Milton Babbitt and the Erotics of Inversion


Milton Babbitt and the Erotics of Inversion

14 May 2016 / William Anderson / Compositions, composers, On the Beat

There were many things I’d hoped to accomplish before Milton Babbitt’s 100th Birthday. This is another thing that didn’t get done.

Babbitt & The Erotics of Inversion

This piece began as a lecture at the Universidad Veracruzana in September, 2015, hosted by Babbitt protégé, Emil Awad.

This is still a very rough draft.

And we release this now in connection with the May 19 Babbitt Centenary concert at Symphony Space:

The minimalists created new audiences for new music while also demonstrating that music does not need to move in a straight line. The minimalists demonstrated that there can be no “devolution” in music, as music that does less will nevertheless bear the unique stamp of its time. The point about devolution cuts to the heart of a major 20th Century error that set the world on edge in that horrific century.

Music can be said to evolve because the prefix “e” is value neutral, meaning simply, “move away”. Music is constantly moving away, fulfilling human desire and more often creating new human desires out of thin air. Steve Reich’s *Piano Phase* is a perfect example. Who knew that we would be on the edge of our seats, looking forward to the next moment when the 16th notes phase into 32nds? That was new.

And new, also, is the opening of Babbitt’s Swan Song No. 1. Did we know it would be such a delight to hear various transpositions of diatonic hexachords set-off by cathartic 0127 crunches?

Yet the first example is a texture and a process, while second is another kind of texture and process that directly involves a pitch idea, a pitch strategy. Reich gets credit for an innovation that falls outside that realm where we had been accustomed to look for something innovative. It is generally true of Babbitt that his innovations are within traditionally circumscribed realms. He was not ashamed of that, even while Boulez criticized him for that.

One might be tempted to say that minimalism *devolved* in that there is so much that music does that is no longer done in this or that minimalist work. Yet the Reich example shows how misguided such a judgement would be. Strategy is not at all linear because unexpected categories can spring into being out of nowhere. **Moreover, a music that does less, being of its time, is psychologically overdetermined, and therefore, potentially a highly valuable insight into its time, particularly when we investigate the discomfort it causes as well as the satisfactions it proffers.**

What prompted James Levine to bait Milton Babbitt on his 90th birthday concert at Weill Hall? In their pre-concert talk Levine said something like: your music is the core of Western musical development. Babbitt replied, aptly, that we cannot speak in those terms. More on this, below.

Levine was tempted to say that about Babbitt because Babbitt had made great inroads, truly historic inroads (still a loaded thing to say, granted), into a very old musical vein– inversion.

Music answers human needs, and creates new kinds of musical rewards, yet nevertheless, specific techniques or areas of investigation are much like that vein of ore. It sits there waiting to be mined to its bitter end. There are circumscribed areas of discovery that seem to vindicate Hegel. Inversion was one of those. (Is one of those?) It gives comfort to the lost soul who is looking for something firm upon which to stand. Those searching for a *ding an sich* or searching for God, look happily upon such clearly circumscribed areas of study. Science works in this way. Babbitt & Boulez both loved to think scientifically about music.

We can work our way around to a position where we can grant Schoenberg his Hegelian grandiosity. We do this by circumscribing Hegel. We do not allow that music is over after Schoenberg or Babbitt, but we see that a line of development with august vintage is coming into a fine ripeness.

Schoenberg deserves every bit of the respect and adulation that he was defiantly demanding because he advanced a circumscribed area of musical exploration that was hallowed by the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms. We think through this a bit more, below.

This history of the erotics of inversion is interesting in and of itself, but it is also a model for understanding and putting into context other historicist claims. Here’s something that I once heard Milton allude to– “musicist analysis”. What does music tell us about life? Marxist, feminist, ………*musicist* analysis.

One end run around Hegelian idealism is pragmatism. We can see Babbitt adopting pragmatic terms, even as people like James Levine tried to lure him to a more grandiose posture.

