Soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck release a recording of Milton Babbitt's complete works for treble voice and piano, including his epic A Solo Requiem for soprano and two pianos with Eric Huebner. Babbitt was deeply engaged with poetry throughout his life, and his text settings demonstrate his sensitivity to the intricate nuances of the musicality embedded in the poems. Berman and Beck's performances are beautifully expressive, illuminating the longer lined lyricism that is revealed through precise renderings of Babbitt's often thorny, virtuosic scores.
|01||The Widow’s Lament in Springtime|
The Widow’s Lament in Springtime
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:04|
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano|
|09||Sounds and Words|
Sounds and Words
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano||3:00|
|10||Phonemena [with piano]|
Phonemena [with piano]
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano||4:56|
|11||Phonemena [with tape]|
Phonemena [with tape]
|Nina Berman, soprano, Milton Babbitt, electronics||4:22|
A Solo Requiem
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano, Eric Huebner, piano|
|18||In His Own Words|
In His Own Words
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:50|
|19||The Virginal Book|
The Virginal Book
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||1:22|
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:37|
|21||Now Evening After Evening|
Now Evening After Evening
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:34|
This album has taken us many years and many performances to complete, and it is with tremendous gratitude, joy, and excitement that we share this evening’s program with you in celebration of its release. Steve and I are so pleased to present some highlights from Babbitt’s catalogue, juxtaposed with works by composers who were deeply influential to Babbitt, and works by his students and colleagues.
I was initially drawn to Babbitt as a listener, and I was struck from the first by the contradiction his work encompasses — it is notated with precision, yet it swings; it is simultaneously emotionally removed, yet full of pathos; the melodic lines are disjointed, yet form a lyrical tapestry of sound; and Babbitt’s veneration of jazz and popular American music intermingles seamlessly with his penchant for a degree of complexity that is sometimes nearly opaque.
As a singer, I love the challenges presented by this work, and singing this repertoire has tested my vocal technique and my musicianship. I have found great reward in seeking balance between the restraint necessitated by the music on the page and the deep feeling required in order to make meaning of it, and I have found joy in engaging with the feeling of release that comes with allowing my voice to speak across the broad vocal range for which Babbitt writes. Further to the musical rewards of working on these pieces, I have always appreciated Babbitt’s deep respect for poetry and literature; the texts he chooses to set are full of nuance and richness, much in the way of Babbitt’s music. One of my hopes is that as you listen to this evening’s program, and to Babbitt’s vocal music more broadly, you will come away feeling not only that his music elevates the texts, but that the richness of the texts equally elevates his compositional style.
Why does this music matter, though and why embark on this project? It matters because despite its sometime reputation for severity, Babbitt’s music is arguably the best, the greatest, exemplar of serialism, and Babbitt, himself, is a towering figure in high modernism more generally. Despite his prominence, though, some of his songs had never before been recorded! Thus it has been an honor and a joy (and sometimes a slog…) to put together this recording. Babbitt’s music is full of liveliness and varied expression, and working through his catalogue as both a listener and performer has been eye-opening for both of us. Furthermore, in presenting a stylistically varied program like this evening’s, Steve and I hope to illustrate not only the diversity of music that influenced Babbitt, but also Babbitt’s broad and continued reach: as a composer, he was deeply influenced by music as different as the Bauer and the Brahms on this evening’s program, but also by theatre music and American jazz; in turn, as a teacher, Babbitt turned out students whose music sounds as dissimilar as, for example, the Nichols and the Adolphe on this evening’s program.
In my view, a large part of Babbitt’s genius is that the intricacy of his music dovetails beautifully with the sense of humor for which he is so famous; in other words, to my ear, his music overspills with heart not in spite of its complexity but as a result of it. In a sense, the systems he created around composition freed him to let rip the poignancy and soul that draw me to it. I hope that as you listen this evening, you will feel the same pull toward it that Steve and I have felt.
With that, we’d like to extend tremendous thanks to all of you for being here this evening. We are further grateful to the support of a few individuals who have made this project possible — to Dan Lippel, Zack Bernstein, Jeff Nichols, Bruce Adolphe, Galen Brown, Ryan Streber, and Josh Mailman: THANK YOU.
