On the Paucity of Twelve-tone Technique
The Fundamental Idea
In modern music
schools, one is taught that twelve-tone technique or dodecaphony is a method of musical composition, for which credit is placed with
Arnold Schoenberg as the supposed father of this school of composition.
In the late 1910s Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg formulated this
method which was used during the next decades by what became known as
the Second Viennese School, whose members included Alban Berg, Anton
Webern, Hanns Eisler and Arnold Schoenberg himself. Generally these
specific composers were rather individual and free with what is often
taught as the strictures of twelve-tone methods, a fact often glossed
over by ardent enthusiasts of this kind of composition.
Reti, an early proponent said, "To replace one structural force
(tonality) by another (increased thematic oneness) is indeed the
fundamental idea behind the twelve-tone technique." Reti posited that
this "fundamental idea" arose out of Schoenberg's frustrations with free
atonality. One need heed Reti's assertion that thematic "oneness" is
somehow increased by the dissolution of tonality; this assertion alone
is fallacious though oft repeated without comment or critique.
While Milton Babbitt recently chose to not recall who invented the
notion of "atonality," it was not, as Babbitt claimed, a misnomer
because all music uses tones, and therefore no music can be properly
called a-tonal. [in a Charles Homer Haskins Lecture, 1991]
Rather the term was used to differentiate this music arising out of the
Second Viennese School from previous music, which music theory quite
happily termed tonal. Clever word play perhaps, but the verbal domain of
many "important" musical thinkers of the last century does not clarify
basic notions of music and music theory; rather it often confuses simple
Composing with all "twelve
tones" was nothing new, for one may hear all twelve tones within any
extended work of the Romantic era. Rather, the enforcement of hearing
all twelve tones within a short space of time was a mere extension of
the chromaticism of the 19th century, against which this Second Viennese
School was supposedly rebelling. Employing all twelve tones within the
row is simply an advanced chromaticism, which the theoretical jargon and
codification of the Second Viennese School and their adherents pretended
to be a break from the styles of the late 19th century. This clever
humbug has been swallowed whole as a belief system within music
education and criticism throughout the remainder of the 20th century,
with little academic thinking revealing this emperor's new clothes.
The fact of the free atonality of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" is that
it was the culmination of the freeing of tonality through excessive and
It did this by
defining the use of twelve chromatic half steps,
as opposed to the fewer number of tones in the various diatonic scales
and modes. As a result, one might argue that Schoenberg represents in
many ways the end of an old era, as much as the harbinger of a new era.
I prefer this notion myself, as I respect much of his early work.
In the intervening century, musical theater on Broadway and the West
End, jazz, rock, blues and film music have all wandered away from the
supposed rigorous thinking of the twelve-tone adherents, and in the
process taken a massive, majority share of the listening audience with
them. The tonality of the ages before the "Enlightenment of Atonality"
still reigns supreme in classical programming, as one may hear in
concerts and on radio stations, and see in the approximately seven
percent of the music business involved with the making and marketing of
"classical" recordings. Only a tiny portion of that seven percent is of
the avant garde, and twelve-tone music is only a portion of that small
avant-garde whole. On a purely demographic basis, one might well argue
that the Second Viennese School was a blind alley, or at least an
anomaly in musical development. Measured by simple demographics, it is a
small portion of the small portion of music which we call today
I must emphasize at this point that this is not an
attack on Schoenberg's opera omnia, for his Gurre-lieder and
early songs have been part and parcel of my career as a performer.
[ 1 ] Additionally, I was
instructed in part using his marvelous Structural Functions of
Harmony as a text.
Equally I have known students of his, some of whom have recounted times
when Schoenberg was less than generous of spirit and even downright mean
spirited. Those anecdotes have no place here however. Yet, Schoenberg's
own remark about Zemlinsky -- his brother-in-law and a fine composer --
was "let him wait." That wait is over, as Zemlinsky's operas are taking
stage alongside Schoenberg's and, in my own estimation, surpassing them.
The Marvelous Humbug
humbug of much of the dodecaphonic avant garde in music is easily
seen by some of the rhetorical statements which surround the very
foundations of the twelve-tone movement and its academic acolytes.
As chromaticism led to the use of more than the tones of the diatonic
scale, did "tones" in fact need "liberation" from the diatonic scale? Of
course not, and one should notice that the period when this lingo came
into fashion paralleled the ascendancy of the same kind of rhetoric
involving socialism and its promised political "liberation." That tones
required liberation as much as populations seems quaint in hindsight, as
one has seen socialism develop into an enslavement of whole populations
-- as in the national socialism of Germany and the socialist "republics"
of the Soviet Union, as but two examples of failed socialist governments
which brought suffering to many of their own people. That time is
passing, as is the loyalty to the rhetorical baggage of the Second
Viennese School's many disciples.
Schoenberg liked to speak of
his "method of composing with 12 notes which are related only to one
another," but a simple examination of the expression reveals it to be
mere marketing of a sort. Notes are related one to another, and a
hierarchy of notes defined what still remains known as common practice
harmony. Moreover, the various rules and methods for manipulating
twelve-tone rows are themselves rules for relationships, albeit
different than those developed throughout the period of common-practice
harmony -- a period which has not ended to this day. Therefore, his
phrase has little real meaning.
