Friday, June 25, 2010


Recent blog post at Monotonous Forest by my good buddy Bruce Hodges:

Last night at Miller Theatre, the Orchestra of the League of Composers gave the long-delayed New York premiere of Milton Babbitt's Transfigured Notes (1986), originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece received widespread press when it emerged, after a parade of conductors studied the score and later begged off. Erich Leinsdorf was to conduct the premiere, an honor then passed to Dennis Russell Davies, who left after a single rehearsal. The final attempt was made by Hans Vonk (with the support of Richard Wernick and Bernard Rands), who eventually threw in the towel as well.

My take, after the single hearing last night (and I have not heard the single recording), is that the difficulty lies in the need for absolute, razor-sharp precision in the playing to bring Babbitt's spare tapestry to life. Buzzing with movement, the score uses a thicket of motifs to create a wash of sound, with the ensemble (especially the violins) often playing high above the stave. In his notes, the composer encourages listeners to immerse themselves in the whole, without focusing too much on the details. Last night's musicians were some of the best in the city, yet the performance, led by the intrepid Louis Karchin, seemed hesitant and under-rehearsed. In the best of all possible worlds, they'd work on it another week or two, and bring it back.

And my response:

Transfigured Notes has some significance for me, since I live in Philadelphia, where the ruckus occurred. The orchestra's rep suffered among contemporary music fans when it dropped the piece, though in fairness, I should say it probably was unplayable, given the limits on rehearsal time. (And, under Davies, the players did a creditable job with Carter's Symphony of 3 Orchs. a couple years earlier.) Not long after, Orchestra 2001, Philly's contemporary music band, took up the score and gave a masterful performance, under the direction of James Freeman, with the composer in attendance. As with most of Babbitt's music, there's not a lot of drama or differentiation in color, tempo, or dynamics. Ex-wife said it best: If it were a color, it would be taupe.

I like Babbitt. I really do. His music is elegant, and he's a terrific speaker. But the elegance comes at a price. He sets the musical parameters up at the beginning of each piece, and from then on it's largely a question of watching (or hearing) the various possible permutations play themselves out. There are few surprises, as there are in Carter. I also notice a lack of what could be called (and is called) "directionality." You can start at any point in any piece and work your way around again, and the experience is essentially the same. Beginning, middle and end have no meaning, as they do, again, in Carter. This is not a criticism, merely an observation, since I am told this aspect of Mr. Babbitt's music is intentional, as it is in Boulez.

I do have the recording of Transfigured Notes and will have to get back to it soon.


Bruce Hodges said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Joe! And great work on the blog; you were long overdue to start one. (Love the slight redesign, too--creative, yet says "authority.")

Joe Barron said...

Masculine, too, don't you think?