Trapped in the Matrix

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.

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8 thoughts on “Trapped in the Matrix

  1. dB

    I remember doing a very similar assignment in undergrad, and having a very similar reaction. We had no understanding of dodecaphony beyond how to make and use matrices, so asking us to write a piece based on the partial concepts we understood made the exercise feel incredibly arbitrary. Certainly not enough time is spent on serialism (or any 20th Century music, for that matter) at the undergraduate level, but I think even holding off on that particular activity until a few pieces have been examined would be a whole lot more meaningful to the students.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, students would also be better served if we could find a way to discuss nonserial 20th Century techniques/pieces. I understand the pull of dodecaphony in the theory classroom as something that can be broken down and quantified, but I’ve also known far too many otherwise intelligent musicians who assume “contemporary composer” means “serial composer.” I find it embarrassing that even musicians can’t be bothered to know anything about 20th Century (or 21st Century) music outside of the narrow sample they’re shown in class.

  2. philmusic

    Colin, I think you are quoting from Ernest Krenek’s book on composition–I paraphrase ..”With 12-tone music inspiration is no longer necessary..”

    I’m not sure that I agree with that.

    “.. but I’ve also known far too many otherwise intelligent musicians who assume “contemporary composer” means “serial composer.”

    Really? As a serial composer that’s a new one on me. Also why then would you think them unintelligent for thinking that or preferring any one style of music? (and please give me their phone numbers).


    Phil very serial page

  3. dB

    I didn’t mean to say anything about their preferences, just that they lacked knowledge of any other 20th Century techniques and compositional styles. They assume that all modern composers are serial composers because of this lack of knowledge. To me, this represents a failing in education both in exposure to other types of 20th Century music, as well as a historical context for serialism (that it may have been safe to assume any composer was a serial composer in the middle of the century, but not so much today).

  4. TJOG

    As a former music theory (and history) teacher, I would often assign a serial composition for the students, but it had some restrictions (which they, understandably, were not always happy about). The row itself, and the various manifestations of it that they used (e.g., P8, RI2 etc.) had to have been chosen for a particular reason, i.e., doing so allowed the composer to achieve such and such an effect, especially if those two (or more) forms of the row were ever combined. These choices (e.g., combining P8 in one voice with RI2 in another overlapping voice, using a canon based on P8 etc.) would have to be explained, at least in general terms, in a written narrative accompanying the composition. What were they after? What musical effect was achieved as a result of what they chose?

    I realized that this was a tall order and I did not expect brilliant explications of the process from anyone (it’s hard enough to “justify” one’s specific compositional choices in any circumstances) but I wanted to make it clear that a serial approach did not eliminate the process of making conscious compositional choices based on “inspiration” or personal choice or whatever. Of course the students all knew about Cage’s indeterminacy and its influence on a wide range of composers in the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond) and so some wanted to generate the row and any possible combination of rows through indeterminate means. The fact that I would not allow that (on this particular assignment) was seen, I’m sure, as just another randomly despotic gesture of the sort they had to put up with all of the time. So they dealt with the fact that they had to explain (not exactly “justify” in something approaching an aesthetic argument) why they chose their row and the various permutations of it.

    I realized then and now that such an assignment can have all sorts of unintended consequences (e.g., their choices might well be determined by what they thought they could rationally defend), but I still thought it was worth it as an exercise, giving them a sense that serial music (it was up to them whether any parameters other than pitch would be serialized) did not preclude the making of meaningful compositional choices not dictated by the system itself.

  5. colin holter

    Colin, I think you are quoting from Ernest Krenek’s book on composition–I paraphrase ..”With 12-tone music inspiration is no longer necessary..”

    I don’t agree with this either – in part because I don’t think inspiration is really ever necessary, and in part because I think a lot of twelve-tone music is marvelous. A (potential) problem with twelve-tone music, however, is that because the system itself is so simple, it’s so easy to generate material that a whole bunch of aesthetic decisions seem to have already been made for you. (I do not feel that your music, with which I have the good fortune to be acquainted, is guilty of this.)

  6. pgblu

    Krenek’s statement needs to be understood in context. While inspiration is no longer necessary, that doesn’t mean that inspiration is superfluous… he means that if you’re short on inspiration, you have the ability to generate material from the row and thus come up with new ideas in a more or less automated fashion. Just because the method is automated, it doesn’t necessarily neutralize aesthetic judgment, preference, or imagination. Any example taken from his (admittedly extremely problematic) textbook pamphlet on twelve-tone counterpoint will show how much decision-making is involved in dodecaphonic practice.

  7. philmusic

    Just because the method is automated, it doesn’t necessarily neutralize aesthetic judgment, preference, or imagination

    Perhaps but this is hard to reconcile for me. Do we take Krenek at his word? Was Krenek being anti-romantic? Was he privileging his own personal replacement for inspiration? -which ends up being just like inspiration but perhaps without the baggage. Or perhaps this is another example of a composer, knowingly or unknowingly, saying one thing and doing another.

    Are there any of Krenek’s students still out there who would or have commented on this?

    Phil Fried Phil’s inspirational page

  8. Rick

    Concerning this discussion here is a relevant note and some linked works demonstrating the Unified Field Theory of Music in an expanded 12-tone Tonal-modal frame of reference discovered/invented by composer Richard Strunk decades ago that was originally sent to a respected electronic music composer.

    After reading your Colin Holter’s Article and this resulting discussion and comments I thought to gift you guys with some 12-tone based work that is quite out of the ordinary and relevant to this ongoing discussion.

    Someday ill finish publishing online my already written decades old paper on my expansion of the 12-tone technique into a complete unified field theory of music that subsumes all music and their systems written over the past 20 centuries, but till then you are welcome to use some of my audio files (even request scores) of some of my 12-tone pieces as examples in your discussions in demonstrating how 12-tone theory can free the composers musicality sensibilities rather than enchain or straitjacket them.

    The Links below are worth contributing to this discussion or I’d not have posted this for you all. The music files are in a note I sent to the electronic music composer Pauline Oliveros who’s face book friend list I hope to become a part of one day.

    Please Copy and Paste link into browser address bar to access 12-tone pieces that at first hearing might seem impossible:!/note.php?note_id=163098653727252

    I recommend you pay attention to my 12-tone variation on Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ Rag first. A side effect I can produce using my 12-tone technique among others is what I like to call ‘wrong note’ music. Sort of brings Cage and Schoenberg back together on the same page, LOL ;)

    The 12 lullabies were not composed using the traditional Tonal/modal system but totally with in a numeric 12 tone frame of reference with the explicit intent of the harmonic groupings and sequential progressions being in sync with a 19th century orientation listeners ear.

    All 12 lullabies originated in 12 numerical matrixes governed by differing ordered-interval-successions derived from each of the lullabies 12-tone universes. They were easier to compose within a 12-tone perspective of music using my technique with numbers then by viewing them within a conventual tonal system frame of reference. Obviously they are cleaver pieces in that they will immediately by the ear going to be interpreted as rather conventual 19th century tonal pieces; and even a bit simple at that.

    The 12-tone construction can be analyzed if one understands my technique or at least ordered interval successions and from viewing the works interval content ‘sideways’. Sort of like viewing an obvious tonal work via a modal perspective or an obvious modal work in a tonal perspective; just 2 differing frames of analysis or perspective on the same thing within one system.

    I follow a strict 12-tone theoretical methodology but within a tonal universe with expanded frames of references and perspectives that the old masters lacked.


    Richard Byron Strunk b.1957


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