Words about Music. By Milton Babbitt. Ed. Stephen Dembski and Joseph N. Strauss. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987 [ix, 205 p.].
Book review by Jason Gibbs
In Theory Only (November 1988) vol. 10, no. 8, pp. 15-23.
Words about Music is a collection of lectures delivered in 1983 by Milton Babbitt at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The book's editors have organized these lectures into chapters that range from the historical background of twelve-tone music and examination of specific twelve-tone compositions, to the development and influence of music theory, as well as some incisive discussions of American musical life. Naturally, these lectures synthesize and highlight many of Babbitt's onging compositional, analytic, and sociological concerns. And while many analytic examples are drawn from earlier articles, they are treated here in a less technical manner [FN: see especially Babbitt 1960, 1973-74, and 1987a]. One could even view this book as having a similar motivation to Stravinsky's Poetics of Music which for Stravinsky served as a vehicle whose concerns fell between an "academic course" and an "apology for [his] general ideas" (Stravinsky 1942, 5) [FN: With the possible qualification that Babbitt did not employ a ghost writer, only some editorial to "smooth the rough edges" (viii)].
Throughout, Babbitt admonishes against the many prevalent misbeliefs concerning twelve-tone method, such as it amounting only to "counting to twelve" or being a mechanical device inimical to intuition or inspiration. He proceeds in the opening chapter to clarify such misunderstandings and inaccuracies, stating that the designation of a music as twelve-tone actually tells very little about the composition. Analysis or criticism of this music that focuses only upon its systematic features (i.e., an inventory of the row forms of a work) is at best a superficial exegesis of the music. The systematic aspects of a composition are not to be as highly valued as the understanding of the composition as a "singular, individuated accomplishment" (4).
Babbitt tries to locate his music and ideas about music within a tradition "no matter how far beneath the surface this tradition manifests itself, and no matter how recent the tradition may be" (4). A key to finding this tradition is in a remark where Babbitt refers to his "Viennese triangle": Arnold Schoenberg, Heinrich Schenker, and Rudolph Cranap, three men active in the Vienna of the first decades of this century (17). Schoenberg, in Babbitt's view, revolutionized music through his compositions which "chang[ed] hierarchically, the relation between order and collection in music" (16). Schenker's music-theoretical work becomes crucial for Babbitt as an "efficient" means of connecting and conceptualizing musical events across large spans of time and through multiple levels of structural depth. And Rudolph Carnap was the central figure of the "Vienna Circle," a group of philosophers who called for the use of logic and scientific rigor in philosophical discourse, attributes that Babbitt has sought to bring to musical discourse and expression.
Babbitt proclaims himself to be a "Schoenbergite" insofar as Schoenberg's compositions and persona have provided for him an "ideal of music" (24). Words about Music contains both personal remembrances of Schoenberg as well as analyses directed at understanding Schoenberg's compositional motivations. Central Babbitt's view of music is the idea of contextuality, which is taken to mean that a piece of music is viewed as "self-enclosed" or "self-referential." "You define its principles - 'a progression of relatedness' - within itself" (9). This notion of contextuality, the main theme of the book, is critical to the consideration of the music of Schoenberg and his followers, since this music gives up the "familiarities of the tonal system" (167). Furthermore, the "contingencies and dependencies" of twelve-tone composition will vary with each work, since the series is likely to be different from one composition to the next (16).
The transition from collection-determinate to order-determinate music took place through the fundamental realization that while nonaggregate pitch collections changed their internal content when they are transposed, the content of the total chromatic collection remains constant. If the chromatic collection is presented as a succession, all that results from a transposition is a change in pitch order, a realization that led to Schoenberg's revolutionary move. Babbitt explains that "any transposition of this succession of twelve notes is going to give you just another succession of twelve notes. It's going to change not content but order. Now how can you possibly determine a general hierarchic organization of ordering? This is a new musical issue" (19).
This issue is the primary focus of Babbitt's discussion of serial music. While content hierarchization is related to commonality of pitches between collections, hierarchization of order is based upon the realization of the relationships resulting from the serial ordering - the series functions as the "determinant of the progression and structure of the piece" (21). In order to understand order hierarchization, the notion of contextuality must be further expanded to include the scrutiny of the internal construction of the series and the invariant properties that result from it, a concept that will be discussed at a later point in this review.
The most extended analysis demonstrating the power of contextuality is Babbitt's elaboration of the opening of Schoenberg's Fourth String Quartet (63-75). Here he demonstrates how the serial ordering, and the hexachordal and tetrachordal subsets arising from this ordering, creates a "contextual path through the piece." Schoenberg's selection of row form transpositions and their deployment provides a "basis for moving through a piece, a basis defined by the set and not by any principles shared by any other piece" (67-68). Babbitt points out similar occurrences in passages from other compositions by Schoenberg and Webern, as well as in his own music, that illustrate other ways that the contextual use of the row determines the large-scale organization of a composition.
