Serial No.1

Schoenberg, eh?  What a lad!  You see, when he devised his system of 12 different notes all in a row, he made sure that no-one could possibly use it to write music that sounded in the slightest bit consonant.  Ok, they say Berg had a go, but let's face it, the odd minor or even major triad is not going to give the music any sense of tonal direction.  But of course, Schoenberg didn't do it out of spite to try and make the tide of music become more modern sounding.  Oh no, sir.  What he did was streamline everything his contemporaries were doing already.  You see, Arnold Schoenberg was an expert in tonality of the ultimate Viennese tradition.  He could whisk off a Bach style chorale in a matter of seconds.  His 'Transfigured Night' is one of the most beautiful tonal pieces of the early half of the century.  However, when he realised that all around him, his fellow composers were trying to free themselves from the manacles of adherence to tonal and diatonic structures, he thought that the best thing to do would develop a system in which whatever you write, if you abide by this system, you won't be able to write tonally whatever you do.  So, over a number of years, he finally came up with a solution.  One must write a sequence of 12 tones within the octave whereby only one note could appear just once (unless it was immediately repeated) so that each note would be equal to every other note, instead of having prominent notes like dominants and tonics.  Now one would imagine that this would be too restrictive, and one would be right, except he made the following concessions:

A.   You could use each note in any register (octave) you wanted.
B.   You could turn it around (retrograde).
C.   You could turn it upside down (inversion).
D.   You could turn it around and upside down (retrograde & inversion).
E.   You could transpose your sequence of notes so that it could start on another of the 11 available notes, therefore supplying 47 other versions of the tone row that you started with.
F.    You could only use part of any of the 48 tone rows if you wished.

Now we all know that this system of composition caught on quite dramatically and is still used to this day of after all these years.  Even Stravinsky, who was always usually at loggerheads with Schoenberg (although deep down, they probably had a begrudging mutual respect for each other) was composing in this manner towards the end of his life.  However, Schoenberg gave it up as dramatically as he had embraced it.  Before he died, he admitted that atonality in music was really a non-starter because it did not adhere to the natural harmonic series (which is what the major key is derived from, which is why listeners feel more at home with tonal music because the material has a 'home' to go to, which is the tonic of the key in which the music is).

When I was at university, it was assumed that all composition students would not necessarily compose using the 12-tone method, but they were expected to be very economical with the use of tonality.  This saddened me, because I have always preferred tonal (and modal) music for the reasons I've stated above.

However, now and again, I have attempted to try and see a way around the rules and tried to compose music of this fashion and make it as accessible to the listener.  This is my most recent attempt, and, as it happens, my first attempt with a full orchestra.

Suffice to say, I failed miserably.

Serial No 1.mp3

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Replies

  • Simon, this is a very exciting experiment, and it sounds very good. BTW, the inventor of this technique was not Shoenberg, it was Hauer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Matthias_Hauer

    Some ideas of serialism were even in Rimsky-Korsakov's music: he applied a sequence of semitones 2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1 (the sum is 12), e.g., (C,D,Dis,F,Fis,Gis,A, H) and its mutations. You can use not only tone series but rhythm series, patch series and their inversions, retro-gradations, polyphony etc; you can simultaneously apply one or more series of tones, rhythms and patches. Your description of rules A-F is imprecise: A relates to elements of a series, B-F relates to series. Rule A also can be expanded: You could use each note in any duration you wanted. There are deviations of these rules, where you can or cannot repeat some notes within the series.

    There was some research about informativeness of series. E.g., series 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 is less informative than series 2,3,1,5,8,7,4,9,6,12,10,11 because cyclic mutations of the first one result in this series itself (transposed), while cyclic mutations of the second one are essentially different. There exist also some attempts to explain why the serialistic approach attracts our ear and appeals to our subconscience. Remember, however, that atonal means not only the serialistic approach; there are others, not less powerful.

    Feeling at home with tonal music? I am certainly not!

    Some attempt to criticise your piece: the percussion, introduced in the beginning, suddenly almost disappears.
  • Thanks Andrew. I'm not exactly sure why my instructions are imprecise. I thought that in my music, it was evident that I could 'use each note in any duration that I wanted' (otherwise, the music would sound quite tedious despite being dissonant). I am also aware of the possibility of serialising other aspects of the music such as rhythm, dynamics etc. I believe Messiaen explored this phenomenon in great detail.

    You say that Rimsky Korsakov applied elements of serialism. Isn't this true also of much earlier composers? I bear in mind the fugues of Bach, Fux and even earlier, the counterpoint of Palestrina.

    Mind you, thanks for pointing me in the direction of Matthias Hauer. I look forward to reading that.

    Thanks for listening. I am glad you enjoyed it.