Twelve tones "related only one to
one another" is in fact to be found in the advanced chromatic
composition of the late 19th century, wherein non-chordal tones were
used as additional musical spice to enhance the options and
opportunities of composers' palettes. What does it mean to be "related
only one to another," when in fact tones in any music -- to include
non-Western music -- are related "one to another?" Schoenberg's force of
will, of which some of his students have spoken personally to me, was
able to convince that twelve-tone music was some seminal break with that
which went before. I no longer see this, but rather find the "school"
which was spun off by his many disciples constricting and uninventive.
It is said that "given the twelve pitch classes of the chromatic scale,
there are 12! [ 12 factorial, i.e. 479,001,600 ] unique tone rows." The
happy use of the factorial to lend an air of mathematics and science to
the limitations of these "unique tone rows" is nothing special. Given no
adherence to the use of twelve notes in a specific row, the "factorial"
of possibilities and permutations of musical tones of any aesthetic and
in any fashion is far, far greater. Infinitely greater, it turns out,
which explains the continued vitality of extended common-practice
harmonic and melodic composition today in so many genres of music. This
seemingly infinite choice dwarfs the restrictions which twelve-tone
technique places on its "co-religionists." After all, ignoring the 12
factorial notion, the permutations of a specific twelve-tone row yield
really only the row and its 47 possible relatives.
for the row, its inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion, as
presented in composition seminars throughout musical academia, is
misplaced. Such basic manipulations of any twelve-tone row assume that a
composer -- much less a listener -- can quickly learn and remember the
thematic information contained in such a row and its sisters. That was
and remains nonsense.
A Musical Test
To prove this, one need
only ask any advocate of twelve-note music to sing
[ 2 ] at sight a specified row, its inversion, retrograde and
retrograde inversion, and then remember it for a short period of time.
Fine musicians fail this little exercise, and with good reason.
Memorability of musical themes is a crucial factor in parsing music into
musical meaning, for composers and performers as much as for their
audiences. Memorable melodic shape and content are necessary to most
music, as is some codified form. These are the basic rules of musical
grammar -- a grammar which the highly celebrated "liberation" did not
address. Rather it ignored it to its discredit.
twelve-tone test which I suggest above, I challenge any ardent advocate
of twelve-tone technique to sing at sight all 48 permutations. The
musical memorability of all 48 is almost nil to begin with, and only
truly serves to offer a composer "pre-compositional" ways of developing
themes and motives for the purpose of composing. Are all 48 memorable?
Are all rows adequate and equal? The rhetoric alleges this to be true,
for Reti argued for an "increased thematic oneness."
Often words can allege as true that which musical practices prove false.
Whatever musical meaning might be to the individual, it is about tones
over time. Recognizing an "old friend"
[ 3 ] musically allows the ear to follow a musical argument
or structure to its conclusion. This is why even Berg chose to turn the
twelve tone technique into a quasi-tonal system, and why Webern wrote
such a small number of pieces often involving specific textural and
stylistic peculiarities which make his work uniquely his own. It is also
why Schoenberg himself broke his own, newly birthed rules. As a school,
theirs was remarkably inconsistent, though interesting for its time.
A New Basic Grounding Force?
Schoenberg's early idea in developing the technique was for it to act as
a replacement for tonal harmony as "a basic grounding force for music."
This was ideological, and wholly unrelated to notions which have since
sprung up about how the mind parses musical materials into hierarchies
for the purpose of creating musical understanding.
It was an act of ego, to believe that he would overturn some previous
"basic grounding force for music" with his own. As a young man,
Schoenberg was obviously caught up in the political and psychological
whirlwinds of Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century, and
non-musical themes and notions affected his thinking about music. One
sees this linguistic similarity in Freud's notion of "Gestalt" therapy
and Schoenberg's "Grundgestalt" in music.
This thought error which is attributed to Schoenberg might well be an
error of language first.
[ 4 ]
A variety of principles of organization were being proposed at the turn
of the last century by the Gestalt psychologists like Kurt Koffka and
Wolfgang Köhler, which declared that there was a "whole" which was more
than the sum of its parts, and that the parts were organized into
structures in certain principled ways. The implication here is the
opposite of Schoenberg's theory. It is that one cannot reduce down to
low-level constituent parts and focus solely on those constituent parts
to direct and explain the whole. This may well have been the basic
misunderstanding between the Gestalt psychologists and the at best
amateur psychologist, Schoenberg. A fashionable word misapplied became
the ground for a new foundation for music composition, a foundation
without cognitive science underpinnings.
George Perle's later
adaptation into "twelve-tone tonality" in an obvious attempt to validate
"atonality" with the rhetoric of tonal verbiage was a frustration to the
supposedly seminal break with hierarchies of tones as proposed by the
young Second Viennese School.
Former student Paul Lansky writes of Perle's supposedly tonal atonality,
"Basically this creates a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic
scale so that they are all referentially related to one or two pitches
which then function as a tonic note or chord in tonality. The system
similarly creates a hierarchy among intervals and finally among larger
collections of notes, 'chords.' The main debt of this system to the
12-tone system lies in its use of an ordered linear succession in the
same way that a 12-tone set does." In other words, this is merely
another example of the 19th century's last gasps of extended
chromaticism into the 20th century, couched in "scientific" verbiage, in
order to create yet another "system" of music, as if music required a
system to begin with.
Many assumptions about twelve-tone
technique are made, and few critically examined. Why all twelve tones,
to begin with? Why retrogrades, inversions and retrograde inversions?
Why treat all twelve tones with "equal importance?" Why break apart the
row into what developed as methods for manipulating hexachords and other
groupings of notes? How does this artistic stance compare to other art
Has one seen a four note tone row? I have, having used a
very simple and consonant four note row to set a text by Dylan Thomas.