The next corner of Babbitt's triangle is the musical theory of Heinrich Schenker. For Babbitt, "the most valuable [aspect] of Schenker's work" is diminution technique, insofar as it provides a means of perceptually connecting motivic elements to each other through an understanding of the large-scale voice leading (144-45). Schenker asserts that the "composer of genius" employed "concealed repetitions" that occured at all structural levels (, 99). These "repetitions," which may be only motives or figurations at the foreground level, begin to generate form in the middleground levels of a piece. For Babbitt, the important outcome of diminution is the "successive subsumption" that takes place. With the resulting musical understanding, a listener is able to take a musical passage and "chunk it and relate it and parallel it in a variety of ways" (145).
As the distance between us and the tonal tradition increases, we need to understand this musical past perhaps even better than its original participants in order to grasp the complexities of the extremely contextual music of our century. The analytic method formulated by Schenker offers a necessary model for this understanding - "who provides a better characterization of this continuity and context than does Schenker?" (140). Babbitt's reading of Schenker is exemplified by his discussion of the Bach chorale "Nun ruhen alle Walder" (137-143). Taking Schenker's analysis as his basis, Babbitt demonstrates how the harmony of this composition is determined by "internal relationships" and not solely through rules of progression or voice leading leading [FN: see Schenker , 32-33]. The "synthesis" provided by a Schenkerian reading of a piece is used as a framework from which to understand the contextual parallelisms that occur at various levels of the work.
Rudolph Carnap is the third member of Babbitt's "Viennese triangle." Though Carnap receives little direct attention in these lectures, his work and the work of the logical positivist movement has had an implicit impact upon Babbitt's musical outlook. The philosophers of the Vienna Circle held that knowledge must be found through logical, mathematical and scientific means. Kraft writes that through the use of symbolic logic "equivocations are avoided, unnoticed assumptions are revealed, and rigorous deduction is guaranteed" (Kraft 1953, 18). The same view is manifest in Babbitt's article "Past and Present Concepts of the Nature and Limits of Music," where he stresses "that there is but one kind of language, and one kind of method for the verbal formulation of 'concepts' and the verbal analysis of such formulations: 'scientific' language and 'scientific' method" (, 3). This logical approach applies both to the "verbal utterances" about music and the analysis and composition of music.
Babbitt's primary demand of music-theoretic discourse is that it "must conform to those verbal and methodological requirements which attend the possibility of meaningful discourse in any domain" (1961, 3). While his previous analytic articles have been very exact and thorough in nature, Words about Music, addressed to a more general audience, is far less formal in approach. An example of this informality is Babbitt's almost apologetic explanation for his use of pitch-class numbers in a disuccsion (19-20). "Since Schoenberg," a difficult, technical article, presents an issue such as trichordal derivation of all-combinatorial hexachords in a concise, formal manner (Babbitt 1973-1974, 19-24). The same topic is treated less thoroughly and with greater generality on pages 85-97 of Words about Music. Instead of a systematic discussion, Babbitt gradually works through the material and focuses on the musical motivations behind this operation. The book's tone is summed up by Babbitt's conclusion that "the notion of serious discourse about music is a concern to me not because I have to be concerned about the state and fate of discourse, but because I'm concerned about the state and fate of music (175).
An additional motivation for this "scientific" approach to music is the desire to arrive at a knowledge of the inherent properties, that is, invariants, of a compositional system. Babbitt has previously defined invariants as "properties of a set that are preserved under [an] operation, as well as those relationships between a set and the so-operationally transformed set that inhere in the operation" (1960, 249-250). Furthermore, the "fruitfulness of . . . a theory is . . . contingent upon its avoidance of 'triviality' both formally and interpretively, in the sense of containing musical interpretations of the logical entailments of the formal system beyond the most immediate consequences of the assumptions" (, 7). Thus, even though a composer may not have been fully aware of the invariant nature of these relationship (as seems to have been the case with Schoenberg and Stravinsky), an analysis that only underlines these systematic features, without illuminating their contextual use, explains very little about the composition as an individual and thus promotes the kind of "misunderstanding" that Babbitt is trying to prevent. A large part of Babbitt's previous theoretical work has been in discovering these invariants, but his book is most useful in its discussion of the compositional poetntial of these characteristics. He wants "to show how to get certain reflections, which . . . are going to have to be interpreted compositionally" (91). For Babbitt, this means a contextual interpretation.