In the famous & infamous “Who Cares if You Listen?” article in Stereo Review, Babbitt used the word, “evolve”. His detractors and even some of his admirers pounced on that. Regardless of the value neutral aspects of the prefix, “e”, the word evolve is nevertheless loaded. Babbitt was aware of that. In later program notes he spoke of music being “everything it can be”. It can do what he wants it to do, and that might be something musically worthwhile that music had never done before. A group of enthusiastic players and listeners recognized what he was doing, which was all the recognition he had hoped for. (More about that achievement will follow.) One of the most powerful of Babbitt’s champions was James Levine. For Babbitt’s 90th birthday Levine and his Metropolitan Opera Chamber Players put on a concert of Babbitt’s music at Weill Hall. In the pre-concert talk between Babbitt & Levine, the opening gambit went straight to the heart of the matter when Levine proposed that Babbitt’s work is the primary thrust of Western musical evolution. Then, the show opened with me & tenor Neil Farrell performing the Cavalier Settings. (The exact wording of Levine’s remark can probably be found in the archival recording of the concert of the Metropolitan Opera Chamber Players, May 10, 2006.) Babbitt’s response was that we cannot speak in those terms. This exchange has not received the recognition that it deserves. It was really very amusing of Levine to take that tack, but it offered Babbitt another very public opportunity to set the record straight.

There’s no doubt that Babbitt loved to use language whose complexity mirrored the complexity of his music. That was one of his more charming gags. In many cases, however, Babbitt was very careful to speak plainly and simply. He would speak plainly when he needed to dispel magical thinking, teleological language, or misguided analogies between music and math or music and science. One example: I once proposed to him that his music is fractal. No, he said, I am interested in relationships between big things and small things, if you want fractal music you should go to Jonathan Dawe. Babbitt had no patience with Douglas Hofstadter, and there were occasions when Hofstadter-type errors would crop up in a lecture/discussion—a misapplication of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, for example—and it was at such moments when he would look for the most simple way to avoid error. ** “Making music everything it can be” is a pragmatic end run around historicist traps. **

The Inversion Vein

Babbitt should be celebrated for defining terms that are still in use today. His defining and redefining of terms was exhaustive and perfectly suited to the reorientations that took place in the aftermath of Schoenberg & Webern. However, to dwell on that accomplishment plays into the hands of those nay-sayers who wish to dismiss his work as a composer. In his creative work, Babbitt followed a vein and mined it. If we put it this way, one might say that someone had to do it, had to follow a line of thinking and make a case for its musical value. He mined inversion.

The same case can be made for Schoenberg. Schoenberg used grandiose historicist language to describe what he did. We can reword Schoenberg’s statements in pragmatic terms along the lines shown in the careful adjustments that Babbitt made in his language.

The third movement of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, op. 114 begins with arpeggiations of A minor and F major, with the high point of the line teetering between E and F—

A minor A, C, E

F major F, A, C

Minor and major triads are inversions of one another.

F major: F up to A is 4 half steps; A up to C is 3 half steps.

A minor: E down to C is 4 half steps; C down to A is 3 half steps.

Next in op. 114 there is an explosion of yet another inversional shape. E-F! — E-D#!

Up one half step; down one half step.

Notice the counterpoint in the accompanying figures. The accompaniment of E-D# is the exact inversion of the accompaniment of E-F. (!)

The traditional harmonic changes are fleshed out with attention to the inherent inversional relationships in those functional harmonic moves. Schoenberg was the one who asked and answered the question, “can the inversional relationships usurp the functional harmony altogether, so that the functional harmony can be dispensed with?”.

During a calamitous century that forced Schoenberg to a continent that understood frightfully little about all that was dear to him, he seems to have taken pleasure in speaking of his achievements in grandiose, Hegelian terms. We must note the odd parallel to the forces that drove him out of Europe—another grandiose Hegelian error along racist lines. In pragmatic terms, Schoenberg was making music everything it could be. With great skill and artistry he made a case for music based on a “tune” (row) and its inversion (and their retrogrades), and dispensing with traditional harmony. That is an understatement in that Schoenberg brought to his task the sensibility of a consummate post-Wagnerian, post-Brahmsian master of thematic development.

