There are some composers whose music i keep coming back to not out of love but with the attitude of a nutcracker, trying once again to break through its tough, tenacious surface. i don’t know Milton Babbitt‘s music well (as i admitted when noting his centenary a few years back), and in part that’s precisely due to the fact that i’ve found so much of it to be forbidding and inaccessible. In that respect, Babbitt is pretty much unique – few composers leave me drawing such a complete blank – though his soprano and tape piece Philomel is a powerful exception, a work i’ve marvelled at for many years.
It’s in that spirit of ongoing attempts at nutcracking that i’m today featuring Babbitt’s last ever composition, An Encore, composed in 2006 when the composer was 90 years old. It seems almost silly to admit that i still find it a tough prospect considering it’s a tiny duet – lasting less than two minutes – for violin and piano. But in fact, that’s the first question: is it a duet? Trying to ascertain the nature of the relationship between the players is difficult. Initially at least, there’s the impression that they’re taking turns to dominate, though as it continues it seems equally plausible that they’re merely adjacent to one another, feeling their way forward in parallel through separate strands of individual material. For that reason, i often find myself focusing on one instrument at a time, though the gaps in each player’s music invites one’s perceptions back to the possibility of it being some sort of conversation. Certainly, taken on their own terms each player doesn’t appear to achieve something self-contained, or develop or progress somewhere obvious, again suggesting the emphasis should be on the results of the duet.
This first European performance of An Encore took place in February 2016, by violinist Mandhira de Saram and pianist Julian Trevelyan. i’ve lost track of how many times i’ve listened to it since then, but for all that time i’ve been flip-flopping back and forth between the players and their material, trying to parse their individual and combined details and find a way in. i’m not there yet (maybe it’s just a small window into a larger interaction, or a microcosm of sorts), but until that day dawns and the penny finally drops, maybe one or two of you might be able to shine a light onto this inscrutable little piece.