How often does one see eleven note rows? Ten? Eight?
As an example, any "row" rules based on any of the octatonic scales ends
up merely taking a scale outside the normal major-minor constellation,
and then requiring that all the notes of the scale be used once before
repeating the scale. The paucity of this practice will quickly be seen,
if followed. Equally so for a simple diatonic scale, in which one
requires all seven notes be heard before repeating one. The fewer the
number of tones, the sillier the example becomes, for such a rule
constrains the composer's creativity, rather than enhances it.
The adherence to using all twelve notes became a basic part of a
catechism which went unchallenged as generations of composers and
teachers of composition followed the rhetorical and extramusical stances
of the Second Viennese School and its later apologists, as did the
methods for manipulating them.
If later twelve-tone advocates,
such as Perle, ended up rescinding some of the rhetorical nonsense of
the early twelve tone school, it was predictable. That all twelve tones
have equal importance is not a truth of the ear, any more than all the
letters in an alphabet have equal importance, or all words in a grammar,
or all colors, hues and shadings have in understanding visual art.
This first part of the twelve tone belief system was rooted in politics
and psychology in its infancy, not music and certainly not the human
nature of hearing and creating meaning from external stimuli.
A Metaphor and Thought Experiment
small metaphor serves to illustrate this. Given the naive assertion that
all the members of a class are of "equal importance," we might examine
the following bit of prose, in which all the letter of the alphabet are
repeated once before additional repetition and that they have "equal
importance." After all, the logical extension to Schoenberg's "method of
composing with 12 notes which are related only to one another" could be
likened to a "method of writing prose and poetry with twenty-six letters
which are related only one to another."
Here is a word "row"
containing those twenty-six letters of the English language alphabet.
"Glm xcbe kjop tfda hinz y vw ruqs." Here is its retrograde. "Squr wv y
znih adft pojk ebcx mlg."
I leave it to the reader to ponder how to invert these structures with
linguistic tools such as we understand them today. Yet, by "liberating"
the letters from their syntax and expected relationships such as vowels
to consonants, similar to Schoenberg's "liberating" the tone, one loses
even the notion of a faux language.
For example, some rules of grammar suggest that a procession of
consonants without vowels no longer claims the status of word. Therefore
the liberation of letters which results in "Glm" might signal some
abbreviation of a company name, but it does not trigger the idea that
this is a new or unknown word in English. On the other hand,
happenstance sets "y" apart, and this may be seen as a conjunction in
Spanish, while the confluence of "vw" might refer to a German car maker.
"Ruqs" might be an English transliteration of an Arabic word, or "kjop"
some sort of Scandinavian term. All these would be guesses, based on
some acquaintance with rules of language and grammar.
assertion that letters of the alphabet should be "liberated" and that
they should be treated with "equal importance," we arrive at an obvious
break down in linguistic communication. At some point, what one has to
say requires adherence to a grammar if one wishes to be understood. How
much prose or poetry might one tolerate like the above? Precious little.
And yet there is wonderful humor in modern poetry, which still pays
homage to grammar while finding something new and clever to say within
the constraints of linguistic grammar.
Georg Rühm's poem,
"sonnett," demonstrates this nicely:
erste strophe erste zeile
erste strophe zweite zeile
strophe dritte zeile
erste strophe vierte zeile
strophe erste zeile
zweite strophe zweite zeile
zweite strophe vierte zeile
dritte strophe zweite zeile
dritte strophe dritte
vierte strophe erste zeile
vierte strophe zweite
vierte strophe dritte zeile
E. E. Cummings shows us how language might seemingly ignore grammar, all
the while reinforcing it, as we read and parse a portion of his poem:
oil tel duh woil doi sez
dooyuh unnurs tanmih eesez pullih nizmus
dough un giv uh shid oi sez.
We come to realize that Cummings has spelled out and sometimes
misspelled an accent as the rude speaker says, "I'll tell the world, I
says, do you understand me, he says, pulling his moustache, I don't give
a shit, I says." This novel use of language is not new to Cummings, as
others before him attempted to capture the color of dialect with
Like the classic nonsense poetry of Lewis Carroll
and Edward Lear, this modern poetry adheres to certain structures and
grammar forms and expectations for its various humor and cultural
points. The classic nonsense poetry adheres also to both grammar and
expected structural forms.
Nonsense literature requires and relies on sense behind the nonsense.
A similar thought experiment might be done involving shapes or colors.
One often sees "inverted" colors, much like the photo negative, and
might think of Andy Warhol as the artist in question for a work
employing "false" blocks of color. But expecting that eggs be square and
deep purple will result in not finding eggs at the hen house or
supermarket. Shapes and colors have their own meaningful grammar and
syntax. While one can assert that shapes, colors, letters of an alphabet
and other methods of relating to and understanding the world around us
might be in need of "liberation," such that they will relate only "only
one to another," is most generally an error.
One need not fully comprehend the grammar to employ it; it is asserted
that such grammars are in the nature of the mind itself, as is being
ever more demonstrated by advances in the cognitive sciences.
