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rendalli

Is Serialism Dead?

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I've often thought of writing a piece of several movements, only one of which is "serial" (in the twelve-tone sense), even though I haven't written anything serial in years. I've maintained a vague interest in it. Needless to say the suggestion of an isolated serial movement would require some, let's say, "caution". Serialism, of course, was different in the hands of Schoenberg and, for instance, Alban Berg. Schoenberg stipulated the avoidance of sequences of three notes from "common" triads for example. That makes his compositions sound "more atonal". What's the general opinion, is serialism gone and forgotten, or is it still on people's minds? Just wondering what you all think.

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Well, it's not on my mind. But composers are still quite enamored with of the idea of deconstructing tonality in order to placate the neurosis of modernism. the end result being - in my opinion - works that are only interesting once, and sound more similar than different. Of course, in  the hands of talented composers there are exceptions. Ligeti comes to mind, though I can't say how strictly his work adheres to the dogma. Here and there. I do find this adherence a little like political correctness in that if you don't follow the dogma, you can be ostracized because you are not with the program, you are not a "serious" composer. It certainly was that way when I was in school. So I would say that the proponents of serial techniques have more of an intellectual, pedagogical bent. And being the cynic that I am, these same composers conveniently eschew tonal music, and further, as it has been pointed out here before, use serial technique to subconsciously throw sand in the eyes (ears?) of the listener, because maybe they don't really have anything to say.

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You should bare in mind that Serialism is not just dodecaphonic system: these 12 tones also have their unique dynamic mark, articulation, colour (unless it is for a single instrument) and duration. This type of Serialism is definitely dead. But some features of it are working fine in the hands of a good composer: Lutoslawski was always good in using full chromatic scale by dividing harmonic and melodic layers: some composers use serialism in terms of rhythmic organization.

Ken320, Ligeti was never serial composer. He worked with clusters and micropolyphony until he began to play with intonations and various rhythmic structures.

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Sojar, I can hear all of the things you mentioned about Ligeti's work, but I was thinking about this one in particular, which, if not serial, sounds atonal to my ears. How would you describe it in terms of pitch organization?

 

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I do not think 'dead' is really an adequate term for any sort of music. Because you can still go to early music festivals and hear Medieval music. There are people on this site that write in the Baroque and Classical styles and do so rather well. And they are not the only ones. There are people who still compose in the Serial style as well, I'm sure. So no, of course it's not dead. None of it is. I mean heck, I still play the keyboard at church in the worship band in an 80s and 90s style. lol

I think a more appropriate question would be, "Is it still commonly practiced?"

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Well, I think the idea of the twelve tone row is definitely dead. Ligeti wrote an article about how serialism engineered its own demise by placing an arbitrary emphasis on the tone row even though it is only perceptible when treated with extremely simple means. Perhaps it has a similar status as the cantus firmus in old music, which disappears into the background very easily and was eventually done away with as the counterpoint became more important than the "material". However, the basic philosophy of working with abstract material via transformations is something that is still practiced today and is at the center of many schools of thought in contemporary music.

I attached the Ligeti article to this post, it is a very good read and very neatly explains why everybody jumped ship after the war.

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Thanks for the article. I read it.
Ligeti, as mentioned above, talks about the "new" trends at the moment he wrote this (1958). There were the (almost) early times of integral serialism. Ligeti differentiates Schönberg's system and integral serialism. Atonality following Schönberg allows the composer to control the tension / relaxation flow by using dissonance and consonanca, and it doesn't destroy the leading voice.

Anyway, although I think these are two different languages, I don't deny their validity.

My conclusion is that after 1950 or so, no new systems or music languages have appeared. Perhaps some "styles", as minimalism (but this is absolutely tonal, with its own features, but it is not a radical change). Nowadays, many composers go over languages from the past, from modality to atonality. Many of them mix these different systems as tools to express what they want to.

Jazz has adopted many of them.

So, I don't think anything is dead. The more musical languages I know, the more tools I have to compose. It doesn't mean I have to use them all always.

 

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All your comments are interesting. I agree that serialism in its original (Schoenberg) form is no longer common, and I also agree that serialism in this sense produces works which can sound "the same". However, it is not "dead" (as JairCrawford points out, "dead" is maybe not an appropriate term for any kind of music). It still has some merit. What interests me about it is the contrapuntal element: it uses transformations which were applied in the work of Bach for instance, but in a dodecaphonic context. I admit that I personally do have an "intellectual pedagogical bent" and perhaps that is why I still find serialism of interest. That said, I believe that a composer has to be careful with this kind of work, because although it is an intellectual challenge, that should not detract from writing something which sounds good (of course opinion on what sounds good is varied). Many composers have enjoyed an intellectual challenge, and have played with different structures, but the best works have an undefinable quality which makes them appeal to "the ear". What is important is not the technique, but how it is used.

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On terms: I would really never group Schoenberg's system with the label of "serialism," since that's quite anachronistic. In general, to keep things clear, I term serialism anything that's post/around the time of Messiaen's "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités" (1949) that uses mostly serialist techniques. Schoenberg's technique (12 tone technique,) is kind of a different thing entirely due to many factors such as the philosophical background that gave rise to the idea (12 tone technique being a vehicle to ensure the historical significance of German music in the modern era as it had before.) Additionally, you can actually analyze Webern's music and to a degree find "serialist" structures within the work that are far more like what composers years later would do (an example of where this is quite easy to do is his five pieces for orchestra, Op.10.)

@rendalli I think "serialism" is a part of history more than anything at the moment. Its principles end up being taught to students and so on, but I think it may not be in favor these days since it's quite time consuming depending on the way you use it. Then again, it's hard to know when something is serial at all unless a composer outright tells you since we have to remember serialist methods are just a way to create musical material and then manipulate it. There is literally nothing on how it's "supposed" to sound, much less any characteristic way things have to be composed. It could very well be that the technique is being widely used but in some aspects only, like the overall structure of a piece or maybe the way pitches are picked, who knows.

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Why would it be? Was Classicism dead in the 20th century. No. Why? Because modern composers looked backed at the style and adapted it in their works. John Williams writes in highly romantic fashion. 

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I'd recommend reading "Das Altern der neuen Musik" by Adorno and "Notes of an Apprenticeship" by Boulez for an in-depth answer.

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