Twelve Steps

“Systems, being easier to understand than art, dominate academic history.”

—Brian O’Doherty

There must be twelve-step programs for people like me. I confess: I’m a recovering serialist.

When I was sixteen my first composition teacher taught me the mechanics of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Before long (under the influence of Messiaen and Stockhausen), I began experimenting with “total serialism.” Using 12×12 matrices I applied serial techniques not just to pitch but to other elements of musical sounds—(“parameters” in the parlance). Duration, dynamics, articulation, even timbre could be controlled by twelve-step permutations.

As a puzzle or a game, making music this way was mildly intriguing. But the sound usually left me cold. So I never became a devout serialist. Ruggles and Feldman appealed to my ear more than Schoenberg and Webern. And those matrices of serial permutations didn’t seem much different from the charts of durations and sonorities that John Cage used in his works of the late ’40s and early ’50s. So it didn’t take long for me to gravitate decisively toward experimentalism, minimalism, and other sources closer to home. These eventually led me to my own musical world.

But at least one aspect of serialism has stayed with me all these years: I think in intervals rather than degrees of scales. And although my music hardly sounds atonal, beneath the surface is a logic that has roots in serialism. Over the decades I’ve discovered the elements of my own harmonic and melodic world by shifting and combining fixed sets of intervals. At times I’ve also worked with rhythmic permutations which I derived more directly from Cage, but which he originally derived from Schoenberg.

Serialism is a system of inductive logic that can be used to determine all the details of a musical work. Like all systems (and unlike art) serialism can be taught, which probably explains its persistence in academia. By comparison the deductive linear processes of minimalism are transparent, and minimalist music is still regarded as an unsophisticated guest in many conservatories. But it seems to me that minimalism and serialism share more in common than first meets the ear.

Last year Frank Oteri and I visited the Sol LeWitt retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Walking around LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes and Serial Project No. 1, I was struck by the underlying similarities between serialism and minimalism. Just as LeWitt’s compositional processes produced varied series of geometrical forms, Schoenberg’s serialism churned out pitches and the processes of musical minimalism chugged out rhythm.

Although the sounds were different, the techniques of both serialism and minimalism were machines for making music. While the additive rhythmic processes and phase-shifting of classic minimalism were clearly audible, in serialism the logic was usually beneath the surface. But both gave composers new tools for doing what composers do ­ making musical compositions.

I’ve always been fascinated with musical processes and forms. Like all composers my toolbox of techniques contains well-used tools from a variety of sources, including serialism and minimalism. My music has always been rigorously formal, but recently I’ve found myself gravitating away from clearly audible forms and processes. I hope my own idiosyncratic methods still give the music a coherence that’s somehow apparent to the listener. But I’m less interested in musical machines and more interested in music that sounds like it might occur in nature.

What kind of musical logic interests you? Do you want it to be audible? Or is it enough to sense the unity beneath the surface?

Has serialism influenced the music you listen to and make?