By the time the precompositional stage is reached, the composer has discovered and deployed the invariant structures of his material. "Precomposition means that it is in a form where it is not yet compositionally performable. . . . You have to make further decisions with regard to every element" (90). A composer is confronted with the invariant aspects of the chosen compositional system and must choose the manner in which they will be projected into the larger contextual world of the composition.
The use of multiple series, for instance, such as those presented in the four-part array of the book's example 4-3, allows "a certain kind of flexibility with regard to the counterpoint and the harmony, and with regard to the ordering" (85). Babbitt highlights the G in the top staff of this example (88), noting that it is an element of four aggregates [FN: This is also example 6a in Babbitt 1973-1974]. This pitch class is an element of aggregates consisting of (1) trichords from each of the four series (the surface aggregate), (2) hexachords from the two upper series, (3) the series of the top staff, and (4) a secondary set composed of the second hexachord of the series of the top staff and the first hexachord from the following series. The multiple "functions" of this note (or any note) create "ambiguity." "You can disambiguate it at some other point and make it clear how this G was functioning. You can write a straightforward piece which exploits exactly this. Then you're going to have no problems, but you won't be using a great of the richness available to you here" (92-93).
As Nelson Goodman describes: "the aesthetic 'attitude' is restless, searching, testing - is less attitude than action: creation and recreation" (1972, 103). This is true for Babbitt's view of music (and therefore also for his music), which stresses the importance of appraising compositions in terms of their self-referentiality, maintaining that all the information needed to understand a work is contained within the work itself.
A reception of music that relies upon an understanding of its self-referentiality is an idea with an extensive history - one that presupposes a formalist aesthetic. An early proponent of such a viewpoint in music was Eduard Hanslick, who argued for an aesthetic employing "the method of the natural sciences . . . [seeking] whatever . . . may be enduring and objective" in an artwork. Listeners should pay attention to the internal characteristics of a composition which "[mark] it off . . . as a self-subsistent artwork" (, 7, 90). And according to Leonard Meyer, "because it constructs its own realities . . . formalistic art must convince primarily in terms of what takes place within the work of art itself." Within a formalist aesthetic "value does not depend . . . upon the importance of [a compositional] problem . . . . It depends rather upon the solution itself . . . [that] should be consonant with and relevant to [a] wider field or tradition of which they [the art works] are invariably a part" (1967, 223-224).
Another aspect of Babbitt's aesthetic is his understandable disavowal of a literal, mechanistic understanding of the twelve-tone method. He describes Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments as one of his "most unfavorite pieces - it's too literal" (25). There is also an anecdote where Babbitt bemusedly recounts how a knowledgable musician had been hunting for the series to the Composition for Four Instruments without success. Babbitt's retort was, "That's not the way I conceive of a set. This is not a matter of finding the lost set. This is not a matter of cryptoanalysis (where's the hidden set?). What I'm interested in is the effect it might have, the way it might assert itself not necessarily explicitly" (27).
Words about Music demonstrates not only how Babbitt would place himself within a tradition but more importantly how this tradition must be interpreted based upon the revolutionary musical developments since Schoenberg. His insistence upon a "considered nd extensive knowledge of [the] dynamic principles" of prior music (, 246), evident in his approach to the Bach chorale cited above, demonstrates that his is not a passive relationship to tradition. Babbitt concedes that the self-referentiality demanded by this music creates difficulties - "we don't know what assumptions to make about a piece of music when we pick it up. When can do it only by examining the music rather carefully, rather critically, and even then, only sometimes" (169). Nevertheless, the value and the difficulty of this music is due to its high level of contextuality, which guarantees originality and individuality.
Throughout this book, one question recurs: "But, can you hear this?" Babbitt in his most straightforward anser asserts that a listener need only be able "to perceive, to remember, to apprehend relationships which are relatively traditional" (118). At another point, however, he accedes that "it's very hard to hear these things [associations]," but given time they are possible to hear "even though you would imagine it impossible to identify the things as things in themselves" (72). When this question of perceptibility becomes rephrased in terms of music that expresses its meaning through self-referentiality, Babbitt responds that "it's not a matter of hearing; it's a matter of the way you think it through conceptually with your musical mind" (23).
To close, I would like to propose a way to listen to Babbitt's music. Listen as you would listen to any other music that you take seriously. Try to appreciate the piece of music as an individual, according to its internal relationships. If there are events that interest you, they were put there purposefully. There is enough structural depth to reward repeated listenings and deeper study of the music. Milton Babbitt wants to "make music as much as it can be rather than as little as one can get away with" (183). I'll be he even cares if we listen.