“… 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,
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?
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.