Babbitt took inversion further.

At this point it will be useful to outline the poetics of inversion from Bach through Schoenberg & Babbitt. The relationships can be dazzling in their own right, but some acknowledgement of the way inversion aged and seasoned and fermented over the centuries will help explain why anyone should care about inversion. We must understand *the erotics* of inversion. What blew their skirts up?

In Bach’s binary forms, the A section progresses from I to V; the B section progresses from V to I. These two big structural moves are inversions of each other. [example] It was an aspect of Bach’s work ethic, part of his craft, to reflect the large inversional relationship in the smallest melodic details within the sections. [examples]. We could think of this as working in a manner that is sensitive to the “grain” of his materials. It is more than that. It can be compared to Goethe’s reaction to the discovery of the presence of an inter-maxillary bone in humans, through which he and the others concluded that humans are another “tone” or “shade” of the cosmic harmony– not unique, as previously believed. Humans were thought to be unique because the human intermaxillary bone was fused and its identity disguised, misleading anatomists to conclude that humans were a world apart from the other animals. No, the human skeleton was a variation of the other animals’ skeletons. Bach was not so much less scientific than Goethe. If we think of Goethe’s take as being far more pantheistic, more Spinozan than Bach could have been, we may be wrong. It’s quite certain that Bach was aware of the Pietists and its figurehead Jakob Böhme. Böhme’s neoplatonic influences include much that might be seen influencing both Bach and Goethe—the macrocosm reflected in the microcosm. Goethe later expands this to, “what is within is also without”. There’s a book called Goethe the Alchemist by Ronald D. Gray that shows Böhme as being very much on the way toward Goethe’s Pantheism, toward the Urpflanze. Richard Strauss’ Metamorphen is prefigured often in prior music, particularly in Bach’s brise style.

Quick sketches:

Mozart was a master of using 014 and 034 (inversions) chords to reach out and grab us at important moments. What can get nore attention than a 6/4 chord? A 6/4 with an 014 setup. That’s something that strikes us in Mozart.

Altering a scale chromatically grabs attention. Beethoven was obsessed with the way an enharmonic move could over-foreground a chromatic move. The Diabelli Variations do this systematically. This works through Jazzy tritone substitutions. 06 become 60; The 3rd and 7th switch roles. It’s an inversional relationship. This is happening in every beat in some some of the harmonies that can underpin the blues scale. Bach knew how this over-forgrounding works; look at how the augmented 6 chord in the famous passacaglia steals the show, but it’s used so sparingly. Beethoven was the master of the sforzando, of the explosions, but he could carefully calibrate the power of each, and knew how one can trump another.

Longer sketches:

Chopin’s B minor Scherzo opens with a high chord and a low chord. The first would become known as the “Tristan chord”, through its association with Tristan in Wagner’s opera. The second chord is the dominant 7 chord, which is the precise inversion of the Tristan chord. The Tristan chord is a pre-dominant chord, as mystifying in its ultimate destination as the dominant 7 is definitive. There is nothing in the West that is more akin to the Chinese yin/yang. These two harmonies perform yin/yang better than any words can explain it. Music goes (lovingly) until it stops and the V7 signals the end. Eros & Thanatos—Love & Death are flip sides of the same thing.

Wagner was the model *Symboliste*. The Symbolists see objects of erotic attraction building first enthusiasm and quickly undoing themselves, burning out, dying. Tristan & Isolde’s *Liebestodt* is axiomatic. The ideal is found in many other lovely post-wagnerian manifestations. Robert Walser’s Der Greifensee!

Mild und leisewie er lächelt,wie das Augehold er öffnet—seht ihr’s, Freunde?Seht ihr’s nicht?Immer lichterwie er leuchtet,stern-umstrahlethoch sich hebt?Seht ihr’s nicht?ertrinken,versinken, –unbewusst, –höchste Lust!