The Assumption Behind the Fundamental Idea
The Second Viennese School assumed that it could discard the musical
version of linguistic grammar and expected structural forms, and found
anew a music on its announced principles. That arrogance was distinctly
wrong headed and, some might rudely say, "Viennese." But the error was
compounded as "modern" music became only that form of classical music
which was defined by the assumptions of the Second Viennese School and
its successors who have so often found their homes in academia rather
than the real and competitive world of commercial music.
theorist like Perle should begin to wear away at the "equal importance"
with attempting to create some form of "hierarchy" was predictable,
though he remains snarled in the adherence to other tenets of the Second
Viennese School, as did Stravinsky at the end of his composing, becoming
an adherent to a style which had not made him either popular nor
successful. As a result, one may look at a demographic chart of
Stravinsky's works' performances throughout the world today and see that
the tonal works far exceed the less tonal works. This is oddly true for
Schoenberg's own opus as well, for he was not a true member of that
Second Viennese School for the non-observance of its rules which marked
much of his own work.
The fame which was bestowed on Schoenberg
as an innovator was followed in succession by composers who became
enthralled with serializing not only tones, but dynamics, articulations
and other qualities of a musical score.
An early composition professor of mine bragged at wrenching away all
possible interpretative opportunities from a performer, so over-notating
a score with rigorously serialized notation from pitch to dynamics and
articulation that a simple piece of chamber music became almost
unreadable and simply fussy. Too much to see, too much to adhere to and
ultimately too little involvement in the act of music making by the
such an enthusiasm to control another? The roots, as noted above, lie in
politics, and not in the nature of music as a human faculty. And like
politics, this technique became a passionate belief system, that is to
say, in the acceptance of a proposition or propositions. Questioning a
belief system, as in other avenues of life, can be threatening when the
belief system holds power over the questioner as happens in academia.
Within the large marketplace of music around the world, that passionate
credo in dodecaphonic music makes one a member of a significantly tiny
musical religion, found in the backwaters of a much larger musical world
filled with vitality and an evolving ethos of styles, textures, uses of
musical materials and the like.
Twelve-tone Composition as Belief System
In the cognitive sciences, belief is "typically the weakest form of
epistemological propositional attitudes, and contrasts to the much
stronger state of knowledge." [Dunlop and Fetzer, 1993]
With the twentieth century's breakthroughs within cognitive science, one
learns that music is much like other forms of communication and
enterprise. As a human faculty of mind, it is rooted in meaning making
and therefore relies on some form of rudimentary grammar and syntax.
Reference might be made here to the multiple intelligence research done
in the last decades, seeming to prove music a separable module of the
human mind, with its own "grammar" much like the "universal grammar"
postulated by Noam Chomsky.
Let the music philosophers argue about whether music is in fact a
[ 5 ] or not, singing "Happy Birthday" -- in any of its many
musical forms -- to someone remains an obvious and clear message merely
for the certain succession of tones and rhythms.
the Second Viennese School -- especially as practiced by succeeding
generations of its offspring -- became a moot point, because their newly
espoused "grammar," such as it was and remains, was imposed from outside
an individual's nature and mind. In contrast, language and vision quite
naturally rely on their natural grammars. Shapes are what shapes are.
Ditto, colors. Words are what they are, even when multivalent.
Structures are there to assist in parsing meaning. What is foreground is
meant as foreground, a distinction from what is meant as background.
Sentence structure is to assist in understanding communication.
Therefore what followed in the
avant garde of music became quite
predictable. Many books -- words about music -- were published with
large and changing styles of print and orthography, in order to
fumblingly demonstrate about music what E. E. Cummings has quite easily
demonstrated in language but without breaking its grammar. The above
mentioned manipulation of a linguistic "row" shows this to be true. The
avant garde, while ignoring the need to acknowledge an innate
musical grammar, obeyed that same reliance on grammar in language and
other forms of art. Music, for them, was a separate pursuit, as the
belief system of "liberating" tones and assigning "equal importance" to
all within the various twelve-tone systems went relatively unchallenged.
Unchallenged except that it was parodied by such composers as Benjamin
Britten who used it to represent his low esteem for academicism.
In fact, serious serial advocates note that "composers such as Igor
Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Arvo Pärt, Alfred
Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, and even jazz composers used serialism
only for particular compositions or only for some sections of pieces."
What this really means is not that serialism has become accepted
universally, but rather that clever composers have stolen methods for
developing musical materials from the serial movement and added its few
techniques to a wealth of other techniques, for Copland or Pärt in no
way can be termed serial composers. Rather what has happened is the
realization that this "school" was really only a diversion and addition
to the larger framework of music, most of which remains resolutely
tonal, and reliant on grammar and a listener's ability to parse music
into musical meaning.
Therefore the early polemics about
twelve-tone technique were and remain basically rooted in the political
and psychological progress of the early twentieth century, while another
century has passed making twelve-tone music ever more an aging artifact
of our music history. Its belief system and the orthodoxy which
precipitated behind it into a stodgy mess is coming undone by basic
science and research into cognitive science. Serialism as an ideology
ignored the human. Fred Lerdahl of Columbia University, among many
others, outlines this subject further in his essay, "Cognitive
Constraints on Compositional Systems." [ 6 ]
A Music Lesson Courtesy of the Cognitive Sciences
The "magic number seven" might not be seven, nor particularly magic. But
it is instructive. According to research which was not available to the
founders and adherents of the Second Viennese School, there is a very
human upper limit on the number of "informational units" which any
individual can consciously discriminate or process at a given time.
Whether stimuli of one sort or another there is a mental function of
parsing these stimuli into meaning, and that mental function seem quite
clearly to have its hard-wired upper limits. Ergo, the science parlance
of the "magic number seven."
