|by Peter G. Davis Musical America Friday, November 7, 2008 NEW YORK - Complete cycles of a composer's string quartets are frequent enough these days, but the honor had yet to be paid to Milton Babbitt until Wednesday evening, when the Zukofsky Quartet played the cycle of six at Columbia University's Miller Theater, including the world premiere of fragments from the composer’s first effort in the genre dating from 1948. The complete score is now lost, save for two brief excerpts from the first movement that had been published in "Perspectives of New Music" as a 60th- birthday tribute to the composer in 1976. Now 92 and sharp as a tack, Babbitt sat down midway through this marathon for a chat with James Levine, perhaps his biggest fan in high-profile musical circles, and regaled the audience in his witty, warm and charming way with an anecdote that is almost as famous as the thorny intricacy of his music and analytical essays. The two men interact with such ease and total recall (Levine first met Babbitt in 1967 when the 24-year-old conductor-to-be was playing the piano part of the composer's "Relata I" with the Cleveland Orchestra) that one could gladly spend an entire evening in their company. The five one-movement quartets filled the intimate auditorium with about two-and-a-half hours of eventful music. From what one could discern after hearing the bits from Quartet No. 1, it was clear that Babbitt's early exposure to Schoenberg's Fourth String Quartet at its New York premiere in 1937 proved to be a crucial encounter. The large, sweeping musical gestures within the 12-note context of these two excerpts recall the older composer's crypto-romantic spirit, soon to be distilled by Babbitt into a more atomized style as he refined his extension of 12-note compositional theory and serial principles. But by 1954 and the Second Quartet, Babbitt had found his own voice. All the characteristics one associates with the composer are in this 13-minute work: the darting playful rhythms, the eloquent rhetorical precision and a pristine clarity of sonority in every measure. Most commentators focus on the often complex linear progress of Babbitt's music, but the real miracle is the diamantine brilliance of its vertical synchronizations -- however difficult it may be to keep up with the thought processes of this nimble mind, the sheer visceral effect of his music on the ear, as it sings and dances and continually reinvents itself with ever unfolding sound patterns, is hard to resist. Quartets Three and Four were written close together, in 1969-70, and they are the most austere of the series, although this self-professed "maximalist" still gives listeners plenty to ponder and get their ears around. To quote the composer: "As with any relatively intricate composition [Quartet No. 3], further rehearings or--more realistically--further recalling should lead the listener from those local coherences and immediate modes of progression and association which are instantly apparent through those analogously constructed and related larger units which subsume them, on to the total foreground as a totality. When this has been accomplished, I trust that the reasons why and the senses in which I regard this composition as completely, though by no means exclusively, polyphonic will have become clearly evident." Listening to a Babbitt score is nowhere near as off-putting as reading about it. It's surely possible to enjoy Quartet No. 5 (1982) as an Adagio in a sort of post-Mahlerian way, with its longer breathed lines and more lyrical expansiveness. The Quartet No. 6 (1993), likely to be his last says Babbitt, returns to a denser sound world in which all four instruments are almost continually fully engaged in playing off each other, creating a kaleidoscopic 25 minutes of intricate cross rhythms and glittering colorist effects. This ultra-complex score challenged the Zukofsky Quartet to its most virtuoso performance of the evening, a tour de force that captured all the fearless energy of the piece without any loss of detail or nuance. These four young musicians are not only fully in tune with each other, they also seem to be completely in love with the music. In his helpful program notes, Paul Griffiths compared listening to Babbitt with observing the night sky, a notion that seems particularly apt when considering the quartets. On a clear night the panoply of uncountable sparkling stars can at first seem chaotic and confusing, but soon everything falls into logical place as constellation designs take shape and the sparkling spectacle suddenly begins to make profound sense. A Babbitt string quartet dazzles the ear and fascinates the mind in much the same way.