- Nina Berman
"Milton Babbitt (1916–2011) is well known for his contributions to serialism and electronic music. A less heralded but perhaps no less remarkable aspect of his legacy is his deep engagement with poetry. His personal library had dozens of books on poetic analysis, literary criticism, linguistics, and related disciplines. Reflecting this interest, vocal music is a prominent part of his output, appearing in every decade of his creative life. On this album, Nina Berman and Steven Beck present a complete survey of his work for high voice and piano, spanning 1950 to 2002.
The result is a celebration of Babbitt’s marvelous text-setting. He is particularly attuned to poetry’s intrinsic musicality: its rhythms, accent patterns, lineation, syntax, and rhyme. Babbitt’s music is an exemplar of high-modernist angularity, but his vocal writing almost always retains a lithe, nimble lyricism, and his close study of poetry ensures that his texts are communicated clearly. The few moments that push lyrical vocality beyond its natural limits do so with clear expressive intent, as expressions of pain, horror, or disorientation.
“The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” (1950) is the first song Babbitt published. Written as a memorial for Roy Dickinson Welch, Babbitt’s colleague at Princeton, the song sets a heartbreaking poem by William Carlos Williams in which an elderly widow contrasts her grief with the vibrant, colorful flowers of spring.Read More
Du (1951) is a cycle of seven songs drawn from a collection by August Stramm, an early-twentieth-century German Expressionist. It was written just a few months after “Widow’s Lament,” but its expressive impact is a world apart. Stramm depicts two characters known only by their pronouns, Ich (I) and Du (you). The situation is one of unrequited love by Ich for Du, but Stramm’s poetic vision stretches beyond the two characters: in Ich’s mad ravings, love is transformed into an eternal cosmic grappling.
Stramm’s poetry is remarkable for its high density of phonemic echo, pushing sense to its limit: “Wirr / Wirren / Wirrer / Immer wirrer / Durch / Die Wirrnes / Du / Dich / Ich!” In “Sounds and Words” (1960) and “Phonemena” (note the spelling!), Babbitt takes the obvious next step. The “text” in these songs is constructed of pure phonemes. “Sounds and Words” is notable for its free-floating rhythmic flexibility, each short section unfolding at a different rate. “Phonemena”—performed here in both its versions, one accompanied by piano (1969) and one by tape (1975)—is quick atonal scat singing. A joyful romp.
A Solo Requiem (1977) sees Babbitt return to a more somber mood. He composed the Requiem as a memorial for Godfrey Winham, a young student of Babbitt’s and the husband of soprano Bethany Beardslee, who premiered the work. In settings of Shakespeare, George Meredith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, August Stramm, and John Dryden, this vast cycle amounts, in Joseph Dubiel’s words, to a search for a “tenable attitude toward death.” The accompaniment is unusually full, requiring two pianos that trade spectral diminished seventh chords in a complex, skittering exchange. The work requires the full range of vocal expressivity: shy pleading in the opening sonnet, quiet meditation in the Meredith, overpowering intensity in the Hopkins and Stramm, and half-ironic oration in the Sprechstimme setting of Dryden. The cycle ends by reprising crucial phrases from each of the settings, closing in hopeless resignation: “Farewell.”
Babbitt’s late vocal works are shorter and lighter: whimsical, nostalgic, sometimes humorous, and often featuring knowing winks at older music. “In His Own Words” (1988) is a birthday tribute to the composer Mel Powell. Babbitt compiled the spoken text from Powell’s writings and lectures about Webern, Hindemith, electronic music, Stravinsky, Babbitt himself, and Powell’s own career.
In “Pantun” (2000), Babbitt returns to John Hollander, setting six of Hollander’s translations of Malay pantun. A pantun is a quatrain form in which each couplet expresses distinct ideas that, after a moment’s thought, reflect a deeper connection.
A wistful sense of loss also suffuses the album’s last song, “Now Evening after Evening” (2002). This setting of an eclogue by Derek Walcott depicts a seaside sunset, with gentle waves rolling in from a calm Atlantic. For most of the work, the voice rises and falls in slow, quiet arcs. A greater emotional pitch in the second half complicates the flow, as the singer recalls “your voice”—perhaps the voice of a lost lover. The song fades out with luminous, bell-like repeated tones, a soft farewell to Babbitt’s final work for voice and piano."
