More Semi-Simple Variations, Intermezzo, an Fugue on a Theme by Milton Babbitt (2016, rev. 2017)

for piano four hands


Gloria Yin (primo), Juri Seo (secondo)
September 18, 2016
Milton Babbitt Centennary Celebration Concert
Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University


Performers: Steve Beck (primo) & Eric Huebner (secondo)
Video artist: Evan Chapman 
Recording engineer: Andres Villalta

May 2017, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton

Program Note: 

Milton Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations (1956) is a sweet little work for solo piano. The score, spanning a mere two pages, reveals a handsome horizontal and vertical symmetry. The two hexachords that generate the pitch material are combinatorial under retrograde (that is, the second set of six pitches is a backward version of the first set of six pitches, and together they comprise all twelve types of pitches available on the piano. In fact, it is also combinatorial under inversion and transposition.). Symmetrical harmonies arise from the simultaneous use of the prime form (the original tune) and its inversion (a mirror image of the original tune). The rhythms come from the sixteen possible combinations of sixteenth-notes within a quarter-note duration.

The sounding result, however, is not as neat as the analysis of the score would suggest. We poor mortal souls cannot experience time both forward and backward, so we fail to grasp the horizontal symmetry. The physics of sound tells us that our perception of frequency is not linear, so the vertical symmetry eludes us too. (We hear notes near the middle of the piano more clearly than the high and low notes on either end, and the intervals sound different depending on the register due to the way overtones interact.) To add to this challenge, everything goes by incredibly fast. While I remain skeptical of its seemingly fundamental disregard for the contours of human perception, I enjoy this strange music for its unpredictable little notes, its funky rhythms, and its motives that flash but never develop. I love the coherence achieved by those gestures that, at first, sound essentially like mistakes. The texture is so complex that it is perpetually fresh. The beauty of this music—to my mind—lies in the way levity, humor, and discontinuity intermingle inside the ironic intensity of the complex score. 

Rather than writing a serial work, I decided early on to respond to the audible surface of Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations. In my More Semi-Simple Variations, Intermezzo, and Fugue on a Theme by Milton Babbitt, Babbitt’s original is fleshed out through embellishments and thematic developments. Babbitt’s twelve-tone tune is kept intact in the Brahmsian Intermezzo, and the hexachords become fugal subjects in the seven-part double fugue that leads directly to the final variation. Throughout the piece, tonality is reinserted in juxtaposition to Babbitt’s style (which arose, in large part, out of a careful opposition to such musical language). I believe this is my genuine way of responding to the old master through Kampf(struggle), an essential spirit of this tradition that both Babbitt and I come from.