Babbitt String Quartet no. 3

performed (in the only existing recording I am aware of) by the Fine Arts quartet, the dedicatee of the work

As with any relatively intricate composition, further rehearings or — more realistically— further recalling should lead the listener from those local coherences and immediate modes of progression and association which are instantly apparent through this analogously constructed and related larger units which subsume them, on to the total foreground as a tonality. When this has been accomplished, I trust that the reasons why and the senses in which I regard this composition as completely, though by no means exclusively, polyphonic will have become clearly evident.

1972 LP program notes, written by the composer

Foreword: the ultimate lesson of this article is that this piece, and Babbitt’s music as a whole is approachable and enjoyable for everyone. Also, I include in full the liner notes by the composer from the CD release at the bottom of the article. Enjoy.

I love Babbitt’s second string quartet. The third, written more than a decade later, completed in 1970, is more challenging, in part because it is that much more complicated, to me. There were portions of the second, or I should say aspects, that were relatively easy to grasp, from a structural, instrumental standpoint, without even looking at the score. As a complete amateur to music in general (much less music of this nature), cracking into Babbitt’s third (which took some effort to acquire the recording of) had been challenging in and of itself, and there wasn’t as much for me to latch onto to understand. The surface layer, it seemed, was just complicated, and the deeper you go, the more complicated it got.

In my program note of 1970, I mentioned the four successive “parallel” sections which could be discerned as spanning the Quartet. Since these parallelisms are not entirely apparent on the work’s surface, whether this awareness wil [sic] serve the listener initially, I am no longer certain. But if it does I trust other and more detailed awareness will follow; if it doesn’t, I trust that other paths to the pleasures of understanding will be discovered.

Part of Babbitt’s program notes for the CD release of the work

As mentioned above, the work has only been recorded once, to my knowledge, and was out of print for some time, but I found it here for purchase. They shipped cheaply and promptly to Taipei, and I finally had myself a recording of it. Not even the current Fine Arts Quartet sells the recording (Ralph Evans, a member of the current roster, is a very nice man).

Although it was at first difficult for me to follow, and no matter how much reading and listening I did, I still didn’t really grasp the details of the piece, getting my hands on the score was essential to seeing the piece more clearly, where things started to come to the fore, and kind of ‘open my eyes’ to some of the more straightforward joys of the work.

Wikipedia’s brief article about the quartet quotes Paul Griffiths in what appears to be the program notes of the album:

The Quartet is in a single movement lasting over 18 minutes. On first acquaintance the quartet may seem to consist of a welter of unrelated detail, with few if any short-term patterns. However, contrasting speeds and articulations (arco and pizzicato) gradually bring the shifting relationships of the details and the connected aspects of the larger sections into clear focus, and the composition begins to assume a shape of intricacy and beauty…

I was speaking with a fellow music lover a while back about Pierre Boulez’s works, and while I greatly appreciate his conducting and interpretations of Schoenberg, Bartók, Mahler, Stravinsky, Webern, etc., his own compositions are still incredibly challenging for me to understand or appreciate. It’s a statement that could offend many people, or at the very least make me sound (more) ignorant, but to a large degree, most of it sounds like noise.

What I found interesting about Babbitt’s quartet is that while talk of aggregates and all the rest is complicated and frankly, to me, a bit arcane, I think I can hear (some of) the results of it. I had decided to read Stephen Arnold and Graham Hair’s article An Introduction and a Study from Perspectives of New Music in preparation for this article. It says in part:

The sectional divisions of the String Quartet No. 3 break the work down thus:

– into four main parts (for each of which the array dimensions are 8×96), with further subdivisions into:
– eight sections (two per part), defined by the completion in all eight horizontals of four set statements;
– thirty-two subsections–
— within each section it seems reasonable to identify four subsections of unequal length, in which each of the eight horizontals completes one set statement, even though the delineation is, in fact, only approximate (repetition of terminal and anticipation of initial set elements extends across the subsection divisions to effect the desired aggregate partitionings);
– two-hundred and eighty aggregates (either eight or nine per sub-section, thirty five per section, and seventy in each of the four main parts of the quartet).

Easy, right?

I didn’t get much beyond that. Needless to say, it’s just an introduction to a very complex analysis of the piece that I don’t really need to comprehend to enjoy the piece.

For me, the approach was different. Looking at the score helped me to identify a few interesting things I’d gathered from a more ‘brute force’ kind of ‘listen a bunch of times and see what sticks’ approach. The most standout thing was the cello line I’ve pointed to below:

I think it stood out for a few reasons. For one, it’s the cello way up in its register, in treble clef, without its mute, pretty exposed, essentially playing alone, but also quite melodic to me. In any case, this had always been the most standout moment of the work, and it was the first thing I looked for in the score, but then I started finding and hearing bits and pieces of similar-sounding lines with identical or similar interval content throughout the work. I’d intended to make a small visual list of these (photos), but I have dispensed with the idea. Suddenly, this became the ‘theme’ of the entire work.

So sit back, toss aside the theses and mathematical stuff with aggregates and delineations and sections and just listen. Look at it, make notes of what stands out. Why does it stand out? What’s it related to? Why is it familiar or different? These are all simple things that I learned (or started to, anyway) from some excellent lessons with a composition professor and composer who is himself a student of Babbitt, one Daniel Colson (also here). It seems we could have spent months analyzing Schoenberg’s op. 11 (which I need to revisit now that I know a little about what’s going on in it), but the approach is a very simple one with simple questions, and not such difficult ways to answer them.