    Andrew Gleibman said:
    Simon, this is a very exciting experiment, and it sounds very good. BTW, the inventor of this technique was not Shoenberg, it was Hauer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Matthias_Hauer

    Some ideas of serialism were even in Rimsky-Korsakov's music: he applied a sequence of semitones 2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1 (the sum is 12), e.g., (C,D,Dis,F,Fis,Gis,A, H) and its mutations. You can use not only tone series but rhythm series, patch series and their inversions, retro-gradations, polyphony etc; you can simultaneously apply one or more series of tones, rhythms and patches. Your description of rules A-F is imprecise: A relates to elements of a series, B-F relates to series. Rule A also can be expanded: You could use each note in any duration you wanted. There are deviations of these rules, where you can or cannot repeat some notes within the series.

    There was some research about informativeness of series. E.g., series 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 is less informative than series 2,3,1,5,8,7,4,9,6,12,10,11 because cyclic mutations of the first one result in this series itself (transposed), while cyclic mutations of the second one are essentially different. There exist also some attempts to explain why the serialistic approach attracts our ear and appeals to our subconscience. Remember, however, that atonal means not only the serialistic approach; there are others, not less powerful.

    Feeling at home with tonal music? I am certainly not!

    Some attempt to criticise your piece: the percussion, introduced in the beginning, suddenly almost disappears.
    Serial No.1
    Schoenberg, eh?  What a lad!  You see, when he devised his system of 12 different notes all in a row, he made sure that no-one could possibly use it…
  • Sorry Simon - in my note (about imprecise description) I only wanted to stress that rule A applies to elements of a series, while rules B-F apply to the series themselves - in this way the description is better understandable.

    Not sure about the serialistic technique, but atonal elements generally are as ancient as the music itself. Furthermore, the tonal approach is probably a European creation of the last 1000-1500 years (though I cannot prove this). I think many influences of other music cultures lead to atonality, and in classical European music it coexists with tonal keys and chord sequences.
  • This is very true, but wouldn't you agree that the tonal system was not wholly invented arbitrarily? The harmonic series (from which the major scale is derived) is a natural phenomenon. And whilst other worldly cultures have elements of atonality in there music and have done for centuries, isn't it probable that they also adhere to a home note (though obviously not necessarily a diatonic key)?

    Andrew Gleibman said:
    Sorry Simon - in my note (about imprecise description) I only wanted to stress that rule A applies to elements of a series, while rules B-F apply to the series themselves - in this way the description is better understandable.

    Not sure about the serialistic technique, but atonal elements generally are as ancient as the music itself. Furthermore, the tonal approach is probably a European creation of the last 1000-1500 years (though I cannot prove this). I think many influences of other music cultures lead to atonality, and in classical European music it coexists with tonal keys and chord sequences.
    Serial No.1
    Schoenberg, eh?  What a lad!  You see, when he devised his system of 12 different notes all in a row, he made sure that no-one could possibly use it…
  • I expect composers will be having discussions like this for centuries to come. I’ve always thought the argument that tonality is based on natural phenomena to be fairly sound. I’ve always had problems with purely atonal music as from my perspective it negates harmony by homogenising the intervals etc,. As time has gone on I’ve been able to digest increasing dissonant music and have found some serialist/12 work quite enjoyable. I still think that I am listening to all music through tonal ears and that will always be the case.
    What is interesting is that other people’s reaction to surrealism is so different and I can’t help wondering why. I remember recently reading a comment by a well known and respected composer saying “Harmony has never been that important to me” and suddenly the penny dropped. We don’t all listen to music in the same way. I wonder if advocates of serialism just don’t hear it the same way?
    Given the history and the fact that tonality hasn’t gone away, as may have been predicted in the 1950s it would be quite nice not to be made to feel like some kind musical ludite. It’s not my fault I have “Tonal ears”.
    Sorry haven’t checked out the track yet.


    Simon Godden said:
    This is very true, but wouldn't you agree that the tonal system was not wholly invented arbitrarily? The harmonic series (from which the major scale is derived) is a natural phenomenon. And whilst other worldly cultures have elements of atonality in there music and have done for centuries, isn't it probable that they also adhere to a home note (though obviously not necessarily a diatonic key)?

    Andrew Gleibman said:
    Sorry Simon - in my note (about imprecise description) I only wanted to stress that rule A applies to elements of a series, while rules B-F apply to the series themselves - in this way the description is better understandable.

    Not sure about the serialistic technique, but atonal elements generally are as ancient as the music itself. Furthermore, the tonal approach is probably a European creation of the last 1000-1500 years (though I cannot prove this). I think many influences of other music cultures lead to atonality, and in classical European music it coexists with tonal keys and chord sequences.
    Serial No.1
    Schoenberg, eh?  What a lad!  You see, when he devised his system of 12 different notes all in a row, he made sure that no-one could possibly use it…
  • It isn't your fault that you have tonal ears, because everybody has tonal ears until they are mature enough to accept atonality as an alternative, though arbitrary, alternative.

