Babbitt: Transfigured Notes

performed by Gunther Schuller’s ad hoc string orchestra

Just let the music wash over you in its totality, and you might be surprised what rich and totally new listening rewards you will reap.

-Gunther Schuller, on Transfigured Notes

(cover image by Paul Carmona)

I thought this would be one of the last pieces of Babbitt’s I’d ever write about, a pinnacle of his achievement to save for much later in my efforts to share his work, but it happens to have found its place here, so here it is. Very interesting story, this.

And I should say, we’re discussing it at this juncture for two reasons.

First, it actually has a strong connection to the idea of ‘America’. It was a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra to commemorate the American bicentennial. One may wonder what they expected from Milton Babbitt; surely they knew they wouldn’t be getting some Copland-esque suite of fun, playful tunes that may eventually grace a famous TV commercial. Also, I’m not sure what musical concept, if any, associates the work with any bicentennial or ‘American’ or symbolically patriotic idea. But no matter.

Secondly, I feel that despite its infamous complexity, it may be an interesting starting point for listeners of Babbitt, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of ‘just listen and don’t even try to understand,’ which is a bit removed from my standard musical approach. Instead, it’s a kind of sit back, let go, and let your mind wander. I’ll talk a little more about that later, but for now, let’s discuss the piece’s history.

I’d like to interject here a thought that doesn’t relate literally to this piece, but the sentiments I think can be appreciated in this context.

We haven’t discussed Schoenberg’s op. 16 yet, the five orchestral pieces, but in the Birmingham Daily Post, in 1914, one Ernest Newman wrote a longish article/review about the piece. It begins by remarking on Schoenberg as a composer who makes “people like Richard Strauss seem quite old-fashioned.” I quote here in full, from the pages of my copy of the Dover Miniature Score I own of Schoenberg’s work:

A note prefixed by Schönberg to one of the movements – to the effect that the conductor is not to concern himself with bringing out this or that voice, that seems to him important, or to soften what seems to him discords, for all this is allowed for in the orchestration, and all the conductor has to do is to see that each player employs the precise degree of force indicated in his part – I thought at first a little affected. But the music, when properly given, justifies what Schönberg says of it. The various timbres are blended in the most cunning way imaginable. Discords that on paper look unendurable and meaningless are tinted in such a way that one feels only a vague and often most alluring effect of atmosphere and distance.

He continues, and the whole thing is really beautiful, but I feel that that particular sentiment fully applies here. Keep that in mind.

As I said, the piece was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, specifically for strings.

I’m going to interrupt myself here. There are three resources you should look at, and they are the primary sources whence my information comes:

  1. The GM Recordings page for this album that lists the location and date of recording (Jordan Hall, Boston, February 8-9, 1991), as well as all the performers in the ad hoc orchestra.
  2. A wonderful review of the same album on Gramophone by Michael Oliver. I really like this review.
  3. An outstanding review of the same album on Amazon, by a plain old reviewer named Discophage. It’s the most informative of the three, with some satisfying name-dropping and gossipy details.

So with those in mind, if you’re keen on doing the reading, Philly commissions Babbitt to do the piece for string orchestra, and he holds up his end of the bargain. This is in the mid ’80s. I believe the piece was completed in 1986, and because it was a commission, Philly got rights for first performance, but multiple conductors declared the work unplayable. Discophage’s review states:

… in fact three conductors and attempts were involved, Erich Leinsdorf, Dennis Russell Davies and Hans Vonk…

… and that it was “orchestra management” who declared it unplayable. Apparently the man behind the commission, Richard Wernick, claimed to be an admirer of Babbitt’s work, but questioned its complexity and stated that it could be reworked in some fashion to be more reasonably realized.

Long story short, premiere after premiere is cancelled and Babbitt asks for rights back to get it performed himself. His friend, fellow composer, and conductor, Gunther Schuller, offers to take care of it, handpicks an orchestra from outstanding performers in Boston (listed on the GM Recordings page), pays out of pocket for 12 rehearsals, the hall, recording equipment, etc., to have the piece premiered at a concert (two nights, actually) performed alongside Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (whence Babbitt’s play on word comes) and a Stravinsky work, and they all appear on the album that resulted. This cost Schuller more than $40,000 of his own dough, in 1991! Sadly he passed away a few years ago and surely never recovered his money.

But why the difficulty?

Well, it’s complicated.

Not the answer. The piece. It’s described on Gramophone as a “dense and complex atonal 27-minute piece for nine-part string orchestra.” Schuller makes it clear that this isn’t anything close to a definitive recording, but it’s currently all we have now. For one, the composer said the piece should take about 18 minutes, but the only recording of the work we have comes to more than 26 minutes. There are nine voices! To oversimplify it, think of it like four and a half people playing the same piano, each hand with its own independent line. Could you pick out each single hand and what it was doing? It’s wild! But remember Newman’s sentiments about Schoenberg.

