Milton Babbitt


Juliet Fraser

atd4 binaural download only

Excerpt from Philomel

‘Lost, lost in the wooded night,’ bruised and speechless, Philomel begins her song. Composed in 1964 for voice and pre-recorded 4-channel surround sound, Babbitt’s sound-world is one of disorientation, dislocation and, ultimately, transformation. Mastered for headphone listening in surround-sound binaural format.


1 Philomel 18:53

Liner notes

How Philomela regained her voice is the narrative of Milton Babbitt’s 1964 piece for soprano and tape. How audiences hear Philomel in the concert hall is recreated in this download through the use of binaural recording techniques; a cleaned-up and remastered tape part also renders the music more clearly for twenty-first-century ears. Originally intended to be performed with live performer and four speakers, surround sound is crucial to the full experience of this work; listeners need to feel trapped in the music, much as Philomela cannot escape her fate.

The first section of John Hollander’s poem consists of /iy/, the vowel nucleus at the core of the phrase ‘I feel’. The phonemes of ‘Philomel’ and ‘Tereus’, her abductor and rapist who cut out her tongue to prevent her reporting this brutal violation, provide the remaining material, along with short phrases that gradually begin to cohere into comprehensible clauses. Section Two, after her transformation into a bird, sees Philomel explore her own myth in dialogue with various creatures of the forest. All is echoed, not with the humour of Baroque opera, but with the grotesque, guttural repetitions of a synthesizer. The third section is Philomel’s song. ‘I sing in change’, she insists.

Philomel’s transformation is not redemptive; she has not really been saved, simply allowed to sing. It matters that the metamorphosed body in Philomel is female. There is a long history of women being granted a final liberatory song (think of operatic heroines being ‘undone’, as Catherine Clément has it, or the notion of nothing being over until ‘the fat lady sings’). Philomel, by contrast, is a bird in a cage: she may have regained her voice but she is not granted agency over what and how she sings, and the live voice here is perceptibly encircled, constrained, by the dense and inflexible pre-recorded material. Feminist music theorists routinely point out that, while a woman may be given the opportunity to perform, she remains under the authorial control of a man. Babbitt’s compositional practices, his dependence on serial procedures that produce esoteric networks of pitches, seems to be an extreme example of that kind of construction, even if his use of pitch-sets in Philomel is more explicit and programmatic than in other works. So too does his use of taping and playing back the voice. Mutation into a bird does not make Philomel’s more ‘natural’ but less so.

Babbitt’s refraction of the soprano voice through synthesizers forecasts more recent writings on the posthuman, in which the human body is no longer tied to nature but undergoes technological modification. However, the analogue world of tape, and Babbitt’s handwritten score, retains traces of the people involved in the first performances. Philomel, in other words, is not just a snapshot of the technologies of the time but something more harrowing because its musical voice retains a vestigial humanity while being at the same time a harbinger of radical ways of representing violence and its transcendence.

Laura Tunbridge

I love Philomel. It is visceral and haunting and quite unlike any other work I know. The technology Babbitt harnesses, and arguably the musical language, provides a snapshot of that time, but the soundworld remains progressive and surprising, and the dramatic potential is undimmed. It’s paramount, though, also to credit John Hollander for his devastating text, and Bethany Beardslee, who breathed life into this role and whose legacy lives on in the pre-recorded voice(s) of Philomel.

I encountered a few practical hurdles when preparing to perform and then record Philomel, the biggest of which was the score. The current edition is in Babbitt’s own hand, which is lovely as an artefact, but comes complete with mistakes, smudges, bars split willy-nilly over line breaks, only a vague gesture (often inaccurate) towards what the ‘synchronised sound’ part entails. I would dearly love to see this amazing piece performed more widely, but I know that the score is the primary obstacle. Composers, publishers — this really matters.

More mundane hurdles are the co-ordination with the tape (despite reservations, I resorted to a click track), the range (through the cunning use of a technique known as ‘not warming up’ I managed to capture some notes unusually below my reliable range) and the dynamics (no cheating to be done there). One of the great strengths of this work, though, is that if one respects the detail, the rewards are potent.

Juliet Fraser