Perfect Sound Forever

MILTON BABBITT

"All Set"- Who Cares if It Isn't Jazz?
by Daniel Barbiero
(December 2020)


From the beginning, the relationship between jazz and Western art music--"classical" music--has been complex. At different times, each has viewed the other with fascination, suspicion, complacency, envy, admiration or disdain--and sometimes, even, all of these at once. But one constant of the relationship has been mutual influence. At least since Darius Milhaud composed "La crêation du monde" following a 1922 visit to Harlem, classical composers have drawn melodic ideas from jazz, have adapted jazz timbres, dynamics, and its unique form of polyphony for use in orchestral and chamber music. Jazz musicians, for their part, have composed and improvised with the harmonies pioneered by forward-looking classical composers, have incorporated orchestral instruments such as oboe, French horn and harp into their ensembles, and have adopted some of the formal innovations of the classical avant-garde, particularly in the period after the Second World War.

The 1950's, in fact, were an especially fertile period for exchanges of ideas and influences between the two spheres. It was during that time that classical composer and jazz student Gunther Schuller attempted to effect a closer relationship between the two disciplines by working actively with figures from both worlds. Schuller's own compositions tended toward the then-ascendant serial style, but in addition he had, notably, played horn on the Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949-1950. And in 1955, he cofounded an ensemble called the Modern Jazz Society, later called the Jazz and Classical Music Society, with Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis. It was only natural then that in the 1950's and 1960's, he would be a leading force in attempting a fusion of the two streams of classical and jazz that he termed "Third Stream."

One of the more interesting results of Schuller's efforts to bring classical and jazz into dialogue with each other was his commissioning of one of the most rigorous--and wittiest--works to bring jazz and state-of-the-art classical composition into contact: Milton Babbitt's "All Set" for an octet of trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor saxophones, vibraphone, piano, double bass and drums.


Enter the Specialist

"All Set" was composed for the Brandeis University Festival of the Arts held in New York in June 1957. A teacher at the Manhattan School of Music at the time, Schuller was asked by Brandeis to bring jazz to the festival. It was the first time the music would be presented there.

Schuller's idea was to commission three classical composers and three jazz composers to present work in a single concert featuring both kinds of music. The jazz composers he chose were Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre and George Russell. The classical composers were, in addition to Schuller himself, Harold Shapero, who chaired the Brandeis music department, and Milton Babbitt.

Babbitt was an interesting, and in some ways a daring, choice. On the one hand, he was an outspoken and uncompromising composer and advocate of a particularly rigorous variety of serial music that was as challenging to play as it was to listen to. Babbitt had an academic background in mathematics and had done highly secret math-related work during the war; not surprisingly, his compositional structures organized his musical materials into highly elaborate, mathematically-derived relationships. These relationships were based on what he called "pitch class sets"--sets of pitches that could be played in any octave--that were composed through a series of complex permutations and combinations. As logically rigorous as these structures were, they weren't necessarily transparent to the listener, for whom the music could be difficult to follow. Complaints of his music's alleged impenetrability did not deter Babbitt in the least; in fact, just a few months after the Brandeis concert, he would become notorious for an article published in High Fidelity magazine under the title "Who Cares if You Listen?" In the piece, which was based on an edited transcript of a spontaneous talk Babbitt had given at the Berkshire Music Center, the composer argued that modern composition had reached such a level of complexity and technical advancement that the non-specialist listener could not be expected to understand it. He drew an analogy between a modern composition and a lecture in advanced mathematics, the substance of neither of which an average layman would be prepared to judge properly. In effect, he argued that advancing the state of the art through the musical equivalent of scientific research was the point of modern composition, not appealing to a broad audience. And it certainly was the case that Babbitt's own work had not won anything like a popular audience.

(How provocative Babbitt had meant to be though is arguable. He was initially reluctant to have what were essentially off-the-cuff comments published, and had intended the title of the article to be "The Composer as Specialist"--the title under which it subsequently has been reprinted. High Fidelity's more inflammatory title was imposed by the editor who had solicited the piece from him in the first place.)