Anyway, The more I looked, the more stuff popped up that seemed related in a way. Granted, I got lost in the score many times, and made timing notes to myself so I could go back if I got lost. I can’t necessarily put into words what’s similar, why things are related, except that some real strong standouts are things like the emphasis on the half-step (example above between the G and F# or the C# and D) showing up. Whatever.

What I mean to say is I can kind of begin to hear things that recall earlier moments in the piece, that connect it, which at least hints at a kind of development or use of the series, an underlying, unifying common theme in the entire work.

Do I need to know what it is? No. Must I suss out all the detail? No. Would I have discovered what I did without the score? Also no. But it has been outstandingly enriching to toss aside the textbooks and music theory and analyses and jargon and just look at it like you’d look at the score of any other piece of music, look for things to latch onto, and enjoy, and enjoy I have. It’s an exciting work, and while I might not call it straightforward, it’s certainly more compact and easy to understand (I feel) than Boulez’s Livre pour Quatuor of yesterday (but then again, I haven’t gotten my hands on the score for that). There are no coloristic effects like sul ponticello or anything, as there were in the second, and it’s been fascinating to see how something so complicated can be, in another way, from another angle, so seemingly straightforward, if you’re willing to be more ignorant of the intricacies of the piece.

But then again, aren’t we all ignorant of something of our favorite pieces? Must you analyze a Haydn symphony or a Chopin nocturne to enjoy them? Must you know about their intervals and structure and breakdown to have the right to say you enjoy them? No! Hardly. This work has been one of the most daunting yet subsequently outstandingly enjoyable experiences I’ve had with music in a long time, and only underlines my argument that this is music for everyone. It’s not arcane, mad-scientist, experimental mathematical nonsense for only the professionals, or it doesn’t have to be. It’s wonderfully enjoyable, and it seems that the more you understand it, the more enjoyable it is.

Below, as stated above, I include in full the liner notes from the CD I purchased from Music and Arts (misspellings, capitalization and spacing all included) written by the composer himself:

From the LP release of 1972:

Although the one movement, over 18 minutes long, of which the work is composed does not instance any cherished surface ‘formal’ pattern created by conjoined repetitions within and among musical dimensions, there is a fundamental and — I trust— helpful articulation into four ‘parallel’ sections, created by the picture structure, for —to within familiar transformations— the linear disposition and ordering of the pitch-classes, the linear constituency of aggregates and the order of aggregate progression of these sections are identical. In each of the four sections this pitch material is re-interpreted instrumentally, rhythmically/dynamically, harmonically and —of course— registrally, to within the limits permitted by the previously noted constraints. However, this parallelism may not be completely obvious on first hearing because of these degrees of re-interpretation, the sheer extent of the sections and the fact that they do not function — in any usual sense— as ‘movements’: they are not differentiated in metronomic tempos (there is a single indicated tempo for the work, within which changes in velocity— the number of attacks per unit time— occur over and for far shorter periods of time than that occupied by the large sections) or in timbre (the various combinations of arco, pizzicato, and sordino are used rather to define smaller subsections).

I dare to foretell that the work’s sonic asceticism will be, if not questioned, at least observed, for not only are the instruments never emplyed [sic] as the source of sounds of — deliberately— indefinite or —even— dubious pitch, there is not so much as a single sul ponticello or collegno [sic]. The abjuration is no two be construed as a matter of moral timbral principal [sic?] ( sul ponticello  appears in my Second Quartet and will appear again in my Fourth Quartet), but as a contextual characteristic, for me and my music an evidently important contextual characteristic (as is the absence of octave and multiple octave doubling in a primary role) of this work.

As with any relatively intricate composition, further rehearings or — more realistically— further recalling should lead the listener from those local coherences and immediate modes of progression and association which are instantly apparent through this analogously constructed and related larger units which subsume them, on to the total foreground as a tonality. When this has been accomplished, I trust that the reasons why and the senses in which I regard this composition as completely, though by no means exclusively, polyphonic will have become clearly evident.

“Mr. Babbitt supplied the following additional comment on his String Quartet no. 3 for this CD release:

My String Quartet No. 3 was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Lee A. Freeman for the Fine Arts Foundation of Chicago, and given its first performance on May 4, 1970 in Chicago by the FIne Arts Quartet [sic].

At that time I was aware that my Third Quartet was a decisive, even final stage in the realization of a polyphonic, harmonic compositional conception which had been evolving though such earlier works as my Relatas I and II (1965 and 1968) and my Correspondences (1967). I did not realize that the Quartet was to be the nexus between those earlier works and my subsequent compositions, in which I attempted to extend and refine those modes and means of achieving rage of reference, inter-and intra-dimensional hierarchization, across and throughout an extended one-movement work, which are— at least— implicit in this Quartet.

In my program note of 1970, I mentioned the four successive “parallel” sections which could be discerned as spanning the Quartet. Since these parallelisms are not entirely apparent on the work’s surface, whether this awareness wil [sic] serve the listener initially, I am no longer certain. But if it does I trust other and more detailed awareness will follow; if it doesn’t, I trust that other paths to the pleasures of understanding will be discovered.”

The pleasures of understanding… indeed. There are thankfully three more quartets from this composer left to enjoy, and while I can’t really get around to them any time soon, I’m looking forward to the next one.

 

 

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