On the Paucity of Twelve-tone Technique


On the Paucity of Twelve-tone Technique
A commentary

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.

Rudolph 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 issues.

Nothing New

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 enforced chromaticism.

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 "classical."

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

The marvelous 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.

The enthusiasm 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.

Extending the 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 forms?

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

A 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.

Given the 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
erste strophe dritte zeile
erste strophe vierte zeile

zweite strophe erste zeile
zweite strophe zweite zeile
zweite strophe dritte zeile
zweite strophe vierte zeile

dritte strophe erste zeile
dritte strophe zweite zeile
dritte strophe dritte zeile

vierte strophe erste zeile
vierte strophe zweite zeile
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 tash,oi
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 misspelling.

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.

That a 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 performer.

Why 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 semiotic system  [ 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.

"Grammar" for 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 cognition.

The "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.

Babbitt 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 selected them."

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.

The 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.

Almost Nothing

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 friend."

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

Irrelevant 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.

In 1976 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

Babbitt 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.

I 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 applauded.

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 perception.

For 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.


[ 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.

         In Leonard Stein's memory, I offer a Concerto in D flat for Piano and Chamber Orchestra .


[ 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 crucial error.

          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 with.


[ 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 memorable statement.


[ 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 works?

          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 rhetoric.


[ 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 grammars.

          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 film music.

         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 time.