Babbitt: Composition for Twelve Instruments

performed by the people listed here, directed by the very friendly Erik Carlson

“… entire twelve-tone compositions may be seen to be consequences of the structure of the original sets on which they are based, thus revealing “those attributes of set structure which maintain under the systematic operations only by virtue of the particular nature of a set, or the class of sets of which it is a instance, together with a particular choice of operations.””

That simple quote is perhaps an indication of the complexity of the piece we’ll be dealing with today.
I must say, for yesterday’s piece, I found that the more I read about it and looked into it, the more I needed to look into it, and that’s a slippery slope. The above-linked article, as stated, is part one of two about this piece, and to be honest, part one was enough. The second paragraph of Part Two begins thusly:

Part 2 attempts to re-interpret the layered structural conception of the composition in terms of recent developments in theoretical physics. The result of this re-interpretation is that we are able to view twelve-tone musical structures in a new way. (Hush 1983, p. 103)

Um, can we not? The article continues to speak of quantum mechanics, lenses, photographic plates, holograms, “enfolded or implicate order,” all very very long excerpts. Perhaps the most salient point he makes (or just as far as I read) was on page 111, in section 2.3:

The structure of the Composition is asynordinate, since it is constituted of aspects of different degrees of implication. For example, the third order hexachord remains the most implicit aspect, while other aspects, such as R-related dyads, are abstracted to quite a considerable degree in the explicate order.

What that all means to someone who doesn’t understand it is that not everything that happens in this piece is happening always at the same time; it can’t. What we’ll see today is that the properties of this work are far more complicated and intricate than that of yesterday’s piece. As a result, I’ll only touch on a few of the differences, using yesterday’s article as a point of departure.
If you’ve done any digging for any Babbitt works in the past two or three days that we’ve been talking about him this week, you may have noticed that recordings of his works are far and few between. To my knowledge, this piece today is one of the only recordings of a Babbitt work I can think of that’s been professionally recorded more than once. There are a few other performances up on YouTube of some of his other works, live, or whatever, but they really are rare, especially relative to all the versions of everything else being played in the Classical music world. It makes Webern and Schoenberg recordings seem like Beethoven sonatas in comparison.
Did that make sense?
In any case, I was surprised and thrilled a few months ago, as a result of yet another Google search on Babbitt to find the above recording, on both YouTube and Bandcamp, linked above. The only other recording I’ve found of this piece is here, and it was probably the earliest… maybe? Although maybe not the premiere. So perhaps Carlson’s recording is the third one. Anyway, I was thrilled to find a new, clean, and more lively version of this interesting work, a full two minutes shorter than the Shapey recording.
In fact, let’s begin with a very simple explanation of the piece as taken from the Shapey YouTube video mentioned above:

Although in a single movement, Composition for 12 Instruments divides obviously and externally into two sections, which are complimentary insofar as the explicitly presented materials of one function as the source material for the other.

I don’t know about obviously, but it’s in keeping with what Hush says in his analysis.
So if you guys followed along in yesterday’s discussion, we ended by saying today’s work would be an interesting contrast. For one, the concepts and structures behind the work are
outstandingly more complex, but the result, again in contrast, is that the piece feels much more pithy, concentrated, thin, sparse, at least to me. I will say this is by no means a favorite of mine; I find it interesting, and I don’t mind it. I even enjoy listening to it, but with far less frequency than many of his other works. I’ll talk more about that below.
There are, as the name suggests, twelve instruments in this ensemble:
flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon
violin, viola, cello, bass,
trumpet, horn,
harp, celesta