Admittedly, the theoreticians suggest that "chunking" stimuli into
manageable groupings compacts these stimuli -- numbered at seven -- into
a discrete number of larger units, much as the levels of programming
language encompass groupings of behaviors into a larger "single"
behavior for ease of use. This is demonstrably so with musical
"twelve" units of the row, when related only "one to another" without
semiotic and syntactical "chunking" to group musical stimuli into
manageable larger units violates that upper limit at its very
fundamental basis. The political "revolution" of the Second Viennese
School labored for decades under the mistaken notion that syntax,
semiotic relationships which tonal systems provide and other constraints
were somehow dispensable. In fact, this "revolution" proved itself
ultimately dispensable in the process.
Restraining the Revolution
Yes, it is now agreed that there are constraints on musical cognition,
and what one may theorize in words -- a non-musical faculty of mind,
quite independent from the musical faculty -- does not translate
directly into music, much less music theory and music philosophy.
History too played a part in the stiffening of loyalty to this serial
orthodoxy. With the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the Nazis'
accusation that twelve-tone music and other kinds of serialism were
somehow "Jewish," some young composers like Stockhausen and Boulez took
serialism to be the advancing the cause of anti-fascism. This too was a
political underpinning of the "School." Stockhausen's efforts became
known as the "German school," and Boulez' as the "School of Paris."
Throughout, the twelve-tone systems and their sisters in aleatoric music
declared themselves to be "revolutionary," also meant in the political
sense as much as the artistic sense. And yet, other significant
revolutions swamped these little musical revolutions.
tell us, "The designation 'revolutionary' may smack of hyperbole, even
of hype; it may suggest music’s presuming to reflect the glamour of such
entrenched expressions as 'the revolution in physics,' 'the revolution
in philosophy,' but while eager to avoid any intimation of that
undisciplined, interdisciplinary dilettantism which has so bedeviled
music, I can find no evidence that any other field has undergone more
fundamental and pervasive a conceptual transformation so affecting the
field’s practitioners’ relation to their field, or to the world outside
the practice. There are even those who locate the first shot of the
revolution as the last movement of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet of
1908, and even suggest that Schoenberg himself did, in the words of the
soprano in that movement: 'I feel the air of another planet,' for all
that the words were those of Stefan George. After all, Schoenberg
From a noted scholar, this was a silly statement mired in politics,
quite the "category error" as we learned of it from Gilbert Ryle. The
advancements in computers, the cognitive sciences, programming, space
sciences, medicine and psychology have undergone a far greater and more
fundamental change a "conceptual transformation," while those
"practitioners" of music who actually practice twelve-tone composition
are dwindling year by year. They are not the "revolution" that they
claim to be in such a nostalgic and hyperbole-filled manner.
nostalgia for revolution seems much akin to a view to Communist Cuba's
revolution, an economic and political "revolving" which ceased to evolve
after its revolution of only one cycle, and hardened into a one-party,
one-opinion state with little vibrancy or vitality. Babbitt's academic
home, in contradistinction to his rhetoric, continues to evolve, revolve
at times, and provides him with a place to believe in the "conceptual
transformation" of music -- his music and other approved music like his,
of course. The revolution ceases when the aesthetic posture is dictated,
enforced and taught as dogma. Then, sadly it merely becomes a musical
form of political fascism.
Boulez has stated that "Classical
tonal thought is based on a world defined by gravitation and attraction,
serial thought on a world which is perpetually expanding." The reference
to scientific metaphors is intriguing, as has been the reference to
mathematical representations of sets and other manipulations of numbers
representing tones. Boulez however fails to note that his chosen
metaphor about "gravitation and attraction" and that which is
"perpetually expanding" is the same thing, drawn from physics and
astronomy. The cosmos, we are told today, is expanding and yet relies on
both gravitation and attraction for those systems which one observes on
a galactic scale across the universe. They are not opposite concepts in
science, nor are they opposite concepts in music. Essentially, he has
said almost nothing seemingly in a most elegant way.
The use of reference to
science to prove some kind of modernity has been a regular theme in
rhetoric about twelve-tone music. In 1973, Stockhausen said "...So
serial thinking is something that's come into our consciousness and will
be there forever: it's relativity and nothing else."
Fascinating is his reference to another theory from physics without
regard to its meaning. Relativity suggests the interconnectedness
between physical domains, space and time. One is "relative" to the
other, in the familial sense. Serialism is simply not relativity, though
to question such a supposedly important icon of modern music would have
been unthinkable at one time. In actual fact, similar broad statements
by Boulez, a masterful conductor, prove such cultural icons to be at
best inadequate physicists.
Boulez has also argued that "music
exists in the avant garde or not at all." This would probably be
news to many modern composers who work in such fields as film music,
music theater, and in all forms of popular entertainment. These most
certainly "exist" as music, and some are as avant garde as any
post-chromatic twelve-tone music that has been written in the last
century. The audacity of such a defense of serialism and the so-called
avant garde is quite stunning, as it ages and surely becomes the
devant garde with the passage of years and the advancements in
cognitive science, not to mention the drifting of audiences away from
that supposed avant garde in favor of a good tune or an "old
Lest this seem merely resentment at some one with the
international stature of a Boulez, we need be reminded that others share
my sentiment. Ligeti stated quite clearly, "Serial music is doomed to
the same fate as all previous sorts of music; at birth it already
harbored the seeds of its own dissolution." Again, this echoes political
thought, in this case a reference to Marxist assertion about the seeds
of capitalism's destruction. It seems that many postures about music
reference other human disciplines, most especially the political domain.
