Is Serialism Still Relevant? Victoria Bond



Victoria Bond
Photo courtesy Victoria Bond

Out of the Serial Box

The question, “Is serialism still relevant?” deserves attention. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when such a question would seem frivolous, when 12-tone was the accepted contemporary language, and anyone who wrote tonal music was considered hopelessly retarded. However, today we live in a far more eclectic musical universe that accepts music from other cultures as well as music using tonal resources of the past, and the answer is not an obvious one.

The serial technique became part of my musical vocabulary in the 1960s. I was introduced to it during my studies at the University of Southern California along with tonal harmony and it soon occupied a dominant place. At that time, the Second Viennese School represented the prevailing aesthetic for contemporary music, and it was not only the fashion, it was the mandate. The gatekeepers of all the most prestigious musical institutions were 12-tone composers, and if you wanted to be performed, you had to speak their language.

I was a lowly student at that time, and in no position to be performed by any of the august ensembles. However, my teachers felt it their obligation to instruct me in the language of the day and I accepted the rigors of the serial technique along with those of traditional harmony and counterpoint. Its discipline taught me to regard the immediate and multiple implications of a set of pitches and to look at them according to their horizontal (melodic) as well as vertical (harmonic) possibilities; to regard those same pitches in augmentation and in diminution, to take all of the above and make charts of the entire series in retrograde, to invert all of the possibilities and to come up with a dizzying number of choices generated entirely by one set of pitches in a particular order. I found this to be exhilarating and exhausting! The entire potential of a pitch spectrum could be instantly implied once one did the math. Add to this the serialization of rhythm, and a piece of profound order and integrity emerged. Although this was not a completely novel concept, and Johann Sebastian Bach certainly used such principles in constructing the highly organized and tightly-woven fabric of his compositions, it gave one the option of applying the contrapuntal techniques of the Baroque to the language of the present, and theoretical rules a new immediacy and purpose.

Harmonically, however, this language lacked three important elements: consonance, resolution, and rest. Its restless chromaticism and relentless dissonance implied turbulence and anxiety. It was a language perfectly suited to the emotional context of a war-stricken Europe, and using it exclusively became like wearing borrowed clothing. It conjured up another era and seemed at odds with the world in which I lived. It made intellectual demands on the listener, causing many to accuse it of being mathematical and dry. Outside of the few contemporary music circles, Americans did not relate to it. Even classical audiences were hostile to it and few of the major or regional orchestras performed much of it on their regular programs. Angry subscribers demanded tonal music, and 12-tone was vilified and became the rallying cry of those of us who refused to be bullied by the un-adventuresome and conservative tastes of the majority. This polarized many composers who felt obligated to be in one camp or the other.

The music of many a lesser composer seemed interesting only as a puzzle to solve. That having been accomplished, the music had little else to offer in the way of sensual or emotional satisfaction, and yielded no further treasures or meaning on repeated hearings. Despite this, there were composers who were able to speak in this language and to still maintain an immediate, emotional impact while retaining a rigorous intellectual discipline. The music of Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Webern showed us what could be accomplished through a combination of genius and formidable intellectual discipline.

I came to appreciate Webern’s musical impact when I had the opportunity to perform his Cello Sonata at a school concert with a cellist from the Pittsburgh Symphony during my tenure as Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductor with that orchestra. Seated at the piano after having performed this work for elementary school children, I asked them how it made them feel. They were more receptive to this unfamiliar work than their parents undoubtedly would have been, and they listened attentively to the performance and responded with surprisingly sophisticated answers. “I feel frightened,” one child said. “It makes me nervous,” another agreed. “Something scary is going to happen,” a third offered. They had accurately absorbed the grim atmosphere of Webern’s tortured world and translated it into their own emotional reactions. What more could a composer hope to accomplish than to be a witness to his time and to communicate that in his art?

Listening to Berg’s Lulu magnificently performed by the Metropolitan Opera last season, I was reminded of how effectively the music conveys a sense of cataclysmic doom with so much passion that it overwhelms the formidable intellectual construction. The puzzle is there, but it is not the main event. The opera works because it is first and foremost great music and great theater.

Surely then, this is a language with endless potential, but how to use it, apply it and make it one’s own rather than merely pasting it over an inhospitable and alien landscape?

In learning the 12-tone technique in school I tried to “Americanize” it and disassociate some of its cultural implications by using it in a humorous work called “Tobacco Row”. I juxtaposed TV and radio cigarette commercials, (not yet banned at that time), making them into 12-tone rows and superimposing them to form interlocking contrapuntal lines. It taught me to combine the serious and the absurd, a combination that I still find appealing.

Although I consider myself a tonal composer, I have continued to apply 12-tone techniques in all of my compositions. The lessons learned have stood me in good stead and I am grateful to the many hours of study applied towards attempting to master this challenging craft. When adhered to simply for its own sake so as to impress the listener with the intellectual superiority of the composer, the serial technique can become inflexible and block spontaneity. Personally, I prefer to work with musical motives that can be easily recognized and remembered. My own memory balks at retaining 12 pitches in succession before they are repeated. Shorter motivic ideas seem more natural to me, and I approach the form of my music more like a conversation, whose thought process unfolds and reveals. It resists having its subject matter spread out and dissected in advance. My work seems to grow from one implication to the next and requires an innocent and unpredictable richness of possibilities. I need to know where I am going, but plotting each step of the way chokes and suffocates me. I appreciate the freedom that this technique has given me, because it has allowed me to make maximum use of any given fragment of material and to make each element consistent with the whole. Rather than pedantically applying the technique, I find myself true to its principles and not to the letter of the law. Harmonically it has expanded my palette and given me a way of introducing a dissonant vocabulary as consistent as any tonal chromaticism.

We live at a time that accepts greater ambiguity than ever before. Because our musical universe is so diverse and we have access to so many cultural influences, it is no longer necessary to identify oneself as a “tonal”,”12-tone,” or “minimalist” composer. These techniques are all tools for us to use without having to apologize or compromise our values or identities. Style has taken on a new meaning and “eclectic” is no longer the dirty word that it once was. Science has shown that when our DNA is examined, we all resemble one another much more than we had ever imagined. Rather than arguing over the letters that we use to form our musical words, let us look to the impact that those words and phrases have on the listener. To return to the original question, “Is serialism still relevant?” I would answer with a resounding “Yes!”

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