So for those of you who have been tuning in to my social media and blog pages, you may be asking “What is all this Babbit Square nonsense about anyway?” And your future self will be asking “Why are you still posting Babbit Squares????!” To answer the latter, because it’s fun! I’m also a huge nerd. Deal with it.
But as for the former, I’ve been embarking on some more 12-tone music as a fun side project. For those of you who don’t know, 12-tone music utilizes all 12 chromatic notes of the Western music scale (C, C#, D all the way to B) at least once before repeating any of them. A string of these 12 notes (ha! A-string! Guitar joke…) is called a tone row.
Now to be frank, I find a lot of this music awful. But there are some pieces that sounds good, and I find that I’m enamoured with them. This concept is so interesting to me – it is so starkly different from the hundreds of years of composition that preceded it. So, naturally, I have to find a way to make this sound good (to me). My first attempt at this was in 2017 with my guitar solo Babbit. But I am not over the challenge to work with this – not by a long shot.
Let us now go back to a world before COVID-19 shut the world down. February. Sigh. My partner and I had head down to Moose Jaw to take in some R&R at Temple Gardens. While waiting in the waiting room (cause what else will you do in a room of that name?) for our massages, my ears naturally drifted towards the quintessential cheesy spa music playing in the background. It was fitting for this type of experience – it was gentle, calming, and tonally did not go much of anywhere (I, vi, IV, V). I turned to my partner and I said, “I wonder if you could make spa music out of 12-tone music?”
I ran out of the waiting room to the receptionist to borrow a pencil and paper to write this down. I was not about to lose this idea! I had to take up this challenge.
Fast forward to now (or you can imagine this part of the story takes place at Temple Gardens in a pre-COVID-crisis time. No worries – a little imaginative R&R!), I finally get around to working on this.
My first thought for trying out the 12-tone spa was simply going around the Circle of 4ths and 5ths. that would get to all 12 tones in a manner that is pleasing to our ears. And that would sound pretty zen. Sure enough – paired with some sustained strings synth effect on our circa-2000 electric keyboard, slowly going through the Circle of 4ths and 5ths sounded like spa music.
But I couldn’t just leave it there. I had to try a harder challenge with a more traditional tone row, where notes seemingly pop out of nowhere. So I wrote this tone row
Then I took to the electric keys. This was so much fun - it would totally work as spa music!
So in order to make the piece longer, I wanted to work with the variations of the tone row – inversions, retrogrades, and retrograde-inversions. That’s where the Babbit Square comes in. Once I filled out my square, I improvised on the keyboard selecting different rows to play. It was so much fun! I was cackling to myself about it the whole time.
So the final step in this was to pair the music with one of those “calming” videos that you see on youtube. So I filmed a candle and some outdoor scenery and then put together the final videos. Here is the video with the above tone row
Seriously, I have been having so much fun with these. I'm going to keep posting the Saturday Morning Babbit Squares for a while. If you want to try one yourself, feel free to check out my tutorial here.
And with that, I hope you find some peace and serenity from this music. Maybe even imagining yourself in a garden with peacocks in the grove. Be the king of your own calm kingdom.