    Joe Evans said:
    I expect composers will be having discussions like this for centuries to come. I’ve always thought the argument that tonality is based on natural phenomena to be fairly sound. I’ve always had problems with purely atonal music as from my perspective it negates harmony by homogenising the intervals etc,. As time has gone on I’ve been able to digest increasing dissonant music and have found some serialist/12 work quite enjoyable. I still think that I am listening to all music through tonal ears and that will always be the case.
    What is interesting is that other people’s reaction to surrealism is so different and I can’t help wondering why. I remember recently reading a comment by a well known and respected composer saying “Harmony has never been that important to me” and suddenly the penny dropped. We don’t all listen to music in the same way. I wonder if advocates of serialism just don’t hear it the same way?
    Given the history and the fact that tonality hasn’t gone away, as may have been predicted in the 1950s it would be quite nice not to be made to feel like some kind musical ludite. It’s not my fault I have “Tonal ears”.
    Sorry haven’t checked out the track yet.


    Simon Godden said:
    This is very true, but wouldn't you agree that the tonal system was not wholly invented arbitrarily? The harmonic series (from which the major scale is derived) is a natural phenomenon. And whilst other worldly cultures have elements of atonality in there music and have done for centuries, isn't it probable that they also adhere to a home note (though obviously not necessarily a diatonic key)?

    Andrew Gleibman said:
    Sorry Simon - in my note (about imprecise description) I only wanted to stress that rule A applies to elements of a series, while rules B-F apply to the series themselves - in this way the description is better understandable.

    Not sure about the serialistic technique, but atonal elements generally are as ancient as the music itself. Furthermore, the tonal approach is probably a European creation of the last 1000-1500 years (though I cannot prove this). I think many influences of other music cultures lead to atonality, and in classical European music it coexists with tonal keys and chord sequences.
    Serial No.1
    Schoenberg, eh?  What a lad!  You see, when he devised his system of 12 different notes all in a row, he made sure that no-one could possibly use it…
  • I'm not sure it's about maturity as such (not in my case any way). It's a about the association of a harmonic language to particular emotions. Most of the emotions generated by the serialist works I've listened to, tend to be negative and the experience then becomes fatiguing. I think a lot of this comes down to speed as well. i.e. if someone want to throw a lot of complex harmony at my ears, give me chance to absorb it.

    By the way I liked the piece, particularly the central slower section, although it was all quite digestible.
  • Simom Godden said:
    wouldn't you agree that the tonal system was not wholly invented arbitrarily? The harmonic series (from which the major scale is derived) is a natural phenomenon

    For me the whole-tone scale, or the chord, or sequence (C, Ees, Fis, A, C) are as natural (although I agree the corresponding frequencies contain less common harmonics). They are simply based on another natural phenomenon, namely the uniform division of the range of frequency logarithms. Our brain easily does this subconsciously, and the argument for proving this is the tempered scale. So, in my opinion, the harmonic series is only one of many possibilities to exploit natural phenomena, quite randomly invented and heavily overused in European music.

    But the question is not which natural phenomenon is more natural for music. The question is which one is more expressive for certain music goals and for which one our ear is more customized historically.

    Joe, the harmonic sequences can also be very fatiguing. I think this depends on the quality of music, not on the system applied, but of course our European ear is more accustomed to harmonic sequences.
  • For me the whole-tone scale, or the chord, or sequence (C, Ees, Fis, A, C) are as natural (although I agree the corresponding frequencies contain less common harmonics). They are simply based on another natural phenomenon, namely the uniform division of the range of frequency logarithms. Our brain easily does this subconsciously, and the argument for proving this is the tempered scale. So, in my opinion, the harmonic series is only one of many possibilities to exploit natural phenomena, quite randomly invented and heavily overused in European music.

    I have to disagree with your first point, in that there is a clear distinction between the harmonic series, which is a result of vibration of forms that extend mainly in one dimension i.e. strings, air columns etc, These forms being naturally occurring or easily constructed.
    As opposed to your example of “the modes of limited transposition” which are mathematical consequences of a 12 note equal tempered scale and are really artificial. I know there are other examples but I doubt you could find anything more fundamental than the harmonic series as a basis for harmony.
    So I would therefore disagree with the “randomly invented” but do agree with the “overused”.

    But the question is not which natural phenomenon is more natural for music. The question is which one is more expressive for certain music goals and for which one our ear is more customized historically.

    Yes, totally agree with this.
  • You are right Joe, "randomly invented" is not a correct term here. For our European ear the resonances, based on common harmonics, are fundamental. Not sure about other music cultures.
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