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The Twelve Tone Row, "good" Serial Music

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It's been a while since I've been on here. I have put dreams of writing a symphony off until I can manage a small-scale piece (solo piano, for instance), and spent the month of June writing a little bit of something (new) each day. Got through thirty days and had some good ideas in the mix, but the largest problem I had was developing them beyond the 8-10 bars that I'd constructed. That's another issue. 

I wrote this and somewhat unintentionally expressed the train of thought of an entire day at work (between meetings) despite my efforts to condense it. In the interest of time, I will post the actual question at the end of said train here, and again at the end of my actual post:

Based on what factors does one determine whether it is a work of genius, a flop, an acquired taste, or just the housecat prancing around on the Steinway in the living room? An extension of that question, and I suppose the real heart of my issue is, based upon what can I critique the works that I write using this method? What will be my goal in expression if it is not tonal? 

And now for how I got there.

Also, I promise this post about 'atonal' or 'serial' or 'twelve-tone' music or whatever you want to call it is not to troll... but I can see how it may seem that way (or seem like a very amateur question, which not be out of character). 

In that regard, I recently started playing around with writing out some twelve-tone matrices. The issue I was having with developing or broadening or expanding motivic material lies partly with my imagination, but the root of that problem is probably more in my lack of music theory knowledge (i.e. my ability to use and manipulate the rules of harmony, voicing, etc.). I've studied entirely on my own and have a very good general understanding of (the most basic) harmony, the ideas and concept and treatment of sonata form, and the like, but to get in and start writing music, voicing chords, etc. proves very difficult for me, so it's slow going and very rudimentary.

Back to Schoenberg and his twelve tones. In composing in this manner, one of the decisions left to a composer is removed, or at least greatly limited. Generally speaking (incredibly vaguely), a composer deals with a few things:

  • pitch
  • duration
  • orchestration
  • tempo
  • dynamic
  • harmonization
  • intonation or attack

Composing based on a twelve-tone row greatly limits if not eliminates the variables of pitch and harmony (obviously hexachords and vertical use of the series are not out of the question, but not with the freedom of choosing to use a minor/major/diminished/ninth chord, etc.), so the others play a much greater role in the style/interpretation feel of the piece. I am realizing that just from my writing out of the matrix. Just to clarify, I'm not talking about integral/total/multiple serialism like in Boulez's piano sonatas, for instance. Just the pitches and their sequences. 

So my question, ultimately, is this: in the tonal scheme, with tonics and dominants and tonal centers, it is very easy for even a total beginner to hear a piece like a Chopin nocturne or a Mozart sonata and 'understand' it emotionally to some degree or other (happy, sad, peaceful, etc.) because of its use of tonal expression. Even late Scriabin pieces, while highly chromatic, still make use of tonality to express emotion and feeling. People will rate the quality of the music, whether it is 'good' or 'bad', based on their ability to understand it, which as Milton Babbitt has pointed out, only happens in music and politics. 

My question then, is this (I did say that earlier) : since the average human innately understands the pentatonic scale and has some foundation for understanding "good" use of harmonies to some degree, he can identify with "good" music, or music that adheres to the rules of harmony (more advanced, even to the point of identifying and appreciating key changes, and modulations and their relationships to the tonic). Not being able to hear immediately the relationships between notes in a twelve tone series once we get to the inversion and retrograde, etc. how is one to distinguish "good" serial music from "bad"? I can listen to Schoenberg's op. 11 with some degree of appreciation, but it's a stretch. I have absolutely zero comprehension for Boulez's sonatas or anything by Babbitt, though. Based on what factors does one determine whether it is a work of genius, a flop, an acquired taste, a work with potential, or just the housecat prancing around on the Steinway in the living room? An extension of that question, and I suppose the real heart of my issue is, based upon what can I critique the works that I write using this method? What will be my goal in expression if it is not tonal? I suppose that is a subjective and individual question, but it still seems one worth asking. Thanks in advance for thoughts and ideas. 

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"what can I critique the works that I write using this method? What will be my goal in expression if it is not tonal?"

 

My answer would be timbre. The atonal music I find most effective has an attention to orchestration, tone color and note spacing. I'm sure others will appreciate it in other ways but that seems most important to me. 

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