It’s About Time

Looked at half a century later, Milton Babbitt‘s development of integral serialism in America seems like a way of extending traditional understandings of musical structure. Whereas in its independent development in Europe by Boulez and Stockhausen, serialism was an attempt at destroying traditions by reevaluating every fundamental musical principle and focusing on the basic elements of compositional technique.

The innovations in American concert music at the end of the Second World War were largely due to the emigration of European composers during the thirties and forties. Europe’s modernist leaders, including Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky, as well as Stefan Wolpe and many others, all came to the U.S. at this time. Schoenberg’s importance to American music became solidified during his years at UCLA, where his students included such diverse composers as serialist Leon Kirchner and John Cage who would later seem to depart in the opposite direction.

By the time European composers began to recognize the importance of Schoenberg and his disciples Webern and Berg, Babbitt already had extensive knowledge of their music through his studies with Marion Bauer and Roger Sessions in the early 1930’s. About his first published works, Babbitt wrote that he was, “concerned with embodying the extensions of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, and above all with applying the pitch operations of the twelve-tone system to non-pitch elements: durational rhythm, dynamics, phrase rhythm, timbre, and register.” In one of Babbitt’s earliest recognized piece, Three Compositions for Piano (1947), he thoroughly established a direct relationship between duration and pitch. His process, however, differs from that of Boulez’s two-piano work Structures 1a (1952) (influenced by Messiaen‘s Mode de valeurs et d’intensitéswritten in 1949). Instead of assigning to each numbered pitch of the row a specific volume or duration, Babbitt creates rhythmic patterns, using what he calls an “attack set,” that continue in line with pitch. Babbitt’s basic rhythmic set in Three Compositions is 5-1-4-2 and can be interpreted in two different ways, durational rhythm or phrase rhythm, both of which are serially ordered in relation to the pitch set. For example: the prime form of the pitch set coincides with the prime form of the rhythmic set (5-1-4-2); the inverted form of the pitch set coincides with the inverted form of the rhythmic set (1-5-2-4); retrograde (2-4-1-5); and retrograde-inversion (4-2-5-1). The work is one of great control and Babbitt has the ability to make every element assist in the structure of the piece (“I want a piece of music to be literally as much as possible”). However, neither the rhythmic continuity nor the permutations of the pitch materials are easily perceptible to the listener but the surface flows with subtle accents that evoke jazz.

Milton Babbitt
Composition for Four Instruments:
27 seconds

The techniques used in Three Compositions for Pianowere developed in Babbitt’s work that soon followed. In Composition for Four Instruments (1948), his attack set (1-4-3-2) is used to create individual durations as well as changing metric reference. The main statement has one sixteenth note (1) as its basic rhythmic unit; the next one a quartet note or four sixteenths (4); then a dotted eighth note (3); and finally an eighth note (2). Again, these rhythmic elements all adhere to the same operations applied to the pitch set. Babbitt, in 1948, developed the idea of a scale of twelve individual durations for his Composition for Twelve Instruments. This technique would be introduced by Messiaen to his Darmstadt students in 1949 and used extensively by Boulez.

With Partitions for piano and All Set for jazz ensemble, both written in 1957, Babbitt developed another process, called time points, for integrating pitch and rhythmic structure, providing rhythmic complements to pitches and intervals. A measure of 3/4 is divided into twelve sixteenth notes and acts as a temporal equivalency to the octave. Therefore, each individual sixteenth note can be assigned a number that corresponds to both a pitch in the octave and the articulation with the measure.

Milton Babbitt

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Babbitt became increasingly interested in the use of electronic instruments as a means of realizing his rhythmically complex music. At the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, which he helped establish, Babbitt composed electronic works with the help of the RCA Synthesizer such as Composition for Synthesizer (1960) and Ensembles for Synthesizer (1962-64). Vision and Prayer (1961), Philomel(1963), and Phonemena (1969-70) all for soprano and tape, as well as Correspondences (1967) for string orchestra and tape, combine electronics and live performers.

Charles Wuorinen
Mass for the Restoration of St. Luke in the Fields(Kyrie):
21 seconds

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The cause of this increased interest was quite possibly due to the teaching of Schenkerian analysis in American universities, a method somewhat overlooked in Europe. Schenker’s analyses indicate that tonal works consist of a layered structure, possibly implied, but unnoticed by the naïve listener. Serial composers perhaps believed that it might be possible to purposely develop a rigid serial construction, although not recognized by the listener, which would unconsciously assist in the overall

Donald Martino
30 seconds

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understanding of the piece. In fact, Wuorinen equated the Schenkerian interpretation of tonality to his own extension of Babbitt’s concept of time points into large-scale structure. Durations of larger sections or a “macrorhythmic” level correspond to both the durations on the smallest, or “microrhythmic” level and pitch in the octave, all manipulated of course by the standard operations. The small-scale rhythmic level behaves like a tonal composition’s foreground while the larger sections constitute the middle and background fundamental structure.

Mario Davidovsky
Synchronisms No. 6:
32 seconds

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While serialism was losing its sway in Europe by the late 1950’s, many young American composers at the time became heavily influenced by Babbitt’s methods as well as those of his less rigorous twelve-tone contemporaries Kirchner and George Perle, who intensely studied the work of Alban Berg and whose use of rhythm is closely related to Bartók. Even composers from an older generation, such as Elliott Carter and Wolpe were attracted to the sound of serial music if not its method of construction. And despite the incessant criticism that the logic behind the music was not discernible, Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Donald Martino, Mario Davidovsky, Andrew Imbrie, Gunther Schuller, and many other prominent American composers remain committed to serial techniques today.

From It’s About Time
by Matthew Tierney
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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