– Zachary Bernstein (edited for length, complete notes in booklet)
Producers: Nina Berman and Steve Beck
Edit production: Ryan Streber
Mixing and mastering: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
Session Producers: Nina Berman and Steve Beck
Recording credits: Christopher Jacobs, engineer (Lippes Concert Hall at Slee Hall, State University of New York at Buffalo): A Solo Requiem (December 11-12, 2014). Ryan Streber, engineer (Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, New York), all other tracks (May 2015-April 2020)
Graphic design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Cover art: Antony Jażwiński, Tableau Muet, 1834
Liner notes: Zachary Bernstein
Pianist Steven Beck continues to gather wide acclaim for his performances and recordings. Recent career highlights include performances of Beethoven’s variations and bagatelles at Bargemusic, a venue where he first performed a complete Beethoven sonata cycle. In addition, this season he performs with the Westchester Philharmonic and the Alabama Symphony.
An esteemed performer of new music, he has worked with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, George Perle, and Fred Lerdahl, and performed with ensembles such as Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble. He is a core member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Knights, and the Talea Ensemble. He is also a member of Quattro Mani, a piano duo specializing in contemporary music.
Mr. Beck’s discography includes Peter Lieberson's third piano concerto (for Bridge Records) and a recording of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto on Albany Records. He is on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.https://nyphil.org/about-us/artists/steven-beck
Soprano Nina Berman has performed in a variety of settings, from vocal improvisation to opera, with a particular focus on chamber music and art song. She has given numerous premieres, and has done live radio performances on WQXR, WNBC, and WHTZ. Additionally, Dr. Berman has focused on both early music and standard concert repertoire, singing in concert and on the opera stage throughout the US and Canada, and as a chorister with The Bard Festival Chorale, the St. Bartholomew’s Choir, and Bard SummerScape. She is active in New York, having performed as soloist and chamber musician at the city’s major venues, including Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall, Alice Tully Hall, B.B. King’s Blues Club, The Iridium, New York City’s Town Hall, Brooklyn’s Roulette, The Cutting Room, and SubCulture, as well as in numerous tristate area concert series, most often in collaboration with pianist Steve Beck. Dr. Berman also sings as a member of Andrew McKenna Lee’s neo-psychedelic ensemble The Knells, whose recordings have been lauded by the New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker. She holds a Bachelors and Masters of Music from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Eric Huebner is a versatile pianist known for his performances of 20th and 21st century music. Appointed pianist of the New York Philharmonic in 2012, he appears in over 60 orchestral and chamber music concerts annually with the orchestra. As a recitalist, he has performed throughout North America, the U.K., Germany, Japan and Brazil. From 2001 to 2012 he was a member of Antares, a mixed instrument quartet awarded first prize at the 2002 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. The quartet toured North America extensively and commissioned, recorded and performed many new and recent works for its combination. Huebner’s work with living composers is documented in recordings on Col Legno, Centaur, Bridge, Albany, Tzadik, Innova, and Mode Records labels. A critically acclaimed 2020 New Focus recording features Ligeti’s Piano Études (Books I & II) and Horn Trio. His debut 2015 New Focus solo release, features works by Schumann, Carter and Stravinsky. Huebner is currently Professor of Music at State University of New York at Buffalo, where he has served on the faculty since 2009, and is an adjunct collaborative piano faculty member of The Juilliard School.
On this welcome complete collection of Milton Babbitt’s music for high voice and piano, the signal work for me is 1988’s ‘In His Own Words’. A song composed as a light-hearted birthday tribute to composer Mel Powell, its music is serial and its lyrics excerpts from Powell’s scholarly talks. Babbitt’s atonal music alludes to the composers referenced as lyrically they are mentioned (he quotes one of his own works, for example). But most telling is an inadvertent reference: the singer’s Sprechstimme delivery reminds us of Laurie Anderson, composer/performer of the then recent hit ‘O Superman’. Where Babbitt’s music is composed as a fustian in-joke for a small group of academics, Anderson’s embraces a wide listening public, yet keeps things heady and weird. Babbitt’s serialism had been superseded.
