Thursday, March 10, 2016

Milton Babbitt: An Elizabethan Sextette/Solo Piano Works/Groupwise/Vision and Prayer

Milton Babbitt has often been criticized for being cold, mechanical, and overly intellectual, with his interests in electronics and twelve-tone composition lacking human elements.  However, a recent read of his Words About Music, a compilation of lectures he gave about his views on Schoenberg's system and other aspects of music, while often very technical and beyond this amateur's understanding, revealed someone who had a quick sense of humor, a way of lecturing to students and others and, more importantly, a total passion for his calling.

It's one thing not to like someone's work because it just doesn't reach you, but it's quite another to dismiss it because of perceptions about a composer's qualities.

This recording, then, is an excellent example of showing Babbitt in a variety of settings, including some beautiful vocal works that amply demonstrate a very human approach to composition.  "An Elizabethan Sextette" is, of course, a series of a half-dozen love poems from the Elizabethan era, including one by the famed queen.  The singing is in six parts, so this sense of polyphony adds to the lushness and captivating nature of the works.

Alan Feinberg's piano work on five pieces, four of which are under 2 1/2 minutes with the last, "About Time" running over twelve, is recorded with great clarity, his performance precise, and the composition compelling.  The piano is inherently an evocative instrument and, whatever views there are about twelve-tone composition, the range of sounds generated in these pieces show, to this untutored listener, a certain warmth, as well as of virtuosity and the interesting combinations and recombinations of twelve-tone technique utilized.

"Groupwise," is a concerto for flute, alto flute and piccolo with a piano and string trio accompaniment.  The flute is almost constantly soloing, but the range of sounds generated by the other instruments in conjunction with the main one is striking and alluring.  The piano has its own sort of sound world, while the string trio has its, as well and then there are duos of violin and cello and what appears to be a viola and cello.  Exploring low and high registers, using pizzicato techniques, and unusual arrays of long and short notes are just a few examples of what this untrained ear can pick out as far as notable sound elements.  Simply put, what's attractive about this is the way the various instrument combinations "speak" to one another within the recombinations of the twelve tone set.

Dylan Thomas's poem "Vision and Prayer" is rendered into a striking piece with Babbitt's use of electronic tape from the classic Mark II RCA Synthesizer at the pioneering Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (another recently-read book, Electronic Sound, discussed this instrument and center at some length by author and composer, Joel Chadabe) and the now-90 year old Bethanie Beardslee's utterly amazing soprano vocals from a recording many years earlier than the late 1980s ones on the rest of this album. Here is a way for the electronics to mesh with the human voice so it isn't overly harsh or forbidding--unless you just don't like electronic sound to begin with.

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