Babbitt & Schenker

Connections Between Babbitt & Schenker

In loving memory of Stephen Peles

Anderson: Stephen, I have a really interesting idea for a music theory project.
Peles: I'll be the judge of that!

---Milsaps, Mississippi, 2007?

I do not suggest that Babbitt was influenced by Cone, but I am certain they were both interested in structural aspects of rhythm. I have little doubt that Babbitt respected Cone's work enough to take it very seriously. He may not have learned anything from it, but it certainly could have helped reinforce the structural principles we see evident in Babbitt's music.

Some take time points the wrong way--as a formula where something is done automatically for the composer, allowing the composer to be lazy and rely on a system instead of composing. I don't see Babbitt's time points as a way to escape composing.

Today I can think of three ways that Babbitt's time points elegantly articulate large-scale structure.

--They handle syncopation and syncopations of syncopations. Syncopations keep things light until an unsycopation lands something hard, puts more weight on it, and makes it more memorable. The final, largest-scale un-syncopation has the greatest structural weight.

--There are structural rhythms that happen at different speeds. Babbitt told me he is interested in big things enlarging smaller things.

--There are events we can relate to one another over various time scales.

Words confuse, so examples follow.

These rhythmic issues do relate to what I think of as Schenkerian doings that I see at play in Babbitt's music. I have a way of translating Schenker principles across the chasm that separates tonal from post-tonal practice. I learned it from Princeton people, and I had hints from Babbitt himself. Nevertheless, my take seems controversial. The first notion that Schenker's thinking can relate to post-tonal music came to me directly from Babbitt himself.

Babbitt and his students told me he was sent to Europe by Princeton Music Faculty members after WWII to search for living Schenkerians and to collect Schenkerian documents. He told me he is very interested in Schenker's thought. I understood that to mean that it bears upon his work. The question, what features of Babbitt's practice do we see as relating to Schenker's concerns, I figured out on my own, and I discussed with his students.

Here are two features from the opening of Swan Song No. 1 which I consider salient Schenkerisms.

--Opening guitar tune delivers [04e] falling to [029]. The [04e] has a rhythmic profile that becomes motivic and is later enlarged--eighth note triplets are augmented to quarter note triplets, many measures later.
--[029] sits, a signature of that diatonic hexachord.
--Then guitar syncopates through the complement
--Mandolin joins guitar. Mandolin enters in another diatonic hexachord.
--guitar finishes and sits on [70t], a different disposition of the last trichord upon which we *landed*--[029]. "Landing" is a rhythmic thing, a composed thing. When I speak of a landed collection I mean that it has some structural weight, that we will be asked to remember that collection, and I propose strongly that we do remember it.

In the case of both phrases, the trichords are signatures of a focal (a landed) hexachord.

I argue that this is salted. Composer wants us to remember, to hear trichords talking to each other through time.

I also argue that this is what Haydn does with triads, and that Schenker was interested in this, and that when Babbitt says he is interested in Schenker, this is a salient connection to Schenker.

In tonal music, the re-disposition of the notes of the triad is ritualized, or conventionalized, 3-2-1, etc. What is salient in this example, and in general in post-tonal music is that we can feel the chord quality, or learn to hear chord qualities, and sometimes we can also feel that one disposition is more stable than another, a very Schenkerian thing--first inversion chords have more potential energy than root position chords; a root position chord with third in soprano has more potential energy than a root position chord with root in soprano. I am singing, repeatedly 029, then 70t. I feel the fifth is more stable in the [70t]. We can bring our tonal ears into this. I spoke with Babbitt about that and he said, "I understand the problem." Our tonal ears have experience with 029 and 97t. The first is ii4/2 (no third), the second is a root position 7th chord (no third). The way I first described it might be ok with Hindemith--the 5th is more stable.

Next, the piece keeps syncopating along. There is nothing that sits for more than a quarter note *until we get to measure (look it up) where we see quarter note triplets.

In the quarter note triplets we have the [04e] from measure 1 in 2x augmentation. (!)

[04e] of measure 1 *talks to* the [04e] in measure (look it up) over quite a long period of time.

Where these triplets fall in the bar has to do with his time points and their degree of syncopation of the landings. We have to agree that these triplets are memorable and that the time points are designed for them to be memorable.

The coup de grace, or the punctum saliens is in that the quarter note triplet figures keep coming back and eventually it is not 04e, but instead 029 in quarter note triplets. And so, the 04e talks to the 029 over a period of many minutes.

Collections are speaking to one another.

The 04e--029 is not a Schenkerian, but rather a Baroque move, very Rameau. And the larger things that these two trichords are embedded in will be something worth looking into. I remember very well the moment where 04e is embedded in an E hexachord.

029 could be octotonic, diatonic, and the blues hexachord (D?)--023457.

Babbitt told me Swan Song is a made from an all-trichord row.

Another thing I've noticed is that if you look at the first guitar phrase, the notes in and around the juncture between the two complementary diatonic hexachords you can see 0127 and other foreshadowings--I think a D hex. There are 0127 crunches that draw our attention the landed diatonic collections. And the piece ends famously with the cello laughing out loud--a guffaw that completes a final 0127.

Sorry, my pdfs of the Swan Song score got lost, so I have to ask Gene Capriolglio at Peters to resend, or try to dig up a hard copy...

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