This might sound harsh, but it’s fair, and it doesn’t at all take away from the achievement here of Berman and Beck, whose meticulously performed survey of a chunk of Babbitt’s oeuvre had me returning for more. The chronological order allows us to hear how Babbit’s style developed (and then didn’t): from the lyrical phrasing of the 1950s to zigzag leaps two decades later. Babbitt’s choice of texts is as conservative as you’d expect: Shakespeare, Dryden, William Carlos Williams.
‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ (1951) shows Babbitt in early Webern mode, with a lyrical soprano line accompanied by pointillistic piano. By 1960’s ‘Sounds and Words’, register-scraping ululations take precedence. Although not included here is Babbitt’s best-known work, ‘Philomel’ (for soprano and tape), the album does include another work for voice and electronics on tape, ‘Phonemena’, which benefits from the timbral richness of the synthesiser offsetting the harshness of the vocal part; it feels more playful, and it’s all about Berman’s astonishing performance (one of which Cathy Berberian would be proud).
Appearing on BBC television in the 1960s, Boulez counselled his music’s listeners to ‘forget all about explanations and just hear’. It’s something I find harder to do with Babbitt. The final work here, ‘Now Evening After Evening’ (2002), obstinately admits of no stylistic evolution, the vocal line reliably careening from high to low register and back again: still serial after all these years.
— Liam Cagney, 12.24.2022
Soprano and pianist tease out all the otherworldliness and emotional variety of these works, spanning half a century of Babbitt's extensive, experimental career. On Du, in particular, there's delight in the endless possibilities of both music and language.
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was one of the 20th century’s most significant composers and music theorists, whose analytical work on the music of the Second Viennese School continues to influence theory seminars throughout the world. Babbitt gained notoriety from his 1958 article Who cares if you listen? in which a strong case for the avant-garde composer is made, whether conventional audiences appreciate their efforts or not.
As a composer, Babbitt wrote both electronic and serial works, including the songs contained on this album which span throughout his career. Performed by soprano Nina Berman and pianists Steve Beck and Eric Huebner, this recording provides a window into Babbitt’s inherently complex, yet surprisingly tuneful style of composition.
Unlike Schoenberg and other proponents of the Second Viennese School, whose 12-tone methods permit some semblance of almost-tonality, the serialist approach employed by Babbitt strips away any reference to earlier systems of melody and harmony. Although the scores themselves are incredibly dense and challenging to execute and the music is undoubtedly atonal, there is much for listeners to focus on, for even the most random and aleatoric method of composition still results in some semblance of both melody and harmony, albeit far removed from the music of earlier times.
Performing and recording music of this complexity is no small feat and Berman, Beck and Huebner deserve double praise: first, for masterfully presenting this collection of 20th-century art song; secondly, for bringing greater awareness to one of the greatest “musician’s musicians” to ever live. While Babbitt publicly eschewed easy accessibility and immediate audience gratification, his music continues to stimulate, challenge and reward musicians brave enough to engage with his masterful body of work.
— Matthew Whitfield, 2.15.2023
How did this project come about?
Nina knew about my love for Babbitt’s music and suggested doing the Solo Requiem- we performed that a few times and recorded it back in 2015. Then little by little over the following years we learned and performed the other songs. -Steve
Babbitt’s music is notoriously difficult. How did you go about learning the songs and then putting them together in the rehearsal phase?
The songs are certainly challenging, but one of the nice things about working on an album dedicated to a single composer is that the process of learning and performing all of these songs meant that Babbitt’s musical language became more and more familiar and easier to synthesize as we moved through his works. As in the process of learning any other sort of complex music, there was a lot of slow practice with metronome, lots of teasing apart complex rhythmical figures and drilling challenging passages, and, on my end, lots of drilling entrances. In terms of our rehearsal process, because so many of the rhythms are so complicated, and because so much of the interaction between the voice and the piano is so complex, Steve and I spent plenty of time trying to make sure we knew where the simultaneities were, and who was meant to sound first in instances where the attacks are close but not simultaneous; in music as complex as Babbitt’s, it can take more work to identify these moments which might be more readily accessible in the music of Schubert, for example, and having an awareness of these spots allows us the freedom to be as expressive with this music as we are perhaps more intuitively able to be with less complicated scores. One of the overarching goals Steve and I shared from the beginning was to make our performances of these songs feel as familiar and expressive and approachable as performances of common practice music, and, for us, that meant doing them over and over and over and over – in rehearsal, in recital, for friends, etc. Much in the way that a singer who has ten Figaros under his belt is better equipped to create interesting art when he sings the role, so, too, are we better equipped to be expressive and interesting when we have five performances of Du under our belts, for example. -Nina
Despite the aforementioned complexity, Babbitt wrote a significant amount of music for the voice. What are some of the things you think drew him to writing for soprano and piano/electronics?
