Thinking In and About Music: Analytical Reflections on Milton Babbitt's Music and Thought

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  1. Zachary Bernstein
Thinking In and About Music


After all, the way you think about music is the way you hear music. You can’t possibly separate knowing how and knowing that or thinking about and thinking that and thinking in.

—Milton Babbitt, interview with Charles Amirkhanian

Milton Babbitt was, at once, one of the twentieth century’s foremost composers and a founder of American music theory. These two aspects of his creative life, “thinking in” and “thinking about” music, nourished each other. Theory and analysis inspired fresh compositional ideas, and composi- tional concerns focused theoretical and analytical inquiry. But the relationship between Babbitt’s writings and his music is neither simple nor direct. It is the purpose of this volume to look into Babbitt’s theoretical and compositional work side by side—to evaluate ways in which the ideas developed in his writings illuminate his music and ways in which his music goes beyond those ideas.

I first arrived in New York City as an impressionable teenager—in fact, at almost exactly the same age Babbitt had come to New York some seventy years earlier. It was 2005. Babbitt’s ninetieth birthday was that coming spring, and throughout the year there were many concerts celebrating his work. It was by attending quite a number of these that I first encountered Babbitt’s music, and I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate that my introduction to Babbitt’s music was through direct experience of live performances, unencumbered by ideology, by misplaced suppositions about his elitism, or by any sense of what I was supposed to be listening for. Although I have since acquired an interest in Babbitt’s intellectual background and find his writing a continually enriching source of speculation and puzzlement, it is my original fascination with the experience of his music that has sustained this project.

I eventually came to recognize that Babbitt’s writings suggested a compelling story about his music, but that his music itself was richer, less tidily formalistic, and simply more interesting than his writings suggest. His writings establish the principles behind his serial arrays, but as Joseph Dubiel has long argued, an array is not a composition; analysts must not conflate the two. There is more in Babbitt’s music than a succession of series forms and aggregates. I found the relationship between Babbitt’s systems and his music, to put it as Babbitt might have, to be problematical—it posed interesting questions I wanted to explore. It was through this realization that I came to feel that the simultaneous consideration of Babbitt’s writings and his music was a worthwhile standpoint for an analyst to adopt.

The book opens with two chapters primarily concerned with Babbitt’s prose and the compositional procedures that reflect principles he theorizes. Chapter 1 excavates the influence of Heinrich Schenker on Babbitt. I discuss how Babbitt’s compositional arrays build upon his interest in Schenkerian hierarchy. Schenkerian organicism, in turn, provides expectations— hierarchical development, the surface of the music reflecting its presumed source, and so forth—that prove fruitful analytically when approaching his music: one can interpret his music on the basis of expectations met or subverted. Chapter 2 focuses on Babbitt’s philosophical and cognitive interests, which lead via other routes to a similar set of principles. In both chapters, although historical and intellectual context is given as necessary, Babbitt’s writings are examined with the greedy eye of an analyst—a reader concerned above all with enriching and clarifying his own encounters with Babbitt’s music. 1 Within these chapters, I review the most important elements of Babbitt’s compositional procedures: trichordal arrays, all-partition arrays, the time-point system, and cross-references. I do not provide a full-scale exposition of his compositional techniques—there already exists an excellent book, Andrew Mead’s An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt, that does just that. But enough information is provided in these chapters that a reader unacquainted with prior scholarship on Babbitt will be introduced to the main features of his approach. (The book’s glossary should also aid the uninitiated.) Moreover, the overview of his com- positional procedures is illuminated by the newly available Milton Babbitt Collection at the Library of Congress, a stunning resource likely to keep Babbitt scholars busy for years.

Chapter 3 expands on prior discussions of Babbitt’s compositional procedures with a close examination of a pivotal period in his compositional development, the years around 1960. The various transformations of Babbitt’s technique in those years are revealing about certain lifelong concerns of his, particularly regarding perception.

