Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism

It could be argued that Milton Babbitt (born 1916) led the second generation of serialists—really the first generation of “complete” serialists—and in any case was long the dean of American serialism. The young Babbitt intended to major in mathematics in college; he quickly switched to music, but never gave up an approach to composition that had more to do with his father’s actuarial tables than with melodic effusion. He codified new rules governing how additional series of notes could be spun off from the primary series; borrowing the language of mathematics, he termed these “secondary” and “derived” sets. He appropriated quite a lot of math terminology; “derivations,” for example, are symmetric parts of a tone row. Other math-based Babbitt vocabulary words include combinatoriality, partitioning, arrays, pitch class, pitch set and time‑point system. These terms mean more to analysts than to average listeners, but they are part of the lingua franca of mid-century American music.

Babbitt developed a mathematical model of a composition’s entire structure, right down to how often a forte or pianissimo should occur. Babbitt’s clockwork serialism identifies not only 12 note values, but 12 time intervals, 12 dynamic levels, and 12 instrumental timbres. Babbitt is credited with the first totally serial work, 1947′s Three Compositions for piano. Other important early works in Babbitt’s uncompromisingly rigorous style include the first two string quartets (1948, 1954) and Partitions for piano (1957).

Although armed with an MFA in music and having a substantial 12-tone work, generically titled Composition for String Orchestra, tucked into his portfolio, Babbitt spent most of World War II conducting research in or teaching math. Not until he reached his 30s did Babbitt devote himself fully to music, but soon he was recognized as serialism’s leading spokesman in America. He even wrote an article for a popular record-review magazine outlining the importance of not pandering to cheap audience tastes, of creating difficult music with intellectual integrity. The 1958 article carried the title “Who Cares if You Listen,” which Babbitt later claimed was added by an editor. Given Babbitt’s sometimes puckish humor, the title may well have been his, but he disavowed it once it turned out to insult a nation of music lovers. Babbitt’s motto might as well have been “Who cares if you can play it?” His music poses extreme technical challenges, which has inhibited most people’s ability to get to know his work.

Searching for a way to get his music off the manuscript paper and into people’s ears, Babbitt embraced the analog RCA Mark II synthesizer and in 1959 founded the Columbia‑Princeton Electronic Center with Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. Babbitt by no means gave up conventional instruments. Perhaps the best fully mature example of Babbitt’s total serialism is his Third String Quartet (1970), in which changes in rhythmic density trigger changes of velocity, and serial principles govern every parameter, right down to when the musicians use their bows and when they pluck the strings.

Donald Martino (born 1931) has carried this latter technique about as far as it can go. His scores carry extremely precise indications of fingerings, attacks, and expressive details. For Martino, sonority highlights musical structure and serves as a guidepost to the most significant pitch sets. In Parisonatina al’dodecafonia (1964) for solo cello, he associates each 12-tone set with a particular mode of performance: pizzicato, col legno, and so forth.

Charles Wuorinen (born 1938) is equally strict and comprehensive in his use of serial techniques, notably in his Piano Concerto (1965), Time’s Encomium for synthesizer (1969), and String Quartet No. 1 (1971). Wuorinen even derives tempo from sets, and the resulting highly contrasting speeds help shape a work’s structure. Wuorinen’s serial manipulation of pitch, time, and rhythm all together illustrates what Babbitt called the time-point system, creating unlimited combinations of strictly organized sound. Wuorinen took Babbitt’s love of mathematics a step further, employing fractal geometry and the mathematical theories of Benoit Mandelbrot as the guiding forces behind such works as Bamboula Squared and the Natural Fantasy for organ.

It would be remiss to discuss Wuorinen without mentioning one of his most important teachers, the European-born Stefan Wolpe (1902-72). Wolpe settled in America in 1938 and spent most of the rest of his life teaching at various New York institutions. In Vienna he had studied with Webern, among others, and although Wolpe seldom practiced conventional 12-tone technique, he did pass it along to his American students, notably Wuorinen, Ralph Shapey, and Ursula Mamlok (whom we’ll consider a bit further on). Wolpe was more an abstract expressionist than anything else, his music freely atonal and relying on ordered sets of pitches closely coordinated with details of tempo, dynamics, and instrumentation.

The American serialists of the Babbitt-Wuorinen generations wrote extremely challenging music that can appeal only to people willing to sit down and figure out what’s going on; it will never reach parity with some comforting little Boccherini minuet you play in the background as you recover from a hard day of work. The one well-known serialist who came of age in the 1940s who has a shot at general public acclaim—and even he is hardly an easy-listening, Mantovani kind of guy—is George Perle, born in 1915.

Perle developed what he calls a “12-tone modal method” or “12-tone tonality” by combining some serial methods with elements associated with tonal music. Certain rows can generate chords that function like the old, traditional tonics and control large-scale harmonic movement and modulation; for Perle, it’s no longer simply a matter of transposing a set up or down a few notes. Just as diatonic music is based on discrimination—carefully choosing which notes to include and which to ignore—Perle’s 12-tone tonality depends on a hierarchy he creates among the notes of the chromatic scale. They’re not all equal, as they were in Schoenberg’s method; the notes refer in some way to one or two pitches that take the tonic role, and Perle introduces a similar hierarchy among chords.

Perle has described much of his music before 1968 (his 1966 Cello Concerto is a good example) as “‘freely’ or ‘intuitively’ conceived, combining various serial procedures with melodically generated tone centers, intervallic cells, symmetrical formations, etc. A rhythmic concept, or rather ideal, toward which I progressed in these and other works was that of a beat, variable in duration but at the same time as tangible and coherent as the beat in classical music, and of an integration between the larger rhythmic dimensions and the minimal metric units.” Most notable and immediately appealing among these works are the three wind quintets he wrote from 1959 to 1967. Here and through most of his catalog, Perle, an expert craftsman, manipulates relatively few simple ideas in a way he intends to be interesting and understandable to the listener, often employing a subtle wit. In many respects, he’s the Haydn of serialism.

One other Perle-Babbitt contemporary who deserves special mention is George Rochberg (born 1918). He began as a good Bartókian, but soon took up the cause of Schoenberg and Webern. Even so, he found conventional serialism a bit too linear for his taste, so he developed a fondness for superimposition. His String Quartet No. 2 is an example of how he tried to make serialism seem more malleable and unpredictable by superimposing different tempos. Rochberg didn’t stop there; he also began superimposing quotes from other composers, contemporary and otherwise. By the late 1970s the Brahms and Pachelbel references nearly took over, and Rochberg effectively fled the serialist fold, but from the 1960s well into the ’70s he was a well-regarded serialist, not the least because he wrote pieces that musicians could actually play.

From Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism
By James Reel
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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