A fondness for certain poets- for instance John Hollander, whose poetry he set several times throughout his life- and an interest in setting their poetry to music in meaningful ways. Also his long friendship/collaboration with the soprano Bethany Beardslee. -Steve
There is a diverse array of poetry selected for the settings. Where do you find Babbitt best connecting expressively with a text or texts?
In my view, Babbitt’s most obvious, surface-level connection to the texts can be found in his text painting. “Pantun” is one of my favorites of those we recorded for several reasons, and I think Babbitt treats Hollander’s text much in the way someone like Purcell, for example, might. For instance, the opening word of the song is “Dawn,” and Babbitt sets it on a B below the piano’s single, ringing F-sharp; the clear, open 12th is so evocative, and perhaps that crystalline purity is what dawn looked like for him in this song. In the very next measure, the words “running in the wind” are set to a string of running notes spanning nearly two octaves. In bars 13-15 of the same song, the settings of the words, “drop upon the grass, Drop in the grass” both feature suddenly descending lines. There are of course myriad instances of this kind of thing through “Pantun” and the rest of the songs, but the other song I’ll mention here is “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” because it seems that this piece is meaningfully different to the others. The text, by William Carlos Williams, is touching in its austerity and Babbitt manages to capture this feeling in his music. The vocal range spans a neat two octaves, the song is rhythmically restrained, and it exists in a dynamic range spanning from pianississimo to mezzo piano, with the loudest dynamic being only two isolated instances of mezzo forte. These characteristics are all unusual, and very much set this song apart in terms of its feel, both on our record but also within Babbitt’s output more broadly. -Nina
How well do you think the tape pieces translate to the piano version?
In the case of “Phonemena,” the piano version preceded the tape version, so I think the better question in this situation might be “How well does the piano version translate to the tape version?” In my view, although the vocal part remains the same, the two are very different pieces. I worked on learning the piano version first, and then moved on to the tape version. As I was learning how the vocal line and tape part fit together, I found it very helpful to have a running mental map of the piano version because many of the discrete pitches in the piano version are transformed into “timbral events” in the tape version, which can be a little unmooring. The other difference is of course that working with a tape part leaves no room for any kind of push and pull, and anyone who has worked on this sort of music can relate to the challenge of making that adjustment. It’s worth noting, by the way, that during this timeframe, Babbitt seems to be making a move toward using tape over piano, perhaps because he feels that tape can create, in these instances, the effect he was looking for in a way that the piano cannot. “Philomel,” for example, exists only as a piece for soprano and tape – there is no piano version; and Babbitt abandoned his piano version of “Vision and Prayer” in favor of the tape version during this same period. He never moves from tape to piano, only piano to tape. Ultimately, in the case of “Phonemena,” the tape version is the final version of the piece, and it is arguably the more effective version – it’s exciting and interesting, and it remains one of Babbitt’s most famous pieces for a reason. -Nina
You’ve programmed the pieces chronologically. What are some of the things you notice as we move from early to late: constants, departures?
Constants: seriousness of tone, close interplay between voice and piano, extremely thoughtful setting of text. Departures: later settings more intimate, sparer piano writing, willingness to depart from precompositional plans -Steve
Are you planning to record other composers together in the future?
We have no current plans, but are open to whatever opportunities may present themselves! -Nina
— Christian Carey, 1.18.2023
When you live through a period of music history, which of course we all do, it is not always clear how things will shake out when the years pass and it is the future. Like some fellow oldsters I bore witness as a listening self to some of the peaks of High Modernism and now get the chance to go back again to it in retrospect. For that I am happy to report in on an album that helps us further gauge and indeed affirm the stature of a leading light of US High Modern musical art.
