Trapped in the Matrix
Twelve-tone music is one of my favorite things to talk about; conveniently, it was on the docket last week for the theory class that I TA. I’d been looking forward to a frank discussion of dodecaphony that would acknowledge its revolutionary potential without papering over its vulnerability to critique (not to mention the substantial running room for critiquing the American academic discourse on twelve-tone music).
I led with the observation that everyone in the class could put together a row and compose a piece, and nobody would be able to tell them that they haven’t written some music. This is on the one hand a facile and not very meaningful statement (just as the piece they compose might be facile and not very meaningful!), but it also suggests a tentative demystification of musical creation: A standard of composition that is rule-based rather than example-based furnishes, at the very least, a “trick to allow one to write notes,” as Steve Taylor once put it to me, that works independently of the psychological impulses and states conventionally associated with the whisperings of the Muse.[
“Maybe,” a student replied, “but it just seems pretty stupid.” A reasonable response: Writing a twelve-tone piece using an arbitrary row disposed in an equally arbitrary way over an arbitrary period of time is certainly “stupid” in the sense that it’s ahistorical and proceeds regardless of the composer’s desires. Unfortunately, American music theory at the undergraduate level is not equipped to deal with twelve-tone music as a historically ramified phenomenon, thanks in large part to the generation of postwar positivists who defined the dominant pedagogy of early 20th-century music—a neglected corner of the literature that’s often relegated to one lone semester of theory toward the end of a degree program. If the integrity of this music truly does rely on the inaudible and unworldly juggling of numbers—and a student leafing through our text might be forgiven for thinking that it does!—the accusation that it’s stupid would not be unwarranted.
As we all know, however, that’s not the case. For one thing, that number-juggling is often—although not always—more perceptible and cognitively significant than it might seem. But what’s even easier to forget while studying dodecaphony is the person behind the curtain: As I pointed out to my students, a matrix is 144 numbers, but a composer is a person. (One of my students disputed this point too, but I had to let that one slide.) There’s no international regulatory body that enforces adherence to the tone row. From a practical standpoint, what’s awesome about twelve-tone-ness is that you can use it however you want, at whatever level of strictness suits you, and no one can make you stop. Best of all, it’s not even necessarily the case that a tone row worked through in the most simple and explicit way will reinforce the structural or affective unity of the piece more than a looser or more arcane expression of the row might. If my students took one thing away from that class, I hope it’s that the composers of the Second Viennese School were people too, and that what might have seemed like a system of restraints was more properly a thought-apparatus to allow them to imagine the previously unimaginable.