Thursday, June 16, 2005

Still, Here I Go

Posted by Trott

Anu posted a rumination on the Warren Zevon quotation in my post from yesterday.

A lot of people with a lot more to say about serial music than I do have spilled a lot of ink over a lot of years on this topic. Still, here I go:

My experience with serial composition as a student is different from what Anu describes as an instructor. I was taken aback by how many squishy aesthetic decisions had to be made outside of total serialism--tempo, texture, timbre, range, dynamics, scope, etc. Unless you are writing very short and simple compositions, or unless you turn yourself over to the machine-like compositional structure of total serialism, there is (or can be, and was for me) a sense of being adrift without any of the traditional squishy notions to guide you in your choices. I found it absolutely paralyzing for a long time. It was an enormous effort to figure out how to write a serial composition for a decent-sized ensemble that was longer than a minute or two. Eventually, I managed. And I learned an incredible amount in the process.

This doesn't undermine Anu's main points. I'm just surprised at the apparent difference in our experiences.

Anu mentions Pierrot Lunaire as an example of a composition that cannot be evaluated by the rules of tonality. This is, of course, completely true. It raises a related issue because Pierrot Lunaire is atonal, but not serial. Arguably, it is the type of atonality that is the logical conclusion of certain innovations of Wagner. Wagner's music can be appreciated, at least to some extent, with the standard mental toolkit one uses for tonality in general. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire resists such appreciation, even accounting for the disconcerting effect of Sprechstimme. It is interesting to contemplate what that fact does and does not tell us.


 Mike Rosenstark said...

It's occurs to me that this scientific-advancement idea that serious music had for two hundred years is a bit silly. In my college Music History courses, there was this attitude of "and then we developed this music, and then we added strict tonality, and then improved things further with longer forms, bigger orchestration, more instruments..." almost as if everyone was just workin' on this giant project entitled, "the greatest type of music ever." Each composer, dutifully contributing to the metaphorical floor of the metaphorical building project that serious music composition had become. Meanwhile, although it appears that serious music underwent something that could be looked at as 'progressive' in many of its aspects between about 1750 to the early 20th century, there is also the issue of the actual music that was produced. Turns out lots of people were busy hating the crap out of it; it's almost as if the logical conclusion of music progressing from generation to generation (as opposed to just changing) was crappy music that no one wanted to listen to or pay for.

After all, isn't it the case that the only people in the world who listen to serial music voluntarily are composers?

But none of this means that you can't learn a great deal about composing music from trying your hand at Serialism. I sure did. I don't listen to any of those pieces anymore, exactly, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a worthwhile effort. You just have to know when to stop, that's all.

10:41 AM, June 17, 2005
 Ajax said...

I just puked in my mouth a little.

2:00 PM, June 17, 2005
 Anthony Cornicello said...

Well this is odd running into this conversation, with these people!

It's odd how times change. A few years ago, I would have been jumping up and down, saying things like "art isn't always accepted in it's time". But now, I tend to agree with most of this. Serialism was a technique gone mad, and the composers wore that technique not on their sleeve but on their fucking foreheads! It's not like we sit there listening to Webern saying "Oh, I love the retrograde inversion transposed to the 4th degree in the cello!" Anyone who tells you that they can hear the rows is just playing with themselves.

But we can't blame a technique for the failures of High/Late Modernism. For me, it's a lot more on the surface. First problem: there's nothing for you to follow. Sure, Schoenberg's 4th Qt has 'themes', and so does Berg. But what about Boulez Structures? It's a homogeneous work (2 pianos), so it's a blank slate as far as timbre. After a while, it's just a bunch of notes. The same is true of almost all of Davidovsky's music - just a bunch of notes. We, the listeners (should that have been singular?) are trying to grasp something - an interval, a sustained note, something that repeats (ah, but Modernism forbids repetition). There's no hierarchy - we don't know what the piece is 'about'.

Second problem (related to 1st): harmony, or lack thereof. We don't hear clear and distinct harmonic units in most H/L Modernist works. 12-counting doesn't 'count'. Even when we do get a sustained chord in Babbitt, for instance, he quickly runs away from it - because the music has no hierarchical framework. (Curiously, when I started writing music with long sustained chords or notes, modernist composers often complained about that feature.)

Serialism, and most of the mid-century techniques like it, are for the composer's workbench. Most of us don't know (or care) how the piece was constructed, but it seems like you can't listen to H/L Modernism without that knowledge. And then: when we ARE privy to that knowledge, does it make it more enjoyable? Do we really understand the piece, or do we just think we do?

7:27 PM, June 28, 2005

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