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) when I was coming up was mostly known as a brilliant pioneer of Electronic and Computer music in the USA, primarily via his long association with the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Studio and the iconic RCA Synthesizer. Perhaps only in later times do we truly value his brilliance as a Serialist and instrumental composer of equal stature.
And accordingly on today's recent release we get a lot of exhilaratingly advanced Babbitt music, well performed. I allude to the CD Music for Treble Voice and Piano (New Focus Records FCR 369), with soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck plus Eric Huebner on the two-piano works.
The CD covers a broad swatch of time from 1951 to 2002. Each composition is a little gem, with voice and piano parts diverging widely in terms of space and time, Vocals tend at times to utilize longer held notes while the piano(s) is a spicy clamor of brilliance, with the bifurcated soprano-piano sounding making for an enormously complex array in space. If you recall the many fine works Webern put across to us for voice and instruments, this Babbitt seems like a fine rejoinder and an artistic triumph in his own right,
It is hard to imagine better performances than these, though given the hugely detailed music scape it is easy to imagine equally interesting but somewhat different readings.
Anyone wanting to grasp the very high points of the Serialist US school should hear this and no doubt check out some choice Elliot Carter as well, like the String Quartets. This album today scores high for Serialist excellence in the later period. Do not miss it! Bravo!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 2.20.2023
The vocal compositions of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) probably are not as well-known as his instrumental work, particularly classic early serial pieces like All Set or Composition for Twelve Instruments. But they reflect Babbitt’s deep engagement with the systemic possibilities and expressive potential of dodecaphonic music, as well as his interest in language as a medium of expression made up of sounds. On Works for Treble Voice and Piano soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck show the range of Babbitt’s writing for voice by presenting a chronologically arranged survey of his published work for piano and soprano or contralto, spanning the years 1950-2002.
The set begins on a somber note, with Babbitt’s 1950 setting of William Carlos Williams’ poem The Widow’s Lament. The music follows the flow of Williams’ words and creates a mood appropriate to the words, the setting for which, like Williams’ poetry, is plain and direct even while maintaining its atonality. The following year Babbitt set German Expressionist poet August Stramm’s text Du to seven short movements. The music is exuberantly atonal; Babbitt’s setting of the text brings out the consonant-driven musicality of the German text. Sounds and Words (1960) and 1969’s Phonemena—the title of the latter reflecting Babbitt’s love of wordplay–take the musicality of language to its logical conclusion by breaking it into phonemes and setting those as texts. The music features extreme leaps, as if it had been liberated by the text’s freedom from conventional meaning. In an exception to the voice-and-piano program, Phonemena appears here as well in its second iteration for soprano and tape (1975). The six-movement A Solo Requiem (1977), which like Phonemena is from Babbitt’s second compositional period, is a setting of texts from several different poets for soprano and two pianos, Beck here being joined by pianist Eric Huebner. This composition, a memorial to Babbitt’s student Godfrey Winham, again shows how Babbitt’s sensitivity to language allowed him to elicit affecting moods from the ostensibly cerebral angularity of atonal music. From Babbitt’s third and final period are In His Own Words, a spoken word tribute to composer and jazz pianist Mel Powell with texts taken from Powell’s writings on music, and Virginal Book, a setting of a John Hollander poem for contralto, both from 1988; Pantun (2000), featuring Hollander’s translations of Malay poetry; and 2002’s Now Evening after Evening, an atonal pastoral setting for an eclogue by Derek Walcott.
This is a fine recording of an aspect of Babbitt’s work that deserves to be better known.
— Daniel Barbiero, 11.14.2022
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was one of the luckiest modern American composer of his time because, despite the fact that he wrote extraordinarily complex modern music based on both the Schoenberg school and mathematical algorithms (he was also a mathematician), he gained such a huge reputation as a genius that women literally knocked his door down to date him, possibly hoping that he would (cough, cough) impart to them a child genius of their own.
