Babbitt’s The Head of the Bed

performed by Judith Bettina and Parnassus under Anthony Korf

(sorry, there’s no video here again today, but if you can spare the dollar or whatever, I highly recommend purchasing the recording [I guess it has to be the entire album, so about $10…] on iTunes, then it can be found here. At the very least, there’s an audio sample.)

Well, I hadn’t really planned on this.

I have come to adore this piece, and I’ll make an argument that it’s one of Babbitt’s most approachable, endearing pieces, and a good example of how you don’t really need to know anything about aggregates or series or hexachords to enjoy the piece, and since we’re at the tail end of a series of vocal music, I figured it’s fitting to tack it on to the end here, so here it is.

I have spoken at some length either on the blog (so written, actually) or with friends and fellow concertgoers about trying to warm up to ‘new music’ which could be Mozart, for someone who’s never heard him, or in more likely cases, Babbitt, Boulez, etc. What I mean is ‘new’ in the sense of ‘unfamiliar’, not necessarily as modern, and it can all (almost always) be approached the same way.

But the thing I want maybe to emphasize is that I’m wholly incapable of analysis, at this point, at least. I’ve found wonderful articles online for pieces like the third string quartet, but honestly, it’s beyond my grasp. Babbitt himself says of his approach to serialism:

That’s not the way I conceive of a set. This is not a matter of finding the lost set. This is not a matter of cryptoanalysis (where’s the hidden set?). What I’m interested in is the effect it might have, the way it might assert itself not necessarily explicitly.

(from Babbitt’s Words about Music, published in 1987)

So then if the purpose of listening isn’t “to find the lost set,” or to decode the work and what makes it tick, then what are we to do with this beautiful music? Well, I’d like to use a very small example that makes sense at least to me:


(Thanks to for the above image of spiral galaxy NGC 6503.)

This kind of stuff is jaw-droppingly beautiful. And there are likely lots of people who don’t realize that this is a dwarf galaxy of only about 30,000 light years across (our Milky Way, still not a heavy hitter of a galaxy, is about 100,000 light years across), and about 17 million light years away from us, that the reddish regions are of gas, and the blue outer regions are neighborhoods of star formation.

You don’t have to know about conservation of angular momentum or understand stars in their main sequence phase, or be able to look at Hertzsprung–Russell diagrams, or the physics of black holes, the presence of dark matter and its affect on the structure and rotation of the galaxy, or really anything else but that it is an absolutely enormous, beautiful structure with vivid color and shape, that some at best can only liken to admiring puffy white clouds in a blue sky. You don’t have to understand the intricacies of something to appreciate it or find it beautiful, but the more you can appreciate about it, the more awesome (in the true sense of the word) you might find an image like the above. Babbitt’s work here is scintillatingly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that’s also the first time I’ve used that word in my writing.

So, what about this work? Well, I’d like to draw your attention, for a moment, to one of Babbitt’s earliest pieces, his Composition for Four Instruments, which we discussed some time ago. The Head of the Bed uses the same four instruments, violin, cello, clarinet, flute, in a similar manner.

If you go back and read the article on Composition for Four Instruments, I talk there about the serial approach to orchestration, that these four instruments are used in a unique way, such that each possible combination of them is used only once, giving us four solos, four trios, six duos, and obviously one tutti, for a total of fifteen sections. Beyond that, the instruments ‘rotate’ in an interesting fashion, such that for each two sections, each instrument will only appear once. To be clearer, but maybe slightly less specific, each instrument will appear in no more than two sections back-to-back. Lastly, the four solos in C4I are placed such that they occur with increasing frequency, after five, four, then three sections, with the tutti appearing only in the very last section.

That’s an interesting layout, and I’d like to draw your attention to the page featuring this album on New World Records. There is an option to download liner notes from the Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc., which details both of the pieces on the album, the first piano concerto as well as this work. All my below quotes come directly from those liner notes.

The text comes from a poem of the same name by John Hollander, in 1974. A decade before that, he’d written the “cantata text” for Babbitt’s Philomel. His work has also been set to music by composers such as Elliott Carter. It is absolutely riveting music, sumptuous text, luscious sounds, like a fairy tale for grown ups, a bit of surrealism in the imagery, but Babbitt’s use of Hollander’s text, and Bettina’s delivery of it make for a delicious listening experience.