In (or before) listening to this work, a few things should be readily obvious, a few maybe after a few listens. 
For one, the number twelve should stand out. Yesterday’s work for four instruments was chosen perhaps for its convenient smallness and at the same time huge potential for variation. 
Needless to say, to work out every combination of 12 instruments would be beyond unwieldy. But the number twelve has an altogether greater significance, and should suggest the treatment that these twelve instruments will receive.
Next, the treatment of content is very sparse-sounding, meaning that in most cases, no single attack coincides with almost any other, and at some points only one instrument of the ensemble ever sounds. This is also significant. With these two simple observations in mind, we can begin to get some idea of what’s going on in this piece.
And what exactly is going on here is, well, a hell of a lot. 
In contrast with yesterday’s piece, today’s work is so complicated that (for one) I can’t really (understand it, but neither can I) conceive of a way to reduce the idea down to a simple, distilled example or statement that comes anywhere near conveying the complexity of ideas and their development. As a result, I will be addressing this piece in less detail than I did with yesterday’s work, even though it is extensively more complicated. (I wrote that, but I did think of a very poor illustration. See below.)
If you’re interested, read the articles on JSTOR. They are intense. Part one is here, and part two here
In short, what’s going on is… If Composition for Four Instruments was exploring that number, four, either with four instruments or two qualities of two instruments or whatever, it is perhaps obvious how much more complicated a piece with twelve instruments would be. 
Hush explains the scheme for this piece, one I barely understand: it is in two parts of four units each, and each unit has twelve sets, with a specific set attributed to a specific instrument. Part two has eight set complexes, each generated by a set trichordally derived from a set from section one. Or something like that. It doesn’t make much sense to me either. It does, a little bit. 
Let’s emphasize/review a few things quickly. Twelve is kind of a magical number in that it is highly divisible, so the potential for X groups of Y is very high: two chunks of six, three of four, four of three, six of two, and obviously one and twelve. 
Then remember that one twelve-tone row has a 12×4 number of permutations. The easiest and most obvious is to take that row and transpose it so that the same sequence begins on all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. That’s twelve. But we can also play each of those twelve forward or backward, making 24. Then we could flip upside down those 24 so that everywhere they originally go up they go down, and vice versa, by the same degree. This gives us 48 potential rows, each of which preserves the original relationships between all twelve notes in the row. Cool. 
But then remember what Babbitt did so magically in yesterday’s piece, where he didn’t reveal the row right out in the open like Schoenberg or Webern would do? He treats cells, or syllables (?) themselves rather independently, forward-and-backward-ing individual groups of three or six, to create even more possibilities. Combinatoriality. Below. 
Remember the “maximal diversity” concept of his Three Compositions for Piano? If yesterday’s piece was a cube, today’s is a dodecahedron or something. Like that image from Contact
Perhaps a more tangible example of some serious complexity is the treatment of dyads. A triad is a group of three notes; a dyad is a group of two. The instruments (as best I can understand) are kind of paired up based on the sets they develop in different ways. For example, horn and viola, harp and bassoon, and others. If the first two notes the first instrument plays is X then Y, then the other instrument in the pair subsequently plays Y then X as part of its set. But that’s not all; each of these two notes is played in a way as different as possible from the first. So the cello may play his first note with the bow and the second pizzicato, while the clarinet will play the first note in the lowest register and the second in the highest, at two very different dynamics (again, just an example; I don’t think that’s what really happens). So there’s a ton of stuff going on, but nothing redundant or superfluous. It’s a huge package, but for all that it explores, it’s incredibly compact. This reminds me of Hush’s quote of whomever he quoted about quantum physics above, where I assume he is saying that all the phenomena that happen in nature (at a quantum level) exist but aren’t all necessarily happening at once. Maybe? The thing is, there’s not a lot of extra space or loose string leftover in this work; it all seems to work from and develop the same basic idea(s).
Think of it this way. If I were trying to describe this piece to like, Kindergarteners, I might say this: twelve people each have their own twelve-step dance to do in a 144-square space, and each of them has to do their dance, starting from their own position, without stepping on anyone else’s toes. That is to say, someone will inevitably use a space someone else used, but likely not at the same time. 
In Hush’s article, there are charts that (I think) try to lay out the combinatorial ideas, like a blueprint or a map of the aggregates, which instruments share which sections of what separate aggregates, which six groups of two from which aggregates, which two groups of six, etc. from the original twelve aggregates to create many permutations. There’s one here and another here. And then one of these, and a few more.
And then there’s a summary found on this page. It lists the back-, middle-, and foreground concepts as follows, respectively: combinatoriality, use of twelve sets at the same time, and exchange of dyads and/or use of TPCs within each unit. Whatever that means.

So the development or exploration of ideas in this piece is mind-blowing. On the one hand, a look at these essays or that Wikipedia article on combinatoriality are enough to make me want a nap. One almost expects a big, beefy, complex, busy substantial piece as a result, but surprisingly, what comes out is like… the opening of some film noir, a downstairs pool hall, dimly lit, trench coats, no dialogue, sideways glances, cigars, and gin or whiskey, a sloppy plop of an olive in a martini. That’s what I hear. It’s sparse and dramatic in its low-key-ness. The bass, trumpet, and celesta give some textures and qualities to this work that help create that image.
So, it’s an absurdly robust working out of combinatoriality and serial ideas, but it sounds to me like… a smokey mystery film title card. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

So many properties of so many of the instruments and musical ideas are explored in a piece like this, and in possible ironic contrast, the piece sounds very…. Spacious and hollow. From a theoretic perspective (as well as the size of the ensemble), it’s one of Babbitt’s larger works, despite being only seven minutes long. The string quartets are more substantial in… melodious content? In melodies and forward motion that one might be more likely to associate with ‘music’ rather than ‘math.’
We’ll get to that tomorrow, but something else that I think is interesting is this. There are inevitably people who can’t believe anyone appreciates music like this, who thinks it’s an ’emperor’s new clothes’ situation where you’ve convinced yourself you like something for qualities or reasons that have a closer relationship with ego than art.
But I’ll be the first to say I don’t love this piece, and that’s okay. I have musical tastes and preferences not based on who wrote it, but what it is. I suppose what I mean to say is that saying I (or anyone) care for one piece more than another is to be balanced, to acknowledge artistic and musical aesthetic, that there are things to like and dislike and that not all of one composer’s works are the same, or of equal success or interest to one person or another, just like Chopin or Haydn or Mozart. This is a work from Babbitt I don’t care as much for, but I still find it interesting. I would dare to say the reason I perhaps don’t care for it as much is maybe because the technical (combinatoriality and serialist theory) seems to begin to overshadow the music, for me. I feel that perhaps, just perhaps, the piece reaches its level of complexity at some expense of musical appeal, but that is also only my opinion. We begin tomorrow with the real gem of this week’s works, the second string quartet, the one that broke the ice for me. See you then. 
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2 thoughts on “Babbitt: Composition for Twelve Instruments

  1. me again. Actually the piece is one of the simplest Babbitt wrote, its just that the “asynordinate” article is so full of pretension and over-complication it can be confusing to read.

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