Back in 2007 I joined the jazz composer-pianist Ethan Iverson for an Evening of Spooky Modern Music at the Paris Bar. The playlist included Milton Babbitt's Semi-Simple Variations, with the composer's jazzy vibe accentuated. Ethan practiced the piece while on the road with his trio, The Bad Plus, and found that his bandmates, Dave King and Reid Anderson, enjoyed playing along. They got the idea of adding modern classical works to the Bad Plus repertory. The new Bad Plus album, For All I Care, includes the Babbitt, an extract from Stravinsky's Apollo, and Ligeti's "Fém" Etude. On his blog Ethan explains the genesis of the project and also the making of the fabulous video above. The dancers are Julie Worden (red), Michelle Yard (blue), and Laurel Lynch (black), from the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Much happens in the brief span of Semi-Simple Variations. Christopher Wintle once wrote a forty-three-page analysis of the piece for Perspectives of New Music — more than one page per measure. But, in fact, it is semi-simple. It's a theme plus five variations. The theme unfolds in six held notes over the first six measures, which take up the first thirteen or so seconds of the video. The work is also, in a way, variations on a rhythmic pattern. The piano begins with a quick little four-note burst. After that, we go through the other fifteen ways you can arrange a set of four units, with a "null set" or rest at the end:
And those rhythmic elements are then juggled according to the same kinds of principles that govern the permutations of notes. Presto, total serialism!