Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism

Dig out the faculty roster for any major U.S. university in the 1950s and ’60s, and for many secondary universities well into the ’70s, and you’ll have a good start on a list of American serialists. Not everyone embraced the style, but everyone who was taken seriously by the academic and grant- and prize-awarding establishments did. Unfortunately, serialism lent itself to a cookie-cutter approach to composition, and provided a refuge for composers who had little imagination to apply to any aesthetic. This is not to say that American serialists were necessarily opportunistic hacks—although there are a few of them working in every style—but it could be difficult to tell even the most earnest of them apart.

Some did manage to stand out, either because they bent the rules of serialism to their will, or because they possessed the imagination and developed the influence to spread the word that serialism could be a vibrant, meaningful technique.

A couple of early bad boys particularly demand notice.

Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961) was closer to Schoenberg‘s generation than to Babbitt‘s. He was one of the first American proponents of serialism, although he made only a literal and simplistic use of the 12-tone system (try to investigate his 1932 Dichotomy for chamber orchestra, or his 1939 String Quartet No. 1.) Riegger may not have fully comprehended the rules, but he felt free to break them, for example repeating notes within a series. He was a self-styled radical, but hardly an iconoclast; some of his music is simply atonal, not dodecaphonic, and much of it rubs bar lines with diatonic music (his commissioned works tended to be more traditionally tonal). Riegger often used pitch serialism to generate motifs that he then inserted into traditional forms, particularly in canons, fugues, and passacaglias (much more so than sonata form). Writes Stephen Spackman, “An atonal or dodecaphonic harmonic idiom fueled by a forceful, aggressive rhythmic sense, ever threatening to break out of tight formal constraints—this gives Riegger’s most characteristic music its powerful impact.”

John Cage (1912-1992) was a musical omnivore who polished off his education in 1934 with counterpoint and analysis lessons from Schoenberg (privately and at UCLA). Once he matured, Cage was mainly interested in noise, silence, and chance. After flirting with 12-tone technique in the mid 1930s, he moved farther and farther in the opposite direction, abandoning precise notation and employing more graphic symbols and fairly vague written instructions. And yet his fascination with chance led ultimately to a reliance on computerized number generators and a system akin to total serialism, in which every last element of music—pitch, duration, tempo, dynamics, layers of sound—was determined, even if during the performance itself, by reference to correlative charts that governed all the relationships of a piece. The results frequently sound incoherent, but they demonstrate how far the concept of serialism can be stretched.

One of Cage’s students was Ben Johnston (born 1926), who seems to have sought out notorious mavericks as teachers; he also studied with the delightful oddball Harry Partch. Early in his career, particularly in his first three string quartets, Johnston brought microtonality to serialism, employing serialism’s tightly controlled structure as a framework for instruments playing in just intonation.

James Tenney (born 1934) started out by generating a batch of computer and tape pieces in the 1960s, then fell in with Steve Reich and Philip Glass during their early, highly stripped-down minimalist phases. A bit later, toward the end of the 1970s, Tenney became especially interested in microtonal tuning systems, as had Johnston and Cage before him. So, without seeming at all opportunistic, Tenney managed to blend at least some aspects of uptown serialism with most of the downtown musical fashions of the ’60s and ’70s, before resuming his preoccupation with computers, most recently computer-assisted research into musical perception. Few composers can synthesize so many movements with Tenney’s integrity.

Today’s leading serialists all seem to be nearing retirement age. George Edwards (born 1943) studied with Babbitt and Martino, among others. Ensconced at Columbia since 1976, Edwards is often classed as a serialist, although he rarely follows the rules strictly. His music is very polyphonic and chromatic, and highly demanding on performers.

Robert Morris, though born in England (1943), is, with the gradual withdrawal of Milton Babbitt, America’s current king of serialist theory. A longtime professor at Eastman, Morris is perhaps better known for his prose and his teaching than for his many scores, some of which, especially those from the late 1960s, reflect his interest in Indian music and other byways. One example: Motet on Doo-Dah snatches the tune of Stephen Foster‘s “Camptown Races” and fits it into a structure blending 12-tone technique, 14th-century isorhythmic motet style, and Korean court music. People with a serious technical interest in serialism would do well to peruse Morris’ books Composition with Pitch-Classes and Class-Notes for Atonal Theory.

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

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