The quote that opens this article comes, apparently, from the liner notes to the album. Unfortunately, these liner notes are not included in the digital copy I bought in iTunes (although some purchases do include digital booklets), so thankfully Discophage notated Schuller’s comments about the piece. Get ready for the largest direct quote that’s ever appeared on the blog:

Since Transfigured Notes is a totally polyphonic and atonal work, with nine individual lines all vying for equal contrapuntal attention, and since, further, Babbitt does not work with ‘melody’ and ‘harmonic accompaniment’ in the traditional sense, it is pointless for the listener to try to ferret out conventional melodies and harmonies, for there are none. As in a gigantic, multi-layered, collective improvisation, the music is best listened to – and appreciated, particularly at a first hearing – in its overall surface totality, rather than trying to follow any individual lines or shapes or gestures. There is also no repetition in Babbits’s [sic] music. One must therefore ‘stay with the music’ as it progresses and develops – mostly very rapidly and unpredictably. Since none of what has just been heard is ever repeated, one must follow the music’s course closely from moment to moment, or one is in danger of quickly losing the thread and continuity of the composition. I liken this way of listening to looking at a lake (or an ocean) at a distance, taking in the large macro-picture rather than trying to focus inn [sic] on the micro-details of waves and wavelets close by. Just let the music wash over you in its totality, and you might be surprised what rich and totally new listening rewards you will reap.

And then, he adds, Babbitt responded to his friend’s listening suggestions:

I am grateful to Gunther for his suggestions for listening to my work, which I never would have dared offer, and which very well may aid me in listening to my own composition.

Honestly, Discophage’s account of the entire thing, the explanation of the work, his/her thoughts about it, are all exquisitely written, but I’ll only quote the very beginning, as that reviewer’s personal response to Schuller’s statement:

But Transfigured Notes isn’t a lake, not even an ocean, it is (if I try to translate into images the aural impressions and emotions produced by my listening) a burning maelstrom of lava.

He continues to express the twisting, writhing, contorting strings, the white-hot “screaming” nature of sound that undulates and stops and goes, swells and wanes, but ultimately his conclusion might be slightly different from Schuller’s. While Schuller suggests that one must pay close attention lest we “[lose] the thread and continuity of the composition,” he also mentions focusing on “the large macro-picture rather than trying to focus inn [sic] on on the micro-details…” So perhaps Schuller sees it both ways, but Discophage clearly feels it is the latter. He says:

…it doesn’t matter if your mind wanders a moment or two from the maelstrom. When you return, the maelstrom is still there. In fact, at various points, I wished that there would have been more “micro-events” in the music’s fabric…

So here, I’m not going to make any attempt at interpretation or analysis. The score (last I checked) costs something like $300, and I probably would have a very difficult time following it anyway.

This piece has made me ask what all this sumptuous detail and ornateness means if we as listeners can’t follow or comprehend it; how can we even appreciate it? Does it matter? And then I go back and read Newman’s comments about the effect of the mass as a whole, and I hear his words as they pertain to Babbitt’s work here.

I find myself putting the piece on every now and then, and being lost in the kaleidoscope of sound, the unrelenting, not-too-eventful but still ever-changing landscape of this piece, being consumed by it for those 26 minutes it takes to play. Instead of questioning, demanding answers, dissecting to find the nuts and bolts, perhaps we can be satisfied simply with wondering, with being in awe.

Of course, as Schuller admits, “Babbitt does not work with ‘melody’ and ‘harmonic accompaniment’ in the traditional sense.” Michael Oliver, in his review, quotes Ned Rorem who suggested listening to Babbitt ‘as though he were tonal.’ Can you do that? It’s fascinating to me that what is (to my mind) one of the most incomprehensibly dense pieces of music ever written is, despite (or else because of) that, also perhaps especially amenable to the broadest, most welcoming listening experience possible. It’s a challenge, for sure, but can you see some beauty in it? I sure do.

I feel in some ways that this article, all 1500+ words of it so far, is a bit of a copout. I’ve copied and pasted other people’s statements about it and added my own thoughts, but I’ve awed at this piece for years, even accidentally started playing it (very loudly) on speaker through my phone at quite a formal event, and it took an embarrassingly long time to get it to stop. I’ve never seen a score, never seen a word about the series used, the compositional techniques or approaches. If you want to get really nuts-and-bolts about it, go dig around for the other works he was writing around this time, like the fifth string quartet.

The Wiki article for that piece discusses the fifth’s use of superarrays, “multiple arrays unfolding simultaneously in counterpoint against each other.” That sounds complicated enough, really, but it’s happening with only four performers. What we have here, with nine voices, in a string ensemble of (what I thought was 45 but is apparently) 43 players, is a very tight interweaving of these lines, and by extension, much more to work with, I guess, than just the four voices of a quartet.

So that’s that. A piece that excites me to a silly degree, considering how little I (or anyone else) know about it, how rarely it’s performed (maybe like twice since that performance?), and what it must take to come to have some familiarity with the piece. But that’s it: it’s a pinnacle for me in that way. Even if we can’t get to the summit, those of us at the foot (or somewhere along the way) can look up and admire the view, right?

Enjoy.

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3 thoughts on “Babbitt: Transfigured Notes

  1. 😄 Got the recording. Since you refer to Babbitt every now and then, I wanted to find out about the guy. And the juxtaposition with Schönberg and Stravinsky – well, that sounds promising.

      1. Well, I aactually like it, it reminds me of Shostakovich’s intentionally dissonant notes and the gloomy expression of some of his chamber music.

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