And, unlike other very good modern American composers of his time (like Easley Blackwood, who as of this writing is still with us), his works continued to be hailed as products of genius and are still performed to this day. Personally, I’m not crazy about Babbitt’s instrumental works, nor am I generally a fan of any of his (or anyone else’s) electronic music, but he was clearly a brilliant composer and, for me, this comes out most clearly in his vocal works.
But just because Babbitt’s music is somewhat more accessible than his purely instrumental works, that doesn’t mean that they were written to appeal to the masses. They’re still atonal, though not always strictly 12-tone, and challenging for the listener. Thus you need performers who approach it as music and not necessarily as just an intellectual exercise. Babbitt was very lucky during his lifetime to have two excellent sopranos, Bethany Beardslee and Dora Ohrenstein, sing and record his music, and I am here to say that Nina Berman follows in their tradition. Aside from one flaw, and that is her enunciation which is only intermittently clear, she has a wonderful voice, both bright and full (in fact, a fuller tone than Beardslee had) in addition to a superb legato and first-rate musicianship. As to her diction problems, particularly in English, if Berman reads this review I would respectfully recommend that she listen very carefully to the recordings of British soprano Gwen Catley, whose diction was so clear even in her highest register (and Catley could ascend easily to the F or F# above high C) that not a single syllable was ever lost…and she did NOT over-enunciate. Catley’s recordings are, in my humble opinion, the greatest voice lesson for sopranos left to us on records. They should be required listening for every modern-day soprano regardless of fach or repertoire. the flaw that I hear in Berman’s singing is a tendency to “mush” the consonants and somewhat swallow the vowels. Always heed the instructions of the old Italian singing masters of the 18th century:
PUT THE WORDS ON THE LIPS AND LET THE BREATH RUN THEM OUT.
Thank you. And now, back to our regularly scheduled review.
Since Babbitt’s approach to writing was often the same, working with and around wide-leaping intervals—here mostly in the piano parts—there is a tendency in his music for each piece to sound much like (but not identical to) any other. This was his weakness. Even Berg and Schoenberg himself varied their approach more than Babbitt did. This is one reason why I can take his better music (mostly the vocal music) in small doses but not large ones. Incidentally, the same bad habit afflicted Pierre Boulez’ compositions as well. Babbitt was not alone in this failing. (I would also add that, despite its atonality, most of his music seems to have been written in or around the same basic “key area.”)
Thus I would recommend that the listener pause a couple of minutes between each piece on this CD (not necessarily , however, between individual movements of Du or the Solo Requiem) to let it all sink in before moving on. It will certainly help you appreciate the good things in Babbitt’s music, such as his surprisingly varied approach to rhythm in Phonemana, and in fact the second version with tape is somewhat different from the one with piano. (THIS is the kind of piece I’d like to hear a young soprano sing in an audition: it would immediately reveal not only the entire range of her voice, but also her musicianship, which is just as important.)
Also surprising is that Babbitt was actually able to create a somewhat tonal vocal line in his Solo Requiem which, divorced from the atonal accompaniment, would not sound all that strange to most ears. There’s also a fairly long and difficult piano piece in the third movement which is played very well by our two keyboardists, and the fifth movement bears a strong resemblance to Pierrot Lunaire. In the Requiem, Berman’s diction is a little clearer (but not so clear that you can make out every word), yet her vocal control is not as good, the voice having a slow flutter throughout.
In In His Own Words, Berman’s diction is very clear indeed, but this is not a sung piece but a Sprechstimme, which is entirely different. And a cute piece it is, too.
Taken in toto, this is an extremely good album, not to be missed by modern music aficionados and particularly by Babbitt fans. A shame he never wrote anything for Elvis Costello to sing. One would love to have seen a collaboration between Babbitt and Costello! (Just kidding!!).
— Lynn Rene Bayley, 11.13.2022
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) composed com-plex, rational, and often severe music and was one of the most influential American advo-cates of total serialism and electronic music.
He also had a lively sense of humor and was a lifelong lover of jazz and poetry, which can be heard in abundance on this album of his music for treble voice and piano. The music here spans over 50 years, starting with the grief-laden 'Widow's Lament in the Springtime' of 1950. The next year came 'Du', a short expressionist cycle setting fragmentary August Stratum poems on unrequited love. Later songs further reduced set text to pure phonetic sounds. In 'Sounds and Words' (1960), the music and text are open, elongated, and flexible; the remarkable and cheeky 'Phonemena' is quick and snappy, not so far removed from jazzy scat singing. It is presented in versions with piano (1969) and with electronics (1975).
