That Milton Babbitt is a composer I should hear I figured out several years ago when I became interested in contemporary classical music. Babbitt was an American pioneer, taking the 12-tone music of Schoenberg and Webern further into total, or integral, serialism. Now I finally have, thanks to this superb Tzadik release of his music. The problem has been finding a recording that appeared promising -- Babbitt has certainly not been over-recorded, and I was not enticed by works for soprano or piano (ie, the ubiquitous PHILOMEL on New World).
I love string quartets, and so when I belatedly realized that OCCASIONAL VARIATIONS features two of Babbitt's string quartets, I knew his time had come. As it turns out, this is the premiere recording of String Quartet No. 6, written in 1993. The performers are the Sherry Quartet, named after the intrepid cellist Fred Sherry, who worked with the players in mastering the (need I say?) fiendishly complex score, and served as producer. The disc leads with No. 6, which is 25'45 long. String Quartet No. 2 (13'03) is programmed third. A 1952 composition, it sounds less daunting by comparison, more sparse, performed by the Composers Quartet. Both are fantastic works, which require, and compel, repeated listening to appreciate. Where are the recordings of Babbitt's other quartets? They stand beside Elliott Carter's quartets as pinnacles of the late 20th century (see my review of the Juilliard Quartet's recording of the Carter quartets).
The other two works serve as variations with the string quartet form -- "Occasional Variations," a 9'54 work for synthesizer from 1968-71, and "Composition for Guitar" (1984 -- 7'27), both fascinating works which provide contrast in terms of texture as well as solo lines versus the complexity of four interweaving lines. I am particularly struck by the guitar work, performed by William Anderson, which incorporates Babbitt's affinity for jazz.
Tzadik's liner notes are frustratingly minimal. Tzadik discs always *look* good, and this one is no exception -- the black-and-white cover photo of Babbitt sitting in front of the synthesizer at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1960 is a nice touch. But you have to look on the Tzadik website to learn that this is the first recording of the 6th Quartet, and only the fine print reveals that the other three recordings were all previously released, in 1973 (Quartet No. 2), and the other two in 1990. I'm not sure why the disc's title is not STRING QUARTET NO. 6, or STRING QUARTETS -- perhaps Zorn & Co. thought Babbitt's reputation as an electronic composer would be a better selling point with young hipsters, or just thought OCCASIONAL VARIATIONS made a catchier title.
This disc definitely provides an excellent introduction to a great American composer. Many thanks to John Zorn and Tzadik!