The discussion of The Head of the Bed in the liner notes begins thusly:

In a letter to Milton Babbitt on April 29, 1980, John Hollander speaks of the poem:

First of all, in re The Head of the Bed, I enclose a xerox of a little thingI wrote for a magazine about dreams– although it’s generally about my coming to terms with dream material in my own poetry. … I think it’s best to think of the poem as a journey through a period of day and night, a quest story, perhaps, with the goal a matter of waking up into a welcoming and warming reality. “The head of the bed” is the place distinguished by the conventional phrase, but it’s also used in the sense of a Bettesgeist, a bed-consciousness….

The poem keeps revisiting the recumbent body, and yet with the growing sense that the body in the bed is more and more another region through which the sleeper “moves,” “goes” or is home.

It’s quite lengthy, but very worth reading. He admits after this discussion that he hasn’t thought of a narrative. More about the poem momentarily.

It is these same liner notes that tell us that Babbitt uses the same approach as Composition for Four Instruments as for The Head of the Bed. The notes also tell us that there are, conveniently 15 stanzas in the poem, and each section of the music (remember C4I had 15 sections as well) corresponds to a stanza of the poem. Each stanza is also divided into 15 lines, creating “a subtle echo between the composition of the vocal part for each section and the over-all deployment of the instrumental groupings.” So we have a very interesting poem, whose structure works wonderfully with something Babbitt has laid out quite nicely before. Hollander himself breaks the poem into a few sections, like an introduction, “a series of fable-encounters”, “a resting place”, and then the final two sections that wrap up the poem. Just go read the liner notes in PDF. After this and a dedication to Robert Penn Warren, there is a long paragraph that acts as a prologue of sorts for the poem, but I find the ‘program notes’ unnecessary, as the poem is fascinatingly beautiful on its own. Go read it.

The music, like much of what you might hear of Babbitt, is florid, busy-sounding, but ultimately fragrant and soft, even with enormous leaps and jumps in the vocal part (and the others). There are contrasts throughout, climaxes of excitement and intensity of thicker textures from the four instruments as the soprano part reaches high into the stratosphere, or more transparent, thinner sounds that almost sound like slithery secrets spoken in seclusion. Thankfully, the recording quality is excellent, and the ultimate result, at least for me, is a spellbinding work, one that I have never seen on YouTube or anywhere else.

Read the poem on its own, or alongside the recording, if you acquire it, and a few things will stand out. Obviously there’s this theme, the main idea of sleep and waking, but there is much imagery of forests and trees, “distant stars”, “flakes of day”, this kind of fairytale enchanted forest imagery, alongside much more mention of sheets, pillows, mattresses, shaded windows, sleeping. Bettina’s supple, exquisite articulation brings the text to sweet, exciting life, adding vibrance and depth to each word.

Ultimately, though, the result of something so beautiful is a question: why? Although we might have some understanding of the imagery, the overall idea, there is mention of Biblical figures, of fables, and Hollander’s prologue of the “mountainous border of two countries”, so… ultimately… why is this so beautiful?  What does it mean? 

To me, personally, it’s that fascinating, shadowy, ethereal, weightless chapter of existence, that evanescent portion of the day between wake and sleep, where whatever wild, unfettered crazy dreams you may have had begin to intermingle with reality, with the slow onset of self-awareness, awakeness, and this moment, unencumbered by pressures of daily life or any inhibitions (assuming there’s no alarm clock or rush to awake), is one of the most beautiful of any quiet day.

But to be honest, I don’t know, and I don’t have to, do I? At the very least, it exists for no other purpose outside itself, for no other reason than just to be beautiful. Someone gives that as a definition of art somewhere, that something serves no other purpose than to be admired. But isn’t that enough? It’s a beautiful, fascinating text, and at the very least, very interesting, if not stunningly, captivatingly beautiful, music.

And unless you’re predisposed to being antagonistic toward something so modern, can you not help but find at least some form of beauty in something like this? It only took me but a few listens to be captivated, intoxicated with the texture and color and contrast and amazing sound put forth in this incredible 23-minute chamber work. Just a stunning piece of music.

And like that galaxy, you can appreciate it even if you know nothing about it. You don’t have to be a cosmologist to know some stuff about it, and the more you know, the more fascinating it is, but there’s absolutely zero wrong with sitting back and admiring its beauty, and this chamber work from just over three decades ago is pure, crystalline, expressive, sumptuous beauty.

This is the first time I’ve featured Babbitt’s work outside of any kind of series or presentation of serialist music, but it genuinely does work easily alongside any other piece from any other composer. It’s just music, and can be appreciated the same way.

But that marks the end, at least for now, of our vocal series, and tomorrow we’re heading off into something quite different, to about 200 years, give or take, before the composition of this piece, so do stay tuned, and thank you.


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