The origin of serial music in the early 20th century represents the replacement of traditional melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and most importantly tonal conventions (Kennedy 1996). It has influenced and informed contemporary music by challenging these conventions, liberating musical possibilities. It has impacted on contemporary music by radically altering composition approaches, and validating artistic merit on grounds other than tonal conservatism.
One of the most defining characteristics of serialism is the use of the twelve-tone row, commonly attributed to Arnold Schoenberg (Kennedy 1996). He was interested in taking every musical element to its furthest limit. His system is based on the principle that each of the 12 semitones are considered ‘equal’, and the hierarchy of notes is completely rejected (Warburton 1995). This includes all tonal traditional chord structures and cadences.
The note row is not a theme as such, but a departure point for the development of musical ideas. They are subject to adaptations to create musical variation. They are manipulated commonly through retrogrades and inversions (or a combination of the two) to switch the order and sequences of the music (Blatter 1997). To give this revolutionary approach a framework, Schoenberg drew on Bach’s use of counterpoint and rhythm to express his new approach to tonality (Warburton 1995). Serial composers such as Webern used what Schoenberg called Klangfarbenmelodie – a melodic line made up of instrumental colours (Ford 1997). This highlights the rise of importance of tone colour and texture in composition, rather than tonality.
Whilst serialism could appear somewhat of a steely, philosophical exercise combined with mathematics, Schoenberg and his contemporaries (Berg and Webern) honed this new form of music composition into an art form. They found a unitary form entirely appropriate to the intense, heightened, nightmarish language of freely atonal harmony (Ford 1997). But at this time, serialism itself was no clear-cut movement with a definite agenda.
Boulez was a radical contemporary of the first serial composers, who studied under Olivier Messiaen and was exposed to Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet at age 19. He was a tireless activist for serialism, feeling nothing but animosity towards the neo-classicist composers of Paris where he studied, viewing their music as unacceptably retrogressive (Ford 1997). Even Schoenberg wasn’t spared from his tirades; dismissing his academicism and lack of fervor to the musical language he developed. Boulez saw that along with these new advances to music, Schoenberg had failed to adopt a bold structure that defined serialism’s boarders.
Boulez strived for total serialism, whilst in America, Milton Babbitt had already (and largely independent of his European equals) developed serialism more than anyone else in Europe. He applied serial procedures to pitch, duration and dynamics, calling his complete approach to the concept ‘integral serialism’ (Ford 1997). The state of music had been stagnating, and a cerebral rejection of convention seemed inevitable.
At this time in history music was experiencing upheaval from the old ties that bind. The early serial composers gave rise to a new generation of musicians such as Xenakis, Varèse, Carter and Cage (Ford 1997) and in turn, a new plethora of unaccustomed sounds. Cowell’s “tone clusters”, Cage’s “prepared piano” and Xenakis’ “bands” of sound were all new and unfamiliar musical qualities built on the foundations laid by pioneers who started a musical revolution (Grout & Palisca 1996). They took composition to its intellectual limits through an academic and cerebral method.
Meanwhile, rock and roll music was beginning to subvert musical convention on the other end of the cultural spectrum. For conventionality, the candle was being burned at both ends.
In the context of contemporary music, a composer’s approach to writing music has always been influenced by the availability and capabilities of technology. Thomas Edison’s revolutionary invention of the phonograph took music from being fleeting and ephemeral to something tangible and permanent (Szinger 1992). Developments in technology have challenged our perception of what music is by adding new sounds and methods of sonic reproduction into the collective consciousness, and this machine set off the chain reaction that altered the possibilities of performing and accessing contemporary music.
The ability to capture and reproduce sounds was a development that progressively gave rise to the modern recording industry, and all the musical mediums that rely on it such as radio, television and the internet (Szinger 1992). Music was no longer confined to live performance. It could be accessed by anybody with a phonograph and record (Frith 1986). People became exposed to sounds they may never have heard otherwise. For instance, recordings of Zuni and Passamaquoddy Indian folk music were made in 1889, and African tribal music was first recorded in 1902 (Yates 1982). But, the emergence of the gramophone constituted a dominant force as a musical commodity after WW1 (Frith 1986). The development of the gramophone represents literally and figuratively the shift from music steeped in transience to music made permanent and available to the general public.
