R enoir said that the same color, applied by two different hands, would give us two different tones. But in music, the same note, written by two different composers, gives us the same note. When I write a B-flat, and Berio a B-flat, what you get is always B-flat. By contrast, the painter must create his medium as he works. That’s what gives his work that ‘hesitancy’—that ‘insecurity’ so crucial to painting.”
M usicians are used to spinning a phrase or rhythm in a certain way. There is a kind of common grammar to the musical language that we all get used to. Babbitt seems to knowingly throw a wrench in it, intentionally pulling or tugging the musicians in very uncomfortable directions. It’s frustrating, but in the end it makes you think in completely new and different ways and causes a kind of wonderful tension in the music. As scary as it was, I grew to like the feeling. I think for all of the musicians in the group, this was the most difficult piece we had ever worked on. Babbitt made himself available whenever we had specific questions about the score... In [Feldman’s] clarinet quintet, and most of his late music especially, he has a way of sustaining this beautiful world and keeping it interesting over very long stretches of time, and for some reason it works. It’s a real challenge for the musicians because there is never any technique or ‘flash’ to grab onto or hide behind. It’s just this ‘stripped-to-the-bone’ musical expression, and our ability to spin a phrase at a constant ppp.”L isten to these excerpts:
Mark Lieb, interview with Robert Carl.
[50-sec clip, Phoenix Ensemble, Morton Feldman, ‘Clarinet and String Quartet, m. 283’, 1983, 1.6MB MP3]
[50-sec clip, Phoenix Ensemble, Milton Babbitt, ‘Clarinet Quintet, m. 1’, 1996, 1.6MB MP3]
F eldman’s quintet is like a window—a car window or a window on a train—and you can experience what goes by, what is happening outside: it is the epitome of passive observation.
B y contrast, Babbitt’s quintet is caring-but-confrontational: possibly an intense dialogue between fellow passengers who are on the train.
F eldman, instinctive; Babbitt methodical, mathematical.
B abbitt’s elegant contours—clarinet and string quartet lines thickly folded into each other at the opening, gradually becoming sparser, with reflective pockets of unaccompanied clarinet—radiate genteel yet incisive whimsy, and his pleasure at creating such delicate musical mechanisms expresses itself shamelessly.”T he aim of each piece seems to be to convince the performers that they won’t be able to get it ‘right’ unless they’ve understood and accepted the composer’s point of view—even when that point of view is that you have no hope of ‘mastering’ the situation—of “winning”; of living forever; of getting your way. You can influence things while you are alive; you can initiate and change the patterns that develop; you can contribute, laugh, cry. But you are not getting out of here alive.
Philip Clark, Gramophone, MAR-2010.
T he trick in the Feldman piece—with one instrument starting the bar, the next entering on the second beat, and so on until the final note is a chord made up of the motif—is to allow the textural device to do its job. ‘Let it go’ as soon as your note has been played. Otherwise, the building ‘chord’ will tie down the hand and the mind.
I f you are going to try to learn these pieces, it would be advisable to have a surgeon standing by.”L aunched into the world, the compositions make their way... wild animals, just weaned. (It’s not like their composer-parent releases them with any didactic or political intention, right?)
Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), commenting on Chopin’s Etudes.
A t this first meeting I brought John a string quartet. He looked at it a long time and then said, ‘How did you make this?’ I thought of my constant quarrels with (Stefan) Wolpe, and how just a week before, after showing a composition of mine to Milton Babbitt and answering his questions as intelligently as I could, he said to me, ‘Morton, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.’ And so, in a very weak voice I answered John, ‘I don’t know how I made it.’ The response to this was startling. John jumped up and down, and with a kind of high monkey squeal, screeched, ‘Isn’t that marvelous! Isn’t that wonderful! It’s so beautiful, and yet he doesn’t know how he made it.’ ”
Morton Feldman, recalling his first meeting with John Cage.
- Mark Lieb (clarinet), Aaron Boyd (violin), Kristi Helberg (violin), Cyrus Beroukhim (viola), Alberto Parrini (cello), on Feldman
- Mark Lieb (clarinet), Aaron Boyd (violin), Alicia Edelberg (violin), Cyrus Beroukhim (viola), Bruce Wang (cello), on Babbitt
- Phoenix Ensemble & Mark Lieb. Clarinet Quintets: Morton Feldman, Milton Babbitt. (Innova, 2009.)
- Phoenix Ensemble at AnsoniaMusic.org (Manhattan)
- Feldman M. Clarinet Quintet. Universal, 1983.
- Feldman M. Clarinet Quintet. Universal, 1983. (via SheetMusicPlus.com)
- Babbitt M. Clarinet Quintet. Edition Peters, 1996. (via SheetMusicPlus.com)
- Carl R. Musicians are really public servants: An interview with Mark Lieb of the Phoenix Ensemble. Fanfare, 30-APR-2010.
- Lange A. Mark Lieb: Feldman, Babbitt on Innova. Fanfare, 01-MAY-2010.
- Rae C. Interview with Mark Lieb. Naxos blog, 26-MAR-2010.
- Affenzeller M, Winkler S, Wagner S, Beham A. Genetic Algorithms and Genetic Programming: Modern Concepts and Practical Applications. Chapman & Hall, 2009.
- Babbitt M. (Peles S, Dembski S, Mead A, Straus J, eds.) Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt. Princeton Univ, 2003.
- Dawkins R. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. Norton, 1986.
- Feldman M. (Friedman B, ed.) Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Exact Change, 2004.
- Maturana H, Varela F. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Springer, 1991.
- BlindWatchmaker applet at Dept of Physics, Syracuse Univ
- Mutatator morphogenesis applet