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BABBITT, Milton: Around the Horn / None but the Lonely Flute

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Milton Babbitt (b. 1916)

Soli e Duettini

One prepossessing characteristic of Milton Babbitt'smusic is that its lines jump around a lot. Howeverintrinsically appealing, this gains something from thefact that they also do not. The jumps sample streams ofslower activity, communicate between them. Thisaddition slows the frantic motion - better, changes ourimpression of it without slowing it: what is highlyagitated is also carefully grounded, even gentlyregulated. Polyphony of movement defines Babbitt'ssound: fast and slow, disjointed and regular, manic andglacial--dichotomies peculiarly unavailable even whilesuggested by singular multiplicity of motion.

The phenomenon may be clearest with sloweraction suspended, as at the beginning of Around theHorn. Three oddly spaced pitches are revisited,gradually brought into motion (the lower ones resistlonger). Such \polyphonic" hearing is not pressed soobviously by the free, wide-ranging tunes that openNone But The Lonely Flute or Soli e Duettini, but it isavailable there, too, retaining and connecting distinctivepoints in the fantastic contours. Babbitt typically makesevery note figure in several melodies: at least themelody of its immediate predecessors and successors(possibly rather unlike it) and the slower melody ofnotes like it (possibly removed from it in time). Thesemelodies often reflect one another across disparities ofcharacter and speed; but more fundamental than anyresemblance is the simple fact that they are all there.

The essence of Babbitt's sound is several things goingon at a time--even with only one note.

Babbitt's writing may not change much for groupsof instruments: combining their tunes into an ensembletune need not differ in principle from combining tuneswithin one of their parts. The creation of a virtualpolyphony in a single line, one of the oldest tricks in thebook, gets an idiosyncratic reading in Babbitt's actualpolyphony. Often the ensemble plays one melody, withthe capacity occasionally to hold a note over into thenext, or introduce a few notes at a time.

Babbitt's multilayered melodiousness can beassimilated to the one characteristic always attributed tohis music, its being twelve-tone: the slower lines are therows (roughly). But to view Babbitt's polyphony as adevice for high-density transmission of the series is tochoose a grimly functional interpretation overalternatives more engaging, and more apparent. Betterto err in the other direction and imagine the seriesworking, often behind the scenes, to keep skittishnessfrom being sheer scatter. The result is distinctivemotion: adroitly unnatural, with startlingly agile objectsmoving to more than one place at more than one speed,rearranging ordinary associations between effort andexpression, mixing stress and lightness.

The most spectacular results may be in Around theHorn (1993), performed by William Purvis, for whom itwas written. The title's pun predicts the piece's conduct:the horn has to be almost everywhere in a two-and-ahalf-octave range almost all the time. Before hearing thepiece, it is hard to imagine how horn music could movelike this; upon hearing it, it is hard to imagine howPurvis achieves such facility without denaturing hissound, which is always highly charged, finely inflected,and utterly characteristic of the instrument. Besidesmixing high and low, loud and soft, the music variessharply in character, suddenly delicate or wild or heroic,perhaps following with a deflating aside. The horn'straditional associations play into a striking harmonictrait: "diatonic" figures, including plenty of majortriads, against a distinctly nondiatonic background. Onefurther association is with the virtuoso horn playing ofGunther Schuller; the piece is dedicated to the memoryof his wife Marjorie.

In None But The Lonely Flute (1991), again the linemoves constantly through a wide range; but since thisrequires no exceptional effort on the flute, theimpression is different. An ordinary quality of the flutegets extraordinarily free play (one reviewer wrote of"pure fluting"); it speaks easily, in exceptionally long,clear phrases, whose internal variety is voluble rather thandramatic. Gradually these phrases grow reluctant to end,potential endings undermined by the return of precedingdetails. There are no major changes, no markedsections--just a long, long tune.

The lines of Melismata (1982) attain their length in adifferent way. The title suggests their sense of floridlyornamentating something slow, a sense that must arisefrom the clearer presence of a beat, and a different mix offast and slow. Very striking is the possibility of a longnote at almost any moment. The registral movement isdifferent, too: the entire range often seems to be in playeven when parts of it are not actually sounding; passagesof narrow range seem contracted.

Play It Again, Sam (1989) is the most mercurial solo.

With an often bumptious registral discontinuity comefrequent switches in playing technique, shifts in tempo,variation of harmonic flavour, and, most interestingly,almost incessant change in the rate of change in variousdimensions. The possibilities even include outbreaks ofcontinuity (often lyrical and high), tempering thepotential jokiness. (The title's famously apocryphalquotation from Casablanca makes a technical allusion toBabbitt's Arie da Capo.)Opportunities may be limited in Babbitt's study forsnare drum, Homily (1987), but the score's afterworddraws a promise of transcendence from St JohnChrysostom: "And why, is it asked, are there so manysnares? That we may not fly low, but seek the things thatare above". Multilinearity is sought in the realm ofdynamics, often underscored by use of two differentbeaters at once. Still this piece may be hard to hear ascontrapuntal, since louder strokes so easily dominatesofter ones. While Homily's durational construction islike that of most of the other pieces, it is simpler in effect,showing how contour, timbre, and pitch enliven Babbitt'srhythm under normal conditions.

Dynamic stratification is easy to hear on themarimba: in Beaten Paths (1988), counterpoint betweensharply struck notes and ghostly ones is as vivid as thatbetween high and low ones. This may be natural, giventhe equivocal registral effect of single marimba tones; thesame timbral peculiarity allows the piece's octaves not tostand out sharply (as in Soli e Duettini or Whirled Series).

Registral counterpoint makes Beaten Paths a kind of duo,high and low; but its sectional contrasts come more fromsonority than range: changes in the color of the bubbling.

The local rhythms are delicate and tricky, inflected bydynamic crosscutting, contour, and timbre.

Babbitt's ideal of more than one thing happening at atime reaches a technical extreme Soli e Duettini (1989;the second of three pieces with this title). Not only is eachinstrument's part a self-sufficient polyphony that mightsuffice for a solo piece (that literally does in None ButThe Lonely Flute), but they do not quite share the sameseries. More immediately, they don't act much alike: theguitar part is amply polyphonic in itself, and the two partsoften slide past each other rhythmically, not interlockingas simply or as often as in the other duos. Susan Palma-Nidel and David Starobin, who negotiate these rhythmicdisengagements and reengagements with such grace, arethe work's dedicatees.

The applicability of this work's title to the entirecollection may be a fortuity, but its application to thework's form is direct: the instruments' comings andgoings create clear sections. This is the only piece forwhich it would be easy to lay out a "form" -- flute solo,duo (long, punctuated halfway by an abortive guitar solo),guitar solo, duo (short), flute, duo (short), guitar, duo(long, ending with a brief flute solo, even mo
Disc: 1
1 Part I
2 Part II
3 Whirled Series
4 None but the Lonely Flute
5 Homily
6 Beaten Paths
7 Play it Again, Sam
8 Soli e Duettini
9 Melismata
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