This reinforces Stravinsky's quite clear observation that it is
"difficult" to speak about music. Words serve, but inadequately.
Political words about music serve most ineptly and inadequately.
Like science, political lingo tinges the chatter about twelve-tone
music. Stockhausen suggested, "It's a spiritual and democratic attitude
toward the world." This is actually comical, as one considers whether a
note of the twelve-tone scale has a vote in its placement, or considers
its place in the "cosmos" of the row. Such hyperbole has gone without
much comment, and yet audiences drift away from this kind of pathway to
new music. But not all hyperbole is ignored, as Stockhausen's silly
remark that the attacks of September 11th on the World Trade Center, the
Pentagon and the flight which crashed in the woods were the kind of
"impact" any composer wants for his music; this hyperbole went beyond
the tolerable and one saw a significant retrospective of Stockhausen's
works canceled as a result, a marketplace reaction to the stupidity of
Stockhausen confusing geopolitical trends, politically motivated
violence and his "art."
Twentieth Century Revolutions
Among the greater revolutions
of twentieth century music were the development of electronics, both in
terms of instruments and amplification, the eruption of massive popular
music, from musical theater to rock-and-roll, jazz, blues, pop, techno
and the like. If revolutions are to be judged on swaying a large
population of people, then these were the true musical revolutions of
twentieth century, while the "revolutionary" status of what has become
often referred to as "academic" music is merely continued rhetoric
without the underpinning of a large and "social" audience. In fact, it
has become ever more elite, and quite the opposite of its stated
intention which was to become popular. This musical "revolution" swayed
the masses -- away.
Twelve-tone music was purported to be the
"path to new music," the "way forward" and so on. Yet, given the greater
popularity of "popular" genres of modern music as well as the continued
attraction of music from the common-practice era, it has now been
demonstrated that this experiment was rooted in false assumptions about
the human music faculty of mind and about whether a theory drives
practice, or practice drives theory.
This is being said more
openly now. Roger Sessions observed of one kind of serialism, "The
principle of so-called 'total organization' raises many questions and
answers none, even in theory. First of all, what is being organized, and
according to what criterion? Is it not rather a matter of organizing,
not music itself, but various facets of music, each independently and on
its own terms or at best according to a set of arbitrarily conceived and
ultimately quite irrelevant rules of association?"
Irrelevancy and Automatism
rules of association. Erroneous analogies to scientific theories.
Philosophic foundations based on political and religious rhetoric. The
defense of what is lumped together as twelve-tone music has been clumsy,
confusing and weak, as has been the foundations of this aesthetic of
music being enforced by a kind of political correctness which has taken
little note of the shrinking audience and diminishing interest in the
aesthetic to begin with. Ardent proponents will attend, and those who
have no interest in twelve-tone music will not.
It is a function of the marketplace of musical ideas which cannot be
overcome by mere rhetoric, especially mirrored on political rhetoric.
Twelve-tone music as a school is collapsing in upon itself, making
itself more and more irrelevant as time passes. The nostalgic and
sometimes unhappy musings of its "old guard" echo that "revolution"
which the greater world of music has generally ignored.
Boulez avowed, "I wanted to use the potential of a given material to
find out how far automatism in musical relationships would go, with
individual invention appearing only in some very simple forms of
dispositions -- in the matter of densities, for example."
When a composer announces that he wishes "individual invention" to be
suppressed, we have reached the end of a road started by the Second
Viennese School, whose most famous adherents broke their own rules with
a passion and abandon which subsequent generations have not heeded as
the real example of that group of composers.
Breaking rules and
relying on convention only as one wishes to do is "individual
invention," and the measure of the technique as well as the aesthetic
stance of the composer.
But one cannot ignore the new science which teaches with a certain
clarity that music is a human faculty, that it operates rather similarly
in us all, and that there are basic structures behind musical meaning
which must be recognized. All the rhetoric aside, this is what the
offspring following the Second Viennese School failed to acknowledge
except in their founders' own willingness to break with the "school"
which later adherents could not. As a result the marketplace no longer
informed this avant garde. Rather this avant garde sought continuing
sustenance in academia.
The Safe Haven for Negativity
confesses, "...there is no more consequential evidence of the
intellectual, institutional reorientation of musical composition in our
time and country than the fact that the overwhelming majority of our
composers are university trained and/or university teachers, and
that—for this and other reasons—the university has become, aware or
unaware, directly and indirectly, the patron of and haven for not just
composers, but for music in all of its serious manifestations."
Obviously, "serious manifestations" of music which are supported by
academia is something quite distinct from all that which goes on outside
the "haven" for music. But where is music truly practiced? Outside the
university, of course. University students become graduates and then
laborers in the fields of music at large. Many have been ill-prepared
for this shock during their time in a rarified and protected world of
dodecaphonic and serial theory and practice.
Babbitt managed to
quote Paul Fromm, "I have a profound longing to live in a community
where the significance of music is recognized as an integral part of
cultural and intellectual life, where the sustenance and development of
the music of our time is a deeply-felt responsibility." Babbitt adds to
this avowed longing, "So do I."
