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Milton Babbitt

All Set (1957)

Composed in 1957 for the Brandeis University Arts Festival, which in that year was a jazz festival, All Set is scored for a small jazz ensemble consisting of alto and tenor sax, trumpet and trombone, bass, vibes, piano and drums. While written in the jazz idiom, the work utilizes an all-combinatorial 12-tone row as its material. Characteristic of the "Chicago style", solo and ensemble juxtapositions recall "certain characteristics of group improvisation (Barkin), while the sections correspond to serial technique. While the available literature concerning the work is quite limited, Milton Babbitt has this to say on his work:

"Whether All Set is really jazz I leave to the judgment of those who are concerned to determine what things really are, and if such probably superficial aspects of the works as its very instrumentation, its use of the 'rhythm section,' the instrumentally delineated sections which may appear analogous to successive instrumental 'choruses,' and even specific thematic or motivic materials, may justify that aspect of the title which suggests the spirit of a 'jazz instrumental,' then the surface and the deeper structure of the pitch, temporal, and other dimensions of the work surely reflect those senses of the title, the letter of which brings the work closer to other of my compositions, which really are not jazz."

Although remaining faithful to his 12-tone system of composition, Babbitt's effective use of jazz inflection proves that 12-tone music not only can be extremely flexible, but also can indeed be fun! Salzman (1988) remarks that while Babbitt remains "... faithful to a vision of total rationality and control..." the work itself relates "... to [the] character of the live performance, situation and virtuosity of the performers." In this sense, the virtuosity reflects the extremely complex rhythms of the instrumental parts, often polyphonic, which are sounded against a more regular pulse of the drums. Not only are these instrumental parts rhythmically complex, but the melodic lines are extremely angular, requiring a great deal of concentration and control on the part of the performers.

The work is experimental, in that it is the first one in which Babbitt used the idea of ‘time point sets.' Glen Watkins (1988) asserts that Babbitt was "... dissatisfied with the incompatibilities of serial procedures used for pitch and rhythm..." which resulted in Babbitt's creation of a system that could be applied in a more flexible way. Watkins: "Here the obvious need for a clear and audible metric organization is acute if such an organization is to have any meaning for the listener." This statement obviously refers to Babbitt's famous and much misunderstood article "Who Cares if You Listen?" in which Babbitt places the responsibility of understanding and recognizing serial procedures upon performers and listeners.

The problem, as approached encountered by European serialists such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, was a matter of whether the serial technique was perceptible when applied to a rhythmic system. Boulez and Stockhausen, among others, attempted to solve this by applying serial technique to duration. However, when Babbitt understood that the perception of duration was a subjective phenomenon, he successfully solved the issue by applying serial technique to a system of ‘attack points’ corresponding to the series. Simply put, the human brain understands the beginning of an event, but has trouble perceiving ‘how long’ the event has lasted without an external reference of measurement. Therefore, a variety of durational values could be assigned to notes in the series, creating a fluid and flexible system while at the same time adhering to a ‘strict’ rhythmic system that is perceptible to the listener.

Watkins describes the concept of time point sets as one in which "... various note-values are identified by their position at the point of attack within the bar". However, Charles Wuorinen is much more specific in elaborating on Babbitt's concept. Wuornin (1979) defines a time point as "... simply a location in the flow of time." In describing the time point system, he informs us that the concept is based upon two principles: "1) The relationships of the pitch system are transferred in their totality to the sphere of time relations; 2) This transfer is accomplished through the linkage of one simple equivalence - that of time interval corresponding to pitch interval." In this usage both time and pitch continuums are applied to modules which correspond to respective intervals, thus arriving at a flexible system in which time and pitch intervals can be varied from work to work. Wuorinen: "... twelve interval divisions of the time modules will therefore make up twelve time-point classes..." In this system, the time points may be identified by locating their points of attack, which have nothing to do with individual event duration. While in All Set Babbitt applies this use to the traditional 12-note series, this system is flexible in that it can be used in series containing other than 12 notes. Additional flexibility can be obtained by varying the lengths of time interval divisions.

While Babbitt obtains contrast by applying operations to different groups of instruments, the overall sonority and way in which he applies the time-point set theory in All Set creates an extremely unified composition.


Babbitt, Milton. Spectrum: New American Music, Volume V. Record H-71303, Nonesuch Records, 1974.

Barkin, Elaine. "Milton Babbitt," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction, 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1988.

Watkins, Glenn. Soundings: Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: Schirmer, 1988.

Wuorinen, Charles. "Rhythmic Organization: The Time Point System." Chap. in Simple Composition. New York: Longman, 1979.