The clipping above is from a Newseek article that covered Bethany Beardsley Winham’s premiere of Vision & Prayer in 1961.
On May 19 of this year, 2016, soprano Elizabeth Farnum will take on “Vision and Prayer”, with the help of a performance guide prepared by Bethany’s friend Mimmi Fulmer. The concert is at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, at Symphony Space. At 7:30, Ms. Fulmer will introduce her performer’s guide to Vision and Prayer, and she will also introduce Bethany’s memoir and discuss that with Bethany. The discussion and performance will be streamed live by Livamp.
Also on the program is Cygnus’ Babbitt masterpiece, Swan Song No. 1, and a major premiere by Charles Wuorinen entitled, “Cygnus”, with other premieres by Paul Lansky, Frank Brickle, Jonathan Dawe, David Claman, and Konrad Kaczmarek.
From Bethany’s memoir: “I have always loved Vision and Prayer. It is, in retrospect, my favorite piece of Milton’s.”
Interesting to note that Bethany loves Babbitt’s music because it is “utterly diatonic”. (More on this below.) Milton mentioned to me at one point that Bethany always related the vocal line to scale degrees. He suggested that he allowed her that indulgence. I love Swan Song because it is faithful to both sides of the M5 equation. (In short, multiply the chromatic scale by 5, mod 12 and you get the 4th cycle. I feel Babbitt didn’t under-represnt either; Boulez wanted to keep breathing the air of other more Webernian planets. In other words, he eschewed the familiar diatonic harmonies. ) Swan Song No. 1 is chock full of sweet diatonic harmonies. Conductor James Baker said in a rehearsal that the piece is very “tonal”. (The players all supplied the quotation marks. The terms “tonal” and “diatonic” need to be carefully defined and qualified. There is no scale of “diatonicness” or “tonalness”. It’s complicated. ) A closer look shows that Swan Song is chock full of fantastic non-diatonic harmonies, in roghly equal measure to the familiar diatonic sounds. Those non-diatonic harmonies don’t seem to land the way the diatonic harmonies can; they cannot be wrestled to the ground; they are propulsive, dynamic, dramatic foils to the comfortable & familiar.
Bethany’s memoir points up a key distinction between the modernism of Boulez & Babbitt, about which there is much to say, all in due time.
The performance guide includes much helpful information that Bethany, often with the help of her husband, composer Godrey Winham, gleaned from close listening to the tape part, which was sparsely notated.
“I am sure that the experience of hearing Vision and Prayer was far more startling for the audience, than it was for me. I’d practiced it to death and only had to worry about hearing my cues so I wouldn’t miss an entrance. Electronic music was in its infancy, Milton was its fierce pioneer — and about to be famous for it — but the audience would be ambivalent for years to come. In the New York Times the day after the premier Eric Salzman’s qualified response was quite hard to read. He wrote, “The quality of Mr. Babbitt’s musical thought is the same whether he writes for instruments, voice or the electronic music synthesizer. There is an expressive quality to the very purity of his musical thing.
“I performed Vision and Prayer again in May of 1963 as part of a three-day festival sponsored by the Princeton-Columbia Electronic Music Center. This time I had twelve speakers accompanying me — they were mounted all around the periphery of the McMillan Theater at Columbia. It was astounding. The whole time I was singing I felt as if I were emerging from a vortex of electronic sound and the audience was surrounded too by the music, coming at them from twelve different directions. Milton must have been in seventh heaven. I think he would have liked for all of his beautiful electronic scores ultimately to be experienced this way, a sensory blast.
“I was fully caught up in the excitement. Newsweek came to interview me before the premiere — my friend Fay Lansner’s husband Kermit was the Executive Editor. The article ran with the title “A Composer’s Singer” and described my particular niche and the difficult work I’d become known for. I was so brazen. In one section they quote me saying: “I don’t think in terms of the public. Music is for musicians. If the public wants to come along and study it, fine. I don’t go and tell a scientist his business because I don’t know anything about it. Music is just the same way. Music is art and not entertainment.” I still stand by what I said but I have to admit that I was just a bit over the top!”