[ 7 ]
I cannot share this negativity, for I have lived
in a world which he describes. It exists, even if he has not found it in
his long life.
have been blessed to work as a semi-professional and professional
musician worldwide, and find that music is recognized worldwide as an
"integral part of cultural and intellectual life." Often what rankles
those who cannot share my optimism is the simple fact that it is not
their musical tastes which mediate which music is to be recognized and
This is a sad state of affairs as they see it, which
brings one avant garde composer to wish for an impact with his
music like a significant military attack, another to believe that he can
remake the "Grundgestalt" of music by himself, and another to bemoan the
state of the world's musical culture is brought about by one thing which
none of them share with Papa Bach, whom they quite universally and
correctly claim wrote music "with tones."
It is that Bach recognized the hierarchy of tonal relationships extant
in the cultural repository of his time and employed them towards
creating additional musical meaning in his work. The century-long game
of "new music" since the philosophic errors of the Second Viennese
School has been to pretend no hierarchy exists or a new one dictated,
and that they shall be the arbiters of what is the basic structure of
music and musical perception. This might in fact be political, dogmatic
or even religious, but it is not particularly musical in the end. Nor is
it consistent with the latest research and understandings brought by
brain and computer science to understanding human thought and
that, the "School" is now but a technique and aesthetic posture, one
among many and a minor one at that, which always had its rightful but
humble place in the far larger craft of composition. It was never going
to be anything more than that. A century has passed to show how true
this has always been.
N O T ES
[ 1 ]
I had the privilege to sing songs at the centennial of Schoenberg's
birth done in Los Angeles, accompanied by Leonard Stein. Leonard was
Schoenberg's assistant and wrote a preface to the Structural Functions of Harmony early on. On a number
of occasions I spent time with Leonard at his home and at the
Schoenberg Institute which held Schoenberg's papers and manuscripts,
prior to their being moved to Austria. I held in my hands the
original manuscript for Erwartung, and was given many early
songs, which at that time were still unpublished.
Leonard wrote in "Preface to the Revised Edition" of Structural
Functions of Harmony, "It may be true, as some critics claim, that
Schoenberg is essentially a preserver of traditional values rather
than the revolutionary he is popularly supposed to be." As both
admirer and critic, I hold this to be true.
As to the Gurre-lieder, I have performed the part of
Waldemar from Tokyo to Budapest, and find the work challenging but
vibrant. As an early work it is of course tonal and wholly Romantic.
For this reason, it should be fairly argued that Schoenberg closed
an age, rather than opened a new era. His late works, and the little
canons which my school chums and I sung at Immaculate Heart long
ago, are entertaining, but the still represent to me the extension
of 19th century chromaticism. No longer being a student, I need not
obey the dictum of the musicologist that it is otherwise.
[ 2 ]
It is a fair challenge to a composer, as it would be to any
musician, to demonstrate what they assert to be true. Memorability
in themes -- the row or "set" was asserted to the theme of
twelve-tone music -- is a matter of human memory and the ear, as
much as it is a matter of rhetoric and aesthetic posture. To argue
that an audience will understand a twelve-tone theme and find it
different from one of the other 479,001,599 possible rows is silly.
Yet within the domain of common-practice music, one can quickly
notice the difference between several fugue subjects by Bach, or the
themes to many jazz standards by Ellington. Memorability was a
concept which the enthusiasm over rows wholly side-stepped. It was a
Since most sight-singing is taught using some form of moveable "do,"
the notion of singing pitches for composers is a non sequitur and
often without real meaning. With the "thematic oneness" which the
rhetoric of dodecaphony boasts, if there is no "do," how can there
be pitches with tonal relationships to that tonic as the teaching of
solfeggio suggests? For other than those with the skill of
absolute pitch, dodecaphony cannot be related to any of the
sight-singing methods without a significant nod to tonality to begin
[ 3 ]
An "old friend" was the term which film composer, Don Ray, used in
speaking about those themes which accompany certain elements in a
film. He might easily have been speaking about the recurring themes
of the classic era, Brahms' developmental themes, or Wagner's use of
leitmotifs. The notion remains the same. That which is heard for the
first time by a listener must have memorable features, such that
recurrences of that material becomes quickly an "old friend." The
more difficult to recall, the less effective is the theme.
Don was careful to add that a theme might be melodic, harmonic,
rhythmic, textural and more, for his audience was expected to
remember that which is quality thematic material. The opening to
CBS' television series, Hawaii Five-O for which he was music
supervisor, was one such theme. A simple cascade of drumming from
high to low toms announced the opening melodic theme with a
[ 4 ] One case for this
being a youthful and exuberant error in language might be that in
Schoenberg's own text, mentioned above, he speaks as a master
teacher, mentioning "harmonies with multiple meanings." If a harmony
has either meaning or happily multiple meanings, then it has a
hierarchical reference to other harmonies and therefore other tones.
Moreover of any theory, Schoenberg adds, "...no theory can exclude
everything that is wrong, poor, or even detestable, or include
everything that is right, good, or beautiful." He concludes by
saying of tones and harmonies, "...there are distinctions to be
made." One does not make distinctions between tones of equal
importance, but between tones with different values and importance.
The case for a youthful misapplication of the term, "Gestalt" is
fair. Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) was born in Berlin, Germany, and
earned his Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in 1908. Wolfgang
Köhler (1887-1967) was born in Revel, Estonia, and earned his Ph.D.
from the University of Berlin in 1909 and then went to the
University of Frankfurt, where he met Wertheimer and Koffka around
1910. In 1927 Koffka became a professor at Smith College in the
United States, and was especially interested in studying the laws
that govern our perceptions of the environment. He was the chief
spokesman for the Gestalt movement. In the 1930s Köhler fled to the
United States and became a professor at Swarthmore College.