At the same time though, Babbitt loved popular music, particularly tunes from Broadway's musical theater. His love of jazz and theater music came very early, and in his teens he played clarinet and saxophone in bands performing their own arrangements of the music of then-popular artists like Jan Garber and Jean Goldkette. He was known for his thorough knowledge of the popular music of the 1920's and 1930's, and in 1946, he had even written a musical based on Homer's Odyssey called "Fabulous Voyage," which went unproduced. Uncompromisingly modern as Babbit the composer may have been, he certainly understood and loved music outside of his own specialized field. Schuller knew this and chose him precisely for that reason.

Connoisseur of popular music though he was, the piece Babbitt came up with for the Brandeis event bore no resemblance to anything in the American songbook. It was instead a typically complex work of integral serialism. The title, like many of the titles to his compositions, was a bit of wordplay: the name puns on the fact that Babbitt's compositional structure for the piece was based on a method of creating larger, "all-set" combinations of twelve tones out of smaller constituent subsets. Rather than composing from a single touchstone dodecaphonic pitch class set or row, as was done with much serial music, Babbitt generated the work's pitch sequences by creating twelve-tone aggregations through the combination and transposition of two-, three- and six-tone cells. In addition to subjecting pitch material to combinatorial operations, Babbitt also serialized the rhythm by setting up what he called "time points," or temporal events defined by the instant in which a pitch is first sounded. Specific rhythmic values, or durations, were then defined in terms of the temporal intervals between time points. Babbitt divided the measure into numbered time point events to which specific pitches were then assigned on the basis of their number within the pitch set. In this way, the rhythm of the piece was developed in the same manner as the pitch material: through combinations and transformations of constituent sets.

If the above sounds like the description of a complex piece of music that would challenge its performers, that's because it is. In fact, Schuller, in March 2014, described the piece to interviewer Christopher Leydon on Radio Open Source as "the most demanding quasi-jazz piece that was ever written." Just how demanding it was became abundantly clear when the time came to prepare it for presentation to the festival.


"All Set" for Brandeis, But Is Brandeis All Set for It?

In 2010, Schuller spoke at length to pianist Ethan Iverson for the BBC's "Jazz on 3" program about the ensemble that premiered "All Set" at the Brandeis festival, and about the obstacles that had to be overcome in crafting a viable performance. His recollections are illuminating not only for what they tell of the interpretive problems posed by this specific work, but more generally of the struggles involved in having musicians trained in one discipline play works assuming the background skills and practices of another, quite different discipline.

As it was, the musicians who made up the original octet were highly accomplished jazz musicians. They were: bassist Joe Benjamin; vibraphonist Teddy Charles; pianist Bill Evans; trumpeter Art Farmer; trombonist Jimmy Knepper; alto saxophonist John LaPorta; tenor saxophonist Hal McKusick; and drummer Ted Sommer. As Schuller recalled to Iverson, he rehearsing the piece sporadically over a three-month period, sometimes with the full ensemble and sometimes only with sections of it. Learning it didn't always go smoothly. While Schuller was startled by how quickly Evans picked it up--he "virtually sightread" it after some initial preparation--others had a harder time of it. Schuller in particular remembered Farmer and Benjamin as having the most difficulty, but both were persistent in trying to get it right. A few of the musicians had had classical training--LaPorta had played in a youth orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski, for example, and McKusick had a classical background as well--and were more familiar with the process of translating fully-notated scores into sound. But Schuller acknowledged that they all found the piece difficult. And no wonder. Dodecaphonic music like Babbitt's has no tonal focus, let alone the ii-V7-I cadences or chains of secondary dominants by which jazz musicians orient themselves when negotiating their way through a piece. Instead, "All Set"'s lines must have struck many of the musicians as sequences of randomly occurring, harmonically disconnected notes. And the work contained no improvisation, which of course is the very heart of jazz. In short, what the octet's personnel had come up doing they did magnificently, but most of them hadn't come up doing anything remotely like "All Set."

