Is Serialism Still Relevant? Dan Welcher



Dan Welcher
Photo courtesy the Theodore Presser Company

Like most US-trained composers my age, I was “forced” to learn serialism in graduate school. And, like most of my colleagues, I was also told that this was the only way to be taken seriously as a composer (this was in the early seventies). But unlike many of my friends, I didn’t totally abandon the technique when I finally found the nerve to reclaim tonality, some time during the early 1980s. In fact, I merely allowed my compositional technique to admit tonality as another tool, one that could be used both alongside or in place of serialism.

For me, serialism is a very useful tool; it’s just not the only tool. I use the technique to organize materials when it suits the work being composed, but not usually for the entire piece. Just yesterday, I was present at a recording session of my new work for wind ensemble, Songs Without Words, by the excellent North Texas Wind Symphony. When the first movement, “Manic,” was in the can, I asked the dozen-or-so young band conductors in the control room if any of them had realized that this entire movement was a strict twelve-tone piece, following all the rules. Not one of them had, despite the rather obvious (to me) statement, re-statement, and block triadic statement of the row in its original form throughout this very brief movement. “It can’t be serial,” one of them had the nerve to say, “it has such normal phrasing!”

No one ever said that serial, or twelve-tone music, had to be devoid of all the elements we come to prize in music: implied harmonic underpinnings are not foreign to the technique at all, and bass lines can define a sort of tonality that flies in the face of the “every note for himself” school of composition. Dallapiccola showed me how this can actually create a harmonic language that heightened expressivity, by releasing new and unexpected chords into the air, or by helping to “spin” the inner mechanical underpinnings of a theme. Stravinsky found ways of serializing his already very sparse note-choosing to make it even more compact, and I absorbed this, too. And Britten, dismissed in the seventies as hopelessly reactionary, proved in his Turn of the Screw that twelve-tone organizational principals could even apply to the key relationships of various scenes (there are twelve) in a two-hour-long opera.

Far from being a hindrance, or an outmoded strait jacket, serialism is a very useful and still valid tool for composers. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if hip-hop discovered it soon!