[ 5 ] We have
Schoenberg's words as testimony to his view. After speaking about
"my school" and the artificial restrictions of manipulating the
"row" which he avers is "for the sake of a more profound logic,"
Schoenberg strays from orthodoxy to an interesting confession.
Speaking of twelve-tone music, he states, "Evaluation of (quasi-)
harmonic progressions in such music is obviously a necessity, though
more for the teacher than the composer." If the results of his
"emancipation of dissonance" results in a return to judging
dissonances a relating one to another, then de facto there has been
no "emancipation" at all, but rather a restructuring of
relationships in some tonal fashion, however dissonant. Moreover,
this quote in his essay appears in the text wherein he previously
defined progressions as having "the function of establishing or
contradicting a tonality." Emancipation from tonality while
referencing it is a quaint doublethink, to use an Orwellian
expression. Schoenberg tumbles on in his essay suggesting of
twelve-tone works that "there will be a theory which abstracts rules
from these compositions." Rules before as pre-compositional
technique, and rules after abstracted as well from the rule-bound
Schoenberg fails, as he falls back upon emphasizing
pre-compositional rules and looks to others to abstract additional
rules, yet proclaims that "there exists no definition of the
concepts of melody and melodic which is better than mere
pseudo-aesthetics. Consequently, the composition of melodies depends
solely on inspiration, logic, sense of form and musical culture."
This is a contradiction within his own philosophy, wherein the
"school" is about adhering to rules, but composing melody is somehow
not. For him, beauty is "useless" and "so is sentiment." By throwing
out these as pseudo-aesthetics, he retreats from the opportunity to
define and instruct. But he then concludes a portion of his remarks
by demanding that the "performer's ignorance of the functions of
harmony" were tolerated. So he pleads and instructs and postulates
for "structural functions" while believing the way forward was to
"emancipate" tones from functions. If music is a semiotic module of
mind, then functions, relationships and hierarchies abound; turning
aside from them was a philosophic and linguistic error, as his own
work proves, work in which his music does not wholly follow his
[ 6 ] In
Generative Processes in Music: The Psychology of Performance,
Improvisation, and Composition, ed. John Sloboda, Oxford: Oxford
University Press. Lerdahl proposes the concepts of musical grammars,
"a limited set of rules that can generate indefinitely large sets of
musical events and/or their structural descriptions." He divides
this into a compositional grammar and listening grammar, the latter
being "more or less unconsciously employed by auditors, that
generates mental representations of the music". He divides the
former into natural and artificial compositional grammars. While the
two are historically and fruitfully mixed freely, a natural grammar
arises spontaneously in a culture while an artificial one is a
conscious invention of an individual or group in a culture and the
"gap" may only exist between listening grammar and artificial
This is wholly in line with developments in computers and cognitive
science, in which "bottom up" and "top down" parsing have been shown
to be effective methods for analysis of structures by reference to a
set of grammatical rules. Given such advancements, the early
pronouncement by the Second Viennese School that they would
determine the "Grundgestalt" for musical creativity and the
consumption of such music seems in retrospect an astoundingly
foolish and egotistical notion.
[ 7 ] Oddly as teacher,
Babbitt's two best known students have made their marks, each as
"integral part of cultural and intellectual life." Paul Lansky made
his mark in computer music, and is among the better known in the
classical avant garde. Stephen Sondheim has become an icon of
Broadway and American musical theater. Equally odd is the period in
Babbitt's own life when he was hired by RCA as consultant composer
to work with their RCA Mark II Synthesizer. The advancement of
consumer electronics, and specifically the synthesizer, has
changed the face of some classical music, but most of popular and
An anecdote: Having been assigned a song setting of a text by
expressionist poet August Stamm composed by Milton Babbitt, I
attempted to analyze it in a meaningful way using a number of
different analytical tools at my disposal. All seemed to not reveal
the underlying structure of Babbitt's aesthetic choices, until I
happened upon a tool used in business. At that time, I was working
for Hewlett-Packard; it seemed odd that a standard business analysis
might provide clarity where the convolutions of academic musical
theory would not. I made what we used to call a simple "scattergram"
-- counting the number of individual intervals and noting how often
they occurred. There was no sophisticated technical side to this,
for it was mere drudgery. What was revealed however was a cogent
picture of what Babbitt's underlying aesthetic choices were. Given
the notion that "octave displacement" meant a minor ninth was merely
a minor second "displaced" according to the credo of dodecaphony,
this pictorial result demonstrated Babbitt's enthusiasm for seconds,
augmented fourths and sevenths as well as his aversion to the more
"consonant" thirds and sixths, only a few perfect fourths and fifths
and absolutely no octaves. Therefore the diagram looked much like a
modern equalizer, the sliders "set" to "modern" aesthetic standards
in which the "verboten" were consciously discriminated against. This
picture spoke more clearly about the music that any of the other
analyses done by other graduate students, as they tried to capture
some sense of the music through "set theory" analysis and employing
most ineffectively those "modern" tools which the twelve-tone school
bragger would uncover the future of music. For me as for the
professor and my fellow graduate students, this little scattergram
told the story of Babbitt's aesthetic posture, choices and
especially those "consonances" which he studiously avoided in
composing. As with the "liberation" of letters thought experiment
above, Babbitt was consciously choosing to frustrate syntactical and
semiotic signals which said "common practice era" and "old," which
was for him what modernity must have meant in composing at that