Not Just for Breakfast Anymore?


Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

As a high school student, my favorite subject after music was probably math. So, as soon as I learned about serial music and its mathematical underpinnings, I was intrigued. I spent the better part of my senior year mulling over the 12-tone score of Alban Berg’s Lulu and when I discovered the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, I found a role model far more rebellious than any of the punk rockers my classmates were obsessed with at the time.

Yet when I arrived as an undergraduate at Columbia University, the dodecaphonic music that was the then lingua franca of the music department seemed oppressive: intolerant, inflexible and, ultimately, stagnant. Falling in love with serialism as a high school rebel, I now turned to more rebellious music-makers like Charles Ives and Harry Partch. When an utterance of the name Alvin Lucier was met with boos and hisses at an all-day Var├Ęse Centennial seminar during my senior year, it made me a lifelong Lucier fan.

The minimalist movement, which was emerging all over the city but which was almost completely ignored by my college professors, seemed much more timely as well as more engaging both intellectually and emotionally. And, unlike the dogma-dictated music that serialism seemed to be to me by this point, minimalism was an equally rigorous mathematically-structured music that offered many more options for individual expression, allowing the incorporation of microtonal intervals, improvisation, world music traditions, etc.

But, of course, a lot of the lessons learned in school don’t pan out in real life. As a mature consumer of adventurous music, I find myself turning to rigorous twelve-tone composers more and more. Where its connotations were once intimidating as a music student, I can now revel in much of the music of Wuorinen, Martino, and Davidovsky as a listener. And without academic approval, I’ve discovered composers such as James Tenney, Ben Johnston, and Bruce Arnold who’ve incorporated serial procedures into minimalism, microtonality, and even jazz. As a composer, in the last couple of years I’ve actually found myself dabbling in serial ideas again for the first time in 20 years now that the mainstream media has villainized dodecaphony: always wanting to root for the underdog!

So, the question needs to be asked. Why is 12-tone music intimidating? I would argue, from a healthy distance, that the intimidation has nothing to do with a great deal of the music, which is quite wonderful, but with the culture of inflexibility that seemed to have surrounded it during its ascendancy. Trouble is, human nature almost predicts that any other -ism in ascendancy would have been equally intractable. Now that serialism has been declared a paper tiger, its bite is no longer dangerous, but the bite of those who demonize it can be!

For the 12th and final 2001 issue of NewMusicBox, we’ve decided to put a human face on serialism. A lengthy conversation (in no less than 12 parts!) with the mastermind of total serialism, Milton Babbitt, reveals a multifaceted personality equally fascinated by baseball, beer, and old Broadway showtunes. James Reel’s HyperHistory of American serialism is a virtual serialism 101 (or perhaps 012). Donald Erb, Victoria Bond, Dan Welcher, and Eric Schaepers offer four very different thoughts about the relevance of serialism to the music of today and its potential influence over the music of the future. Finally, we’d like your thoughts on the historical significance of this most typecast of musical procedures.

On a much grander scale in our society, we have seen how intolerance can subsume humanity all over the world. But even in our safer, narrower realm of long-form music appreciation, intolerance is dangerous. Throughout November, our issue on minimalist music inspired some extraordinarily negative anti-minimalist tirades both in personal e-mail correspondence and in our public interactive forum. I imagine that fanatics on the other end of the aesthetic spectrum will decry this tribute to serialism with equal bellicosity. But, just as American culture is multi-faceted and polymorphous, so too is American music. And the true fan of American music should be able to appreciate equally the arpeggios of Philip Glass and the combinatorial hexachords of Milton Babbitt as well as the sheets of sound of John Coltrane, the high lonesome vocals of Bill Monroe, and the shrieks of no-wave punk rockers like Lydia Lunch whom I foolishly missed out on in high school.

When serialism can be listened to and appreciated as one of many valid streams of contemporary American music-making rather than the inevitable evolution of Western classical music, it will sound more exciting than ever before!