Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism

Women don’t exactly swell the ranks of serialism, but that’s simply because women didn’t start making serious inroads into the composition profession until serialism began its decline. Interestingly, the majority of the most prominent female composers in America who took up serialism were foreign-born. The main exception to that is Washington State’s Sheila Silver (born 1946), a longtime faculty member at SUNY Stony Brook. Though her music reveals some influence from the even more avant-garde Darmstadt school, Silver is a typical product of Brandeis University, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1976; Brandeis may be America’s last hotbed of serialism. Nicolas Slonimsky once described Silver’s music as “enlightened dissonance devoid of ostensible disharmonies.”

Of the other important women to cast their lot with serialism in America, the most senior is Pia Gilbert (born 1921 in Germany). Through most of her career, Gilbert specialized in music for dance and theater, especially during her long tenure (1947-85) as resident composer and music director of UCLA‘s dance company. She also produced many scores for L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. Since the mid-1970s, Gilbert has turned her attention more to chamber and vocal music. Her works tend to be either lightly dramatic or playful, and a sly sense of humor peeks out of many of her vocal compositions.

Another German-born composer, Ursula Mamlok (1928), became a naturalized American citizen in 1945 and taught for many years at NYU and the Manhattan School of Music. Her early works (for example, the 1962 String Quartet No. 1) are uncompromising, but Mamlok matured into a sometime-serialist dedicated to lyricism, nuance, delicacy, and craftsmanship, which is evident from her abundance of chamber music. Mamlok ranks with George Perle as a composer able to appeal to listeners who aren’t necessarily hard-core serial enthusiasts.

One other woman serialist who has garnered quite a bit of press during the past few years (especially after winning the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for her first symphony) is the Israeli-born (1949) Shulamit Ran. A pianist-composer, Ran has centered her career in Chicago, teaching at the University of Chicago and serving as the Chicago Symphony‘s composer-in-residence through most of the 1990s. In truth, calling Ran a serialist may be misleading; she isn’t strict about it, and most of her music is simply freely atonal.

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

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