rows) is broken down into four sections of three, and the rows are developed in chunks, piece by piece, apparently never laying out or revealing the
underlying row until the very end of the piece. The row isn’t presented as-is from the beginning; rather, it develops, blossoms out from the solo clarinet, who only makes use of the first three pitches of the row, but spread across four different places in the range (the clarinet is convenient for this). It continues even from this point, with secondary rows arising from the content from the separate registers. Enough said there, I think. This idea of slowly revealing the underlying row will appear later in Babbitt’s music too.
Something else that is a byproduct of this idea of four instruments is that the piece almost always bears out this distinction of four, for example, the cello playing notes in pizzicato vs. arco while the clarinet has notes both above and below its break.
But how do we approach serialization of rhythm or duration? This is where Zukofsky’s articles were an eye-opener for something that seemed arcane and difficult. It isn’t.
First, read this article of Zukofsky’s. It’s perhaps just a primer for the article more pertinent to our discussion, Purloined Too, that addresses a 1:4:3:2 pattern in this piece. They are required reading.

One of the many very helpful images from Zukofsky’s articles

Zukofsky lays out the basics of this idea in such a clear, step-by-step way that it’s hard to quote anything without just quoting the whole damn article, so go read it.
In short, think of this 1:4:3:2 ‘motif’ as the ‘tone row’ for pitch duration, more specifically the lengths of the notes, throughout the piece.
It is this 1:4:3:2 pattern that Zukofsky uses (conveniently) in an explanation of this serialization of rhythm. (Note his footnote #21 at the bottom of Purloined Too, where he cites the examples from within this piece.)
The first example is with a sixteenth note. Think of that as the ‘beat’ or currency we are working with. One sixteenth note, then four, then three, then two. Four sixteenth notes is a quarter note. Does that make sense? Zukofsky includes plenty of “have a look at this and see if you can figure it out” examples. Go do them.
Thinking of this pattern as a row, we can reverse it to produce 2:3:4:1. In some cases, as seen in the images in Zukofsky’s articles, the units are written individually and tied together rather than using something like a double-dotted quarter note. Yuck.
So (as) basically (as possible), that’s what’s going on in this piece. We have serialized orchestration, structure, rhythm, pitch classes, and dynamics. But again, the final product is most important.

The Sounds

“The object is not to formulate a set of rules which generate the list, but to describe the effect of the last when it is composed out and traversed in time.”

Dubiel 1992, p. 91

It’s important here, to me, to make the connection between these two sections, as there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Thinking of it this way, as Zukofsky says, it’s not important to know the cause; just focus on the effect and enjoy it. And the sounds, the effects created by all that above, are what we will talk about here.
For one, the actual structure of the piece, in its fifteen sections. Dubiel speaks about this. On the one hand, they seem to delineate or break up the piece, but there’s more to it than that. For one, it is not until the very end that the piece is finally actually a quartet in which four instruments actually play. It intentionally avoids this inevitability, being solos, trios, and duets before the final conclusion.
He also mentions on page 91 that “The quartet’s real distinction is its equalization of parts, not its enlargement of sound: the four instruments never attack together, nor even sound together except once.” You may notice this apparent lack of cohesion or ‘thinness’ in the piece, but upon closer inspection, there’s unity inside it all.
On page 85 of the issue of Perspectives, Dubiel begins to talk about the unity, the seams between the sections of the piece. Let’s just take the first three sections as an example. In short, he talks about how there is an obvious contrast between the clarinet solo that opens the piece against the trio of instruments that follow it, and how the clarinet seems to wake up and become energetic, what comes is not more clarinet, but no clarinet, “as if all of them were taking over for the clarinet (or at least- since there is as yet no assurance that the clarinet is gone- chiming in with its last proposition). The immediate result, then, is a sense of the trio continuing the clarinet solo- rather than answering it…” So in this single moment, there is not only great contrast, but also a sense of continuation, unity. In the third section, a similar thing happens. The violin and flute drop away and the clarinet returns, not picking back up as if interrupted, but beginning something else. Dubiel points out that the cello’s first pizzicato of the piece also appears in this section. In short, the disunity of the piece is perhaps far more apparent to first-time listeners than the underlying unities. Listen for the unities. 
The fascinating result of all the incredible detail above is that certain passages, excerpts, notes, get emphasized. A violin line might jump to triple forte over its partner the flute in the fourth section (not that it does in this piece; it’s just an example), and as a result, that melody or note or part stands out above the rest, so that ultimately certain sections, often the louder or higher/lower or longer passages will get certain stress that other parts don’t, and these seemingly disparate elements begin to develop an overall scheme, one that is to me at once so inherently obvious but so inexplicable and subtle, from what seemed before like noise.

The Main Point?

“It is … the embodiment of an idea, derived from Babbitt’s technique, about how a listener might be able to do what Babbitt’s music often seems strenuously to resist, namely relate sections to on another as stages in a large movement, and not just as demarcated vessels of undifferentiated minutiae. The transition into a new section of a textural design, for instance, may determine a way of hearing the entire section in relation to its predecessor- in a relation more particular that that of sheer succession, which both affects and depends on the perceived content and progress of the section.”

This is a point I want to make here, at the end of a long article, before we get to even more intimidating pieces tomorrow and the day after:
The results of the techniques and elements that Babbitt uses are not inevitable, inherent properties of a set or a list, but intentional uses of desirable properties to reach a particular outcome.
That is to say, making the choice to write a string quartet or piano concerto in D minor does not in itself determine everything else about the piece, but does determine some things. The tendency, perhaps, is to assume wrongly that with all of these constraints and patterns at play in this (or another) piece, this is the only possible outcome of the idea, but that is false. To assume that is to reduce Babbitt’s music to something like a musical Excel formula, an inevitable product of the ingredients involved. Dubiel says:
“… given the list, a listener’s conception of the relations among its elements can be affected by the particular way in which its elements are realized.” 
And it might seem always like noise to some, but I have found the complexity and detail to be fascinating, and once you listen to it a few times, you begin to grow familiar with the landscape, and that familiarity lends itself to expectation and greater appreciation.
Also, if you’re a world-class performer who’s familiar with Babbitt’s works and would be interested in working on finding a way to record some of these works for CD for the first time in this millennium, to commemorate the composer’s centennial next year, get in touch with me.
– – – –
As to the performers (I almost forgot), I contacted the original uploader of the above video, and he said that “three of the performers … were students in the Boston University School of Music, members of the new music group Time’s Arrow; [the fourth] is a member of the faculty of the SOM.”
Great job guys; what a privilege to perform and record this piece to share it with everyone. I should get in touch with them.
This piece is a good primer for tomorrow’s piece; it will be a good compare and contrast exercise. See you then.

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One thought on “Babbitt: Composition for Four Instruments

  1. i would take to issue the idea that exhaustive lists are an example of serialization, because in exhaustive lists there is no question of transformational identity, so order does not play a part in its organization. Serialization must always imply a transformed or untransformed repetition, reoccurance if you like, regurgitation perhaps to most audiences. This exhaustive list is not repeated in any form, so it is not an example of serialization; just an example of Babbitt's so-called “maximal diversity” principle. Also, “tone row” is basically an anachronistic term now. “set” or “series” are much more specific, and have less quasi-arithmetic implications, less left-to-right implications.

    Other than that, great job!

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