A Solo Requiem (1977) is the most substantial and serious work here. The settings range from hyper-expressive intensity, to gentle mediation and quiet resignation, underwritten by eerie, glittering textures from the piano duo. His later songs are somewhat less severe. The best of them is the 1988 'In His Own Words', which humorously orates on the state of classical music with ironic sprechstimme. The gentle, reflective 'Now Evening after Evening' (2002) ends the program with twilit, seaside imagery.
Babbitt is consistently atonal in all of these works, yet never forsakes intelligibility and clarity. Even if the music is angular and complex, it is always logical and sensible, letting the natural rhythm and rhyme of the poetry guide it. Above all, these works show the depth of expression and emotion of a composer too often derided as doctrinaire and clinical. Soprano Nina Berman imbues this music with a welcome theatricality and peerless vocal elasticity—exactly what it needs to shine. Steve Beck and Eric Huebner give excellent support in the pointillistic piano parts. A fine and valuable release.
— Faro, 4.20.2023
MILTON BABBITT (1916–2011), the brilliant composer/music theorist who brought serialism to a forbidding level of mathematical precision and was an early pioneer of electronic music, also had an affinity for poetry and wrote several vocal works. This landmark collection contains all his music for high voice and piano, rendered with astonishing mastery and musicianship by soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck. The album opens with Babbitt’s first published song, “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” (1950), a setting of a William Carlos Williams poem. The vocal line spins out with melodic lyricism, while the fully atonal accompaniment, with almost no pitch reference for the singer, illustrates the widow’s unmoored grief. The song, like many of the ones heard here, has a strange allure despite its thorny, initially unwelcoming harmonic language. Du, a cycle of seven songs with texts by the early-twentieth-century German Expressionist August Stramm, traces a story of unrequited love between Du (you) and Ich (I). The texts are mostly fragmented and cryptic, a perfect vehicle for Babbitt’s acerbic pointillism, but when they hint at poignancy, Babbitt follows suit and softens the piano textures.
Although Stramm’s poems are enigmatic, the text for “Sounds and Words” is completely abstract, as the title indicates. It’s all phonemes—no actual words or meaning whatsoever. To drive the point home, the next work is called “Phonemena.” Composed in 1969, this is one of the wildest pieces for voice ever written. “Phonemena” is atonal scat singing, minus the swing. Berman follows the piano/voice rendition with the even wilder version for voice and tape, which Babbitt created six years later.
A Solo Requiem, in six movements, uses texts by Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Meredith, Stramm (again) and John Dryden. A memorial for Babbitt’s student Godfrey Winham, it calls for two pianists. Beck is joined by Eric Huebner, who is equally adept at rendering Babbitt’s formidable piano parts. Appropriately, some passages are quiet and reflective. According to the notes, the two pianists “trade spectral diminished seventh chords,” but my ears cannot discern anything remotely that tonal. Berman puts across the grief-laden texts with considerable expression and meaning even amid the fearsome intervallic pyrotechnics Babbitt requires of her. The Dryden movement, an homage to Pierrot Lunaire, benefits from Berman’s perfectly rendered Sprechstimme.
“In His Own Words,” a birthday tribute to composer Mel Powell, with a text compiled from Powell’s writings and lectures, is spoken in rhythm, although Berman’s expressive delivery of the intentionally prolonged syllables resembles the Sprechstimme of the Dryden track. Babbitt’s mischievous sense of humor comes through clearly, aided by Berman’s whimsical delivery. The last syllable of the piece, after four minutes of this inflected speech, is sung on a mellifluous B natural; it’s almost a laugh-out-loud moment.
I won’t lie—not all of this is easy to listen to. But it’s well worth hearing, at least for Babbitt’s singular and bracing musical language, and certainly for the jaw-dropping artistry of Berman, Beck and Huebner in this daunting repertoire.
— Joshua Rosenblum, 6.10.2023