The remaining chapters shift the focus to Babbitt’s music itself, although I continually return to his writings and compositional procedures when they prove relevant or enlightening. In general, Chapters 4 to 7 gradually transition from an analytical stance focused on serialism to one that views serial analysis from a greater distance. While Babbitt’s writings and compositional techniques offer insight to analysts, there is uncertainty about the implementation of those insights and, more importantly, much going on in his music that is not directly attributable to serialism and in some cases is even in conflict with serial principles. Four topics almost wholly unaccounted for in Babbitt’s writings guide these chapters: rhetoric, gesture, temporality, and text setting, each of which is shown to supplement and in some cases supplant serial considerations. Chapter 4 examines Composition for Four Instruments (1948), a prominent early work, noting both the challenges in identifying its series and the value in doing so. In particular, it is shown that identifying the work’s series helps isolate aspects of the work that are not explainable by reference to the series; these aspects are shown to have rhetorical significance. Chapter 5 discusses text-music relations in five of Babbitt’s early texted pieces, highlighting the techniques he developed for the projection of poetic form and meaning. In several of these works, his typical serial procedures are altered or even abandoned for the sake of text setting. Chapter 6 focuses on the issue of syntactical completeness and its link to temporality. While Babbitt’s techniques create expectations for when his arrays, and thus his compositions, will be completed, his compositions often deviate from these expectations. This inspires a reflection on just what the temporal experience of Babbitt’s music is like. Local rhetorical devices are shown to be more responsible for the perception of closure than serial hierarchy. Finally, Chapter 7 focuses on the gestural characteristics of Babbitt’s music. Babbitt’s music is shown to inspire embodied sensation, more in spite of than because of serial hier- archy. At times, he breaks from serial expectations in order to heighten his music’s gestural impact.

The analytical results of Chapters 4–7 challenge the theoretical vision outlined in Chapters 1–2. How should Babbitt’s writing be taken as a guide to his music given the many ways in which his music goes beyond his theories? A brief Afterword meditates on the problematic picture that remains.


Research can feel like a solitary exercise, but no author writes alone. This book is the result of a lifetime of good fortune and the contributions of more people than I can count.

Several hundred students at the Eastman School of Music provided unwitting feedback on the book’s arguments in the form of class discussion. (There is no more helpful audience than a skeptical classroom!) The students in my 2016 PhD seminar—Alyssa Barna, David Hier, Catrina Kim, Samuel Reenan, and Tobias Tschiedl—proved especially insightful. Eastman has also repeatedly provided crucial material support. Professional Development Committee Grants enabled me to air out the book’s ideas at numerous conferences and supported indexing expenses, and a Spring 2019 Academic Leave saw the book to its conclusion.

The ideas presented here first began to take shape during my time at the CUNY Graduate Center, and I remain indebted to the mentorship I received there. Joseph Straus’s encouragement has buoyed my work since its earliest stages, and I can hardly imagine how my career would have unfolded without the opportunities he provided for me. William Rothstein continues to represent an ideal of clear writing and clear thought. And Jeff Nichols has provided a constant reminder that one should seek truth rather than simplicity. My time at CUNY was also enriched by a brilliant circle of classmates. Ellen Bakulina, Steven Beck, Daniel Colson, Edward Klorman, Drew Nobile, and Andrew Wilson deserve particular mention. Loretta Terrigno was a vital part of this circle, too, but more on her in a moment.

The contents of this book were informed by many conversations and exchanges over a very long period of time. I’d like to thank in particular Matthew BaileyShea, Joseph Dubiel, Edward Klorman, Scott Gleason, Harold and Sharon Krebs, Alison Maggart, Joshua Banks Mailman, Andrew Mead, Robert Morris, Stephen Peles, Claudio Spies, Philip Stoecker, and above all Daniel Colson, who was an invaluable companion in the early stages of my thinking on Babbitt. As I was writing, Matt, Scott, Ed, and Phil lent their careful eyes to several draft chapters. You can blame any remaining errors on them.

Betty Ann Duggan has generously enabled me to access and reproduce her father’s sketch materials. Librarians, as ever, are the heroes behind the scenes; I’m particularly indebted to those at the Library of Congress, Sibley Music Library, New York Public Library, Juilliard, and the CUNY Graduate Center. A Subvention Award from the Society for Music Theory offset the cost of copyright permissions. Susan Monahan provided terrific help with indexing. And the keen-eyed staff at Oxford University Press and Newgen Knowledge Works, including Sean Decker, Norman Hirschy, Joseph Matson, Ayshwarya Ramakrishnan, and Suzanne Ryan could not have been more helpful, efficient, or pleasant to work with.

My family has given me unquestioning (if occasionally bemused) support as I pursued this most unlikely of career paths. My wife, Loretta, is a constant sounding board, reality check, and source of comfort. She’s more patient than I deserve. Andrew Sessler, my grandfather, showed me the value of relentless curiosity. My father, Jeffrey Bernstein, gave me his warmth and loving confidence. While neither lived to see this book completed, it would have been unthinkable without their guidance and example. I dedicate it to them.
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