The modern music industry owes everything to this technological development. Initially in the 1920s, record companies were simply a branch of the electrical goods industry. Eventually, the novelty of recorded sound had worn off and wax records had to become a commodity in their own right (Toynbee 2006). Producers of this hardware needed to create ‘software’ other than demonstrations of the phonograph’s capabilities (for e.g. this recording was presented in electric goods stores displaying it’s function http://www.archive.org/details/iamed1906).
The forms of jazz and later rock and roll were easily transferable to a recorded context. A series of 2 minute songs by a 4-piece ensemble was more appropriate in the form of a record than an orchestra performing a comparatively long symphony. Also, while radio was taking its toll on record sales, there were new markets for jazz records to open up (or indeed any black music), since broadcasters would pander to ‘respectable’ white listeners (Frith 1986). Recordings were a liberating medium where genres other than socially acceptable styles could be heard.
The Great Depression of the 1930s nearly toppled the then-primitive music industry and many considered it a passing fad much like the piano roll (Frith 1986). However, once order had been restored in the market and businessmen were ready to invest in companies again, the industry experienced a resurgence. By the 1940s, record players were commonplace in American households (Kennedy 1996) and public access to music had never been wider. Pop music was the evolutionary byproduct of this technology. A symbiotic relationship had developed whereby the phonograph brought around popular music and could not have existed without its prevalence, and conversely, popular music relied on this medium to be accessed (Frith 1986). Because of the invention of the phonograph, the development of the recording industry and all its commercial and artistic implications have resulted in a major shift in contemporary music.
The space between a composer’s intention and the execution by the performer is the elusive realm where indeterminacy occurs. In most secular polyphonic music (stretching well into the 19th century), this was a mostly unconscious, inherent quality in music (Grout & Palisca 1996). In the 20th century, composers began to consciously experiment with the concepts of determinacy and indeterminacy, directing this interplay to inform their music. This new consciousness has influenced contemporary music by enriching the gamut of creative variables a composer has to work with.
Working with electronic music gives composers complete control over the performed result. Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the cutting edge of this movement (Wade-Matthews & Thompson 2002). His approach to music involved a complete process of total serialization. Every electronically generated musical element (pitch, duration, tone colour, intensity, spatial position etc) was systematically considered, leaving no room for the once-unavoidable compositional byproduct of indeterminacy. However, the performer is granted choice or interpretation by the composer in other ways; the score for Klavierstück XI has 19 small pieces of notation displayed on the score. A performer can choose to play any of these segments in any order (ibid). This closely relates to John Cage’s interpretation of indeterminacy, and more specifically “aleatory” music (from the Latin aleae, meaning ‘dice’), where the composer will give a finite amount of direction to the performer to create an element of chance (Grout & Palisca 1996). Stochastic processes are closely linked to this concept, where systems are implemented to create a sense of randomness (Beilharz 2010). Klavierstück XI is similar, too, to Mozart's Musikalisches Würfelspiel in that the performer arranges the predetermined notation in unique orders (minus the dice).
Witold Lutosławski experimented with chance elements (Wade-Matthews & Thompson 2002) and made selective use of indeterminacy (Grout & Palisca 1996). He experimented with the interplay between compositional intention and the execution in performance (ibid). For example, in his String Quartet, the musicians play their individual pitch-specific parts without a shared tempo or rhythm. When a certain point is reached, they begin again on the signal of one of the musicians. Despite the indeterminacy of this method, Lutosławski was adamant that the piece was entirely his composition and not the work of the individual musicians – regardless of the variations each time this was played (ibid). This anecdote challenges the notion of creative ownership, even when it has been generated by somebody working within your ‘indeterminate’ parameters.
The use of the ‘stochastic process’ as a compositional technique has created new varieties in notation (Beilhartz 2010). New symbols have been developed to mark points where sections stop or repeat, and performance notes have become crucial to explain the composer’s intentions. Graphic notation had developed from this trend, and became useful in suggesting the desired final product without relying on stifling determinacy in the form of traditional notation (Kennedy 1996). This gives performers a new degree of freedom in their creativity in performance. The more indeterminate the piece, the more the composer is distanced from the literal sound that is produced, and compositional credit lies in concept or artistic merit.
In essence, when a composer incorporates indeterminacy into their piece, there is a greater chance of the piece being unique on each performance. The meaning of term “composition” in these cases is stretched. No two performances based on ambiguous graphic notation or with room for improvisation will be the same (Grout & Palisca 1996). The composition becomes a “sum of possible performances” (ibid).
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