Softly and gently how he smiles,how his eyes fondly open—do you see, friends?do you not see? how he shines ever brighter. Star-haloed rising higher Do you not see? […and ends…] to drown,to founder –unconscious –utmost bliss!

Theordor Storm’s Schliesse Mir die Augen Beide was set twice by Alban Berg

Schliesse mir die Augen beidemit den lieben Händen zu!Geht doch alles, was ich leide,unter deiner Hand zur Ruh.Und wie leise sich der SchmerzWell’ um Welle schlafen leget,wie der letzte Schlag sich reget,füllest du mein ganzes Herz.

Close both my eyes with your beloved hands! Let all my sufferinggain rest beneath your hand. And as gently the pain wave upon wave lies in sleep, As the last blow falls you fill my whole heart.

The strain of Symbolistes from Baudelaire through Mallarme to Valery place a high value on a Poe-inspired indefiniteness. Baudelaire says somewhere that he has no interest in anything “positif”. There needed to be constant cognizance of an [erotic] object’s fluidity, its propensity to turn into its opposite. Mallarme was particularly taken by Wagner, as was Debussy. In Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune the Tristan chord and dominant 7 chord find their most perfectly French expression, and moreover, a miraculous un-wording (a non-semantic performance) of what Mallarme did with respect to Wagner.* Here, Debussy does briefly, and with French airiness, what Wagner takes 5 hours to do in Tristan and Isolde.

*It would be more usual to say that Debussy did in music what Mallarme did with words, but that is less interesting because it reflects the normal valuation of the verbal over the non-verbal. We are verbal people and place too much value on the verbal sphere.

Valery shared with Mallarme a high regard for that Poe/Baudelaire indefiniteness, and after Debussy & Mallarme were gone, Valery’s means of achieving the right indefiniteness became more involved. Edmund Wilson, in his book about the Symbolists, *Axel’s Castle*, explains the great complexity of Valery’s processes. Valery exerts a great amount of craft and technique in pursuit of the indefinite. This is also true of Boulez. After a brief period of rebellion when Boulez would write music calculated to shock, he arrived, with Le marteu sans maitre, at a most elegant compositional technique in the service of a distinct *indefiniteness* of Valery-Mallarme-Baudelaire-Poe vintage.

Boulez’ techniques come from Schoenberg.

If Boulez can be thought of as an anti-positivist in the tradition of Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Debussy, and Valery, Babbitt’s approach is openly and unapologetically *positivistic*, in the spirit of Ernst Mach, Arthur Schnitzler, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil–but mostly Quine & Goodman. While his music may ultimately be more difficult than the music of Boulez, Babbitt’s techniques are *intended* as positive demonstrations of principles at work. Babbitt’s compositional concerns begin with Schoenberg’s practices, many of which were not understood by Schoenberg himself. Babbitt explained what was going on in Schoenberg, and went much further from there.

[ I need more information here about the odor of positivism, particularly in the arts. ]


Schoenberg employed combinatorial hexachords. Webern went further and explored combinatorial trichords. Neither understood how they worked.

[ Examples ]

Babbitt’s insights began with nomenclature, but ended with insights into inversion, and things that came with inversion–arrays, partitions, superarrays. He was all over the poetics of inversional pairs, and discussed that in his essay about Webern & Dallapiccola. His music expored the poetics of these things, their *musical* value.

4 part arrays generally require inversional pairs with odd indexes. Babbitt explored the poetics of this situation. Intervals from odd indexes were arpeggiations. Intervals with even indexes represent advances in time, forward motion in the harmonic scheme. Babbitt’s endings – Sheer Pluck (the solo guitar piece), Soli e Duettini (guitar duo), and Swan Song, all end with flickering minor thirds. This comes from Babbitt’s poetics of odd indices.

Here, I need some help, or time; but I will persist.

William Anderson