Volume 5 (2019)

Babbitt’s Beguiling Surfaces, Improvised Inside; Part I: Freedoms

Joshua Banks Mailman (Columbia University)


Link to notes

Milton Babbitt has been a controversial and iconic figure, which has indirectly led to fallacious assumptions about how his music is made, and therefore to fundamental misconceptions about how it might be heard and appreciated. This video (the first of a three-part video essay) reconsiders his music in light of both his personal traits and a more precise examination of the constraints and freedoms entailed by his unusual and often misunderstood compositional practices, which are based inherently on partial ordering (as well as pitch repetition), which enables a surprising amount of freedom to compose the surface details we hear. The opening of Babbitt’s Composition for Four Instruments (1948) and three recompositions (based on re-ordering of pitches) demonstrate the freedoms intrinsic to partial ordering.

Keywords: cold war, historiography, improvisation, integral serialism, partial ordering, recomposition, twelve-tone, ludic

DOI: http://doi.org/10.30535/smtv.5.1


Babbitt’s Beguiling Surfaces, Improvised Inside; Part II: Diversities

Joshua Banks Mailman (Columbia University)


Link to notes

Babbitt’s pre-compositional structures (partial orderings) serve as a series of game-like rules affecting the composition of surface details we hear. Especially in Babbitt’s late works (post-1980) these partial ordering rules vary drastically in terms of how much freedom they allow. This variance can be modeled mathematically (a computational formula is explained and visualized). This video (the second of a three-part video essay) reveals, in an excerpt from Babbitt’s 1987 sax and piano work Whirled Series, an intricate web of referential details (serial and tonal) that are improvised from the trillions of possibilities enabled by its background structure (partial ordering). The advantages of this peculiar improvisatory compositional situation in which Babbitt places himself are compared to visual art, chord-based bebop jazz improvisation, and to current ethics-infused philosophies of improvisation.

Keywords: array, blues, David Lewin, dodecaphony, George Lewis, indeterminacy, partition, permutation, row, visualization

DOI: http://doi.org/10.30535/smtv.5.2


Babbitt’s Beguiling Surfaces, Improvised Inside; Part III: Opportunities

Joshua Banks Mailman (Columbia University)


Link to notes

Babbitt’s relatively early composition Semi-Simple Variations (1956) presents intriguing surface patterns that are not determined by its pre-compositional plan, but rather result from subsequent “improvised” decisions that are strategic. This video (the third of a three-part video essay) considers Babbitt’s own conversational pronouncements (in radio interviews) together with some particulars of his life-long musical activities, that together suggest uncanny affiliations to jazz improvisation. As a result of Babbitt’s creative reconceptualizing of planning and spontaneity in music, his pre-compositional structures (partial orderings) fit in an unexpected way into (or reformulate) the ecosystem relating music composition to the physical means of its performance.

Keywords: Bad Plus, Boulez, contrafact, interval class, jazz, revisions, voice-leading space, Robert Morris

DOI: http://doi.org/10.30535/smtv.5.3


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