Back to Babbitt (with Erik Carlson)

In formal notated music, it is the job of the interpreter to make a case for the composer. “Here’s why you should be listening to this.”

It’s just over a decade since Milton Babbitt passed away. Not every composer has much of a post-death performance existence. To live on, a composer needs advocates.

Babbitt has his advocate, an unassuming genius named Erik Carlson, a conceptualist and virtuoso violinist who teaches at UC San Diego.

On Bandcamp, Carlson offers a work in progress, the Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album. Each work is done perfectly. Score in hand, with much editing if need be, Carlson realizes flawless performances of classic Babbitt works.

It makes sense. One of the reasons Babbitt explored the RCA Mark II Synthesizer was simply to hear his music played correctly. In Carlson’s hands, Babbitt’s acoustic music is heard correctly.

I’m frankly a little surprised it makes a difference. In my early 20s, under the guidance of Pat Zimmerli, I listened to a fair amount of Babbitt, for example the early classic of serialism, Composition for Four Instruments from 1948. This music is profoundly disjunct. Part of the composer’s point is to be “as weird as possible.” I liked it, but never thought the interpretation mattered all that much. I figured that “close enough” was “good enough.” I mean, it was just a bunch of mathematically generated atonal notes.

I was wrong. Carlson’s fresh recording with Rachel Beetz, Joshua Rubin, and Michael Nicolas draws me in. There’s a kind of crystalline beauty that causes my eyes and ears to open in wonder. Thanks to Carlson, I’m even listening to the Babbitt string quartets, something I never expected to do…

Unlike many atonal composers, each phrase in Babbitt is reasonably lean. There’s rarely a fiercely dissonant pile-on. Some Babbitt pieces even offer obvious major and minor triads. Joshua Banks Mailman recently published an astounding online essay, “Portmantonality and Babbitt’s Poetics of Double Entendre,” which dives in to the issue of Babbitt’s tonal “puns.” Incredibly, Mailman includes score samples and audio clips so that one can instantly hear the “puns” while reading. Talk about the future of musicology…

The ensemble Babbitt piece I know best is All Set, which I always keep on hand when arguing about how intellectual jazz should be. (The older I get, the grumpier I become, and the more I think we all need to look at Mary Lou Williams’s jazz tree every day and make sure our jazz stems first and foremost from a soulful perspective.) Whenever a student brings in 12-tone jazz or other complicated charts with a notated drum part, I play them All Set, for Babbitt kind of closed the book on that stuff all the way back in 1957.

There were formerly two familiar recordings of All Set. The first had actual jazz musicians like Art Farmer and Bill Evans, while the later one was with Speculum Musicae. When I interviewed Gunther Schuller, Schuller had a lot to say about the process of rehearsing All Set, and we even compared the two recordings.

On the new Erik Carlson-produced issue of All Set, the musicians are

Ryan Muncy, saxophones
Samuel Ewens, trumpet
Dave Nelson, trombone
Kathryn Schulmeister, bass
Andrew Munsey, drums
Sean Dowgray, vibraphone
Aleck Karis, piano

The credits include these cryptic notes:

Recorded by Erik Carlson, Andrew Munsey, Ryan Muncy, Dave Nelson, Samuel Ewens, Sean Dowgray, and Kathryn Schulmeister

Critical listening: Matthew Barber, Ellie Moser, Michael Caterisano, and Jim Baker

This track just showed up recently on Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album, so I suspect All Set has been one of Carlson’s pandemic projects. It is the best All Set so far. The speed is faster than before and each note sings. Perfect music, perfectly realized.

At first glance, the vast page on Carlson’s website, “Recitals,” seems to be a bit in the fictional style of Jorge Luis Borges…except that these conceptual pieces apparently have actually have been “performed,” or will be “performed” in the future.

“patterns, algorithms, sonifications, objects, concepts, etc.”

One example, currently “postponed”

A polyrhythm 1:2:3:4…999:1000, with a single full cycle equaling 1 year in duration

I will play an hour excerpt in real-time, assuming the cycle began at midnight on January 1