Even so, their performance, which was recorded and issued on the Bill Evans and Orchestra--Brandeis Jazz Festival album is, all things considered, an admirable accomplishment. What they brought to the piece is something virtually unimaginable for integral serial music: a sense of swing. Ironically, perhaps, part of this had to do with the composition itself. The paradigmatic integral serial work tends toward a pointillistic, islands-of-sound texture in which melodies are set out as fragmented shards of instrumental color, and rhythms have a discontinuous, broken feel. By contrast, Babbitt's time point writing gave "All Set" a strong underlying pulse measured in 16th notes, which makes for a marked sense of forward propulsion. The musicians were able to take that pulse and loosen it to reflect the rhythmic inflections of jazz. One can hear it particularly in the horns' playing and in the vibes' lines. In addition, one can detect a distinctly jazz-based feel in the instruments' articulation, as for example in the saxophones' vibrato. And --again, perhaps ironically--Babbitt's lines do have a thematic coherence immediately audible as motifs making their way around the ensemble. Intentionally or not, it sounds much like a hypermodern reworking of the polyphony of New Orleans jazz.

In his interview with Iverson, Schuller recalled having to spend many hours in editing to get parts of the recorded performance right. Still, it remains a warm, engaging realization of a piece that for its time was extremely experimental. In fact, it's interesting to contrast the Brandeis recording with two subsequent recordings--of the 1974 Speculum Musicae version, which was issued by Nonesuch Records, and of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's realization in 2006. Both certainly are fine performances. Schuller conceded that the Speculum Musicae performance was most likely more precise than the Brandeis ensemble's performance, and the same could be said of the BMOP performance. In the latter recording in particular, Babbitt's lines are sharply defined, the ensemble work is tight, and the pulse is firmly and evenly set out. Of course, neither the Speculum Musicae nor the BMOP realizations can be taken for jazz, nor should they be. After all, All Set really isn't a jazz composition. And therein lies the rub.


Who Cares if It Isn't Jazz?

Because of the makeup of its ensemble and the circumstances of its premiere, "All Set" seemed to hold out the promise of being a jazz composition. The Nonesuch album, in fact, billed the piece as "for jazz ensemble." But clearly, it is not jazz. For some, this was a problem--so much so that in his program note on the piece for the Nonesuch recording, Babbitt asserted that he'd "leave to the judgment of those who are concerned to determine what things really are" whether or not the piece was "really jazz." He quite reasonably noted that superficially, "All Set" shared some characteristics of jazz but that the work's "deeper structures" were of a piece with his other compositions, "which really are not jazz."

But--and without being flippant here--who cares if it is, or isn't, jazz? Or pseudo-jazz, nor non-jazz, for that matter. Perhaps it counts as a kind of second-order or meta-jazz--a piece about jazz that itself isn't jazz. Maybe it is instead an alienation (in the creative, formalist sense of alienation) of jazz conventions that, precisely in the way that it alienates jazz conventions--the function of the rhythm section, the instrumental relationships, even the bass solo toward the end of a jazz piece--serves to put these conventions, as well as the entire idea of the jazz combo as a unit, in a fresh, witty, and ultimately surprising light. As such, it is letting us see them as if for the first time. "All Set" sets the idea of the jazz combo askew the way wordplay sets language askew: by twisting or "misusing" it in order to reveal hidden facets of meaning that would otherwise stay latent.

If an artwork's value consists in its capacity to open up new worlds of meaning by, among other things, reworking, recharging or rearranging whatever formal or expressive conventions inhabited prior worlds of meaning, then "All Set" undisputably is a valuable work. Whether or not it "really is jazz" isn't, and never really was, the point.


Also see Daniel Barbiero's webpage

And see our interview with Milton Babbitt



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