“The Hunter College performance was part of a big Boulez-Babbitt concert tour we did the following year. The program was made up of Le Marteau sans Maitre, and Vision and Prayer. It was interesting to work on the pieces together and gave me the opportunity to compare the two great composers. Milton’s music stood out from his peers of this time in that it was absolutely diatonic; and all of his most complicated material was happening in the background. There was none of the hopping and skipping all over the place that these other guys made you do—the intervals in Le Marteau. Singing Milton was like singing Schubert in comparison.
“While we were on tour, I had the chance to ask Boulez what he thought of Vision and Prayer and he answered laconically, “It seems to me like a long song cycle.” That was all. I laughed, because it didn’t seem like much of an answer. I wondered whether he noticed the whole new electronic medium, the unusual formalism of the poem as well as Milton’s setting? Boulez’s response at the time seemed so non-committal. And yet just a few years later, Boulez built IRCAM, his own electronic music center in Paris—so I have to assume that he was indeed totally aware of, even tracking, Milton’s involvement in the medium and its endless possibilities.”
In Yesterday’s NY Times, CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM laid into a contemporary Austrian modernist, beginning her sally with this quote from Milton Babbitt:
“Nothing gets old faster than a new sound.”
Frank Brickle, whose music will be heard on May 19, remembers the quote, explaining, “This line was part of his standard lecture (with examples) about the electronic medium. He would start off by explaining that his interest wasn’t in “new” sounds but rather in precision. In retrospect some of the most interesting illustrations concerned the loudspeaker itself, how even the “best” recording and reproduction is a profoundly different experience from hearing live, present sound.”
Here in the US composers are not coddled by the state. The Beardsley-Babbitt era was a rare moment when the state was somewhat sympathetic with ambitious art, for some interesting, surprising reasons. The choice of works programmed on May 19th, by composers connected to Babbitt and Princeton, is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate how ambitious music doesn’t have to sound like a high modernist work from the ’60s. Those high modernists liked to talk about the likes of Haydn and Bach, not limiting themselves to discussions of revolutionaries like Beethoven. RSF and Cygnus are not interested in turning away from challenging music, but we hope to demonstrate that sophistication can be found in a great diversity of surfaces, some deceptively simple, in a first hearing. We have sought out the maverick modernists who accepted a bit of pressure from the minimalists. I call them “post-maximalists”.
If the state has let our composers here in the US sink or swim, we should not be surprised to find some swimmers. Some of their music is quite good, and innovative in surprising ways. They have created an audience. It’s not exactly our audience, but, I content, it’s an audience that is within striking distance of this new American “post-maximalist”.
“One night backstage during that era, Boulez and I were chatting and he told me that he had “laid out the course of his career for the years to come.” Ambitious man. I was impressed by his seriousness and determination of his future, but frankly—even as I was well into my professional career—it all seemed rather too businesslike to me. Nonetheless he had a plan for himself, and it worked out terrifically well.”
This comment is entirely consistent with an anecdote from Linda Weatherell, who was the flutist for Boulez’ Ensemble Intercontemporain for a time. She mentioned that Boulez advised her *not* to concern herself with maintaining a relationship with people and organizations who hired her. Just move on.
Yes, it all went terrifically well for Boulez. Milton Babbitt, on the other hand, would have to suffer decades of work with little groups such as Jaques Monod’s NY Guild of Composers, Robert Pollock’s Composers Guild of New Jersey, as well as Cygnus, all quietly working on a shoestring, and in the shadow of the minimalists. The world whizzed by, although there was the incomprable and invaluable James Levine and his Met Chamber Players and *his* BSO. Quietly, under the radar, Babbitt kept doing his thing, kept doing it better and better.
…Work in progress
William Anderson is a guitarist and composer and an advisor to the Roger Shapiro Fund.