Once More into the 12-Tone Breach

March 20, 2005

By Kyle Gann

I ruffled some feathers with my post about 12-tone music - I wonder if I'm capable of saying anything without ruffling some feathers - I wonder if there's anything that could be said without ruffling someone's feathers - I wonder if ruffling feathers is as heinous a crime as a lot of people apparently think - but in at least one sense my words weren't taken literally enough. One thoughtful respondent compared me to a fundamentalist trying to expunge all memory of 12-tone music the way the Christian right wants to expunge Darwin, Balzac, and any TV show that refers positively to gay families.

Quite the contrary. Educationally, I'm heavily invested in 12-tone music. Year after year I bullheadedly continue teaching Webern's Piano Variations and Symphony, Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet, Dallapiccola's Piccola Musica Notturna and Sex Carmina Alcaei, Stravinsky's Threni and Requiem Canticles, Stockhausen's Gruppen, Babbitt's Philomel and Post-Partitions. Those pieces mean something to me (except for the Fourth Quartet, which I've come to loathe), and I'm proud of knowing (except for Philomel, which I don't have a score to) how they're constructed. I don't advocate locking them away and never bringing them out again. What I do advocate is a revisionist view of music history - and contrary to some things that have been written in response, I'm not commenting on the validity of the music or whether it should be performed or programmed, but how it should be explained as the historical period it now clearly is. After all, we've been using the same rhetoric to justify the advent of 12-tone technique since it was prevalent, but our collective view of the genre is greatly altered.

One trope on 12-tone music is that it was a historical inevitability: the individual motive had supplanted an overriding tonal system as the driving force for composition, and Schoenberg needed a new method to unify music in the absence of tonal structure. But as Jonathan Kramer points out in an upcoming book, the idea that music had become totally motive-driven was a fiction invented by Schoenberg himself to justify his new method, based on a "creative misreading" of Brahms. For Schoenberg to look selectively back to Brahms's motivic technique as precursor to his own method was a natural artistic impulse, but hardly objective; nothing in Mahler, Strauss, Reger, Scriabin, or the other late, late romantics makes the use of a 12-tone row look necessary or inevitable. Quite the contrary, the application of a pitch row as a governing device was a palpably arbitrary move, brilliantly so if you want to look at it that way, but one that patently wrenched music away from its traditional moorings. Following the historical development of harmony through various seventh and ninth chords, one eventually arrives at, not the abstract pitch sets of 12-tone music, but the 11th and 13th chords of bebop, which was the real continuation of harmonic progress from classical principles.

Another 12-tone trope is that the row provided a completely organic way of composing, in which every measure of the music was drawn from the same cell. But Lerdahl, Kramer, and others have made it clear that the textual unity of a page of notes all being forms of, say, the pitch set [0,1,4] does not at all guarantee perceptual unity. And beyond that, postmodern texts and theories have made it apparent to most college graduates by now that unity and organicism are not inherent in a work of art, nor necessary, nor a universal good. One can still cling to Schoenberg's ideal of total organicism as a matter of taste, but it is an anachronism to claim, in the 21st century, that organicism is a necessary component, or indeed a guarantor, of quality.

Nor was 12-tone music, at least in America, a crucial step on the road to some other kind of music. The major movements since 12-tone music have either been antipodal rejections of it, like minimalism, or retreats from it, like the New Romanticism. One could argue that in Europe 12-tone music led to serialism and then postserialism, but it also seems true that the most successful postserial works were those that abandoned 12-tone technique altogether, like Berio's Sinfonia, Boulez's Rituel, Stockhausen's Stimmung.

Strip away the fiction of historical inevitability, the assumed congruence of textual and perceived unity, and the aesthetic of necessary organicism, and all 12-tone music has left to defend itself with is what any other music has: its inherent attractiveness to the ear and mind and heart, which in 99 percent of the cases is pretty thin. The moral and theoretical underpinnings that buoyed 12-tone music up in mid-century have dissolved. For a piece to employ 12-tone technique can no longer be seen as a virtue in itself, and therefore one has trouble answering the inevitable student question: since 12-tone music clearly doesn't guarantee more beautiful music, why did so many hundreds of composers feel that they were required to use it, or else risk career disaster? However you couch the answer to that question, it isn't pretty.

So what I'm looking for is a more charitable way to describe the post-war 12-tone movement phenomenon, one that doesn't make it sound like a blatant academic mafia, so I can continue teaching my favorite 12-tone pieces without getting skeptical looks and the feeling that my students think I'm selling them a bill of goods. And I think what we need to do is quit teaching 20th-century history with a dishonest thumb on the scale in Schoenberg's favor. For decades, academic historians have presented the Second Vienna School as central to a European modernist canon, at the expense of dozens of other composers more popular, outside academia, than Schoenberg: Copland, Milhaud, Cowell, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Messiaen, Britten, Weill, Cage, Partch. It's time to restore these composers to the center of 20th-century music, and redraw 12-tone music as the interesting but infertile cul-de-sac that it was. What I propose is that we take 12-tone out of the "Great Monuments of Western Music" bag, and put it in the "Curious Dead-ends of Music History" bag. That way, when you get a bright senior or grad student who's already absorbed Partch, Messiaen, Bartok, Cage, et al, you can say, "Hey, wanna see something else? Look at this crazy Webern Symphony with the double canon in the first movement. Isn't that wild? And this obsessive Babbitt Post-Partitions, built on a 'super-array' with every pitch having its own dynamic? Pretty whacked out stuff, eh?" That way we can talk about 12-tone music as an interesting kind of fixation that composers got themselves into, the way we talk about the rhythmically complex music that happened at the court of Avignon from 1400 to 1418. I'd feel so much better about Schoenberg if his reputation were like that of the other 12-tone inventor, Josef Matthias Hauer, whose music I love studying because it's truly peculiar, and no one pretends it's terribly important.

Why change the narrative? Because education is to some extent, if not entirely, a free market, and the educator is in part a salesman for culture. My students are incredibly open-minded. I can sell them loads of weird stuff. I can play Schoenberg's pre-12-tone Erwartung, talk about Viennese angst and hallucinations, and they're fascinated. They fall, of course, for Le Sacre du Printemps at first hearing, no pleading necessary on my part. I've never played Carl Ruggles's massively dissonant Sun-Treader without at least one student asking for a copy. They find Harry Partch a blast, personally and theoretically. Berio's Sinfonia blows them away, guaranteed; ditto, Quartet for the End of Time. They even get a kick out of Gruppen for its aspects that are not directly 12-tone-related: the echoes between crescendoing brass from different orchestras, the quirky solos for guitar.

What I can't sell them, what I've never been able to sell them in 16 years, is the idea of 12-tone technique as a method that justifies anything. Webern they almost invariably find cold and precious. The idea that someone came up with a method and everyone else followed it strikes them as ominous, and rightly so. The day Schoenberg devised his first 12-tone row, he wrote in his diary, "Today I have discovered something that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." That impulse puts a taint for them on the subsequent history of 12-tone music, as indeed it does for me.

Now of course I never lead with the 12-tone row - I start analyzing Webern or Schoenberg they way you'd analyze any music, looking for germinal ideas, repetitions, similarities. But inevitably some bright boy pipes up, "Is this 12-tone?," and what am I suppose to say? Lie? And while I do have some affection for Webern's music, when I start to analyze what that affection consists of, it has a lot to do with having learned it so well in my youth, and having honed my analytical skills on it. I don't listen to Webern's music for pleasure, and my opinion has slid downward with each passing year, partly via an accumulation of students' disenchanted reactions. It's become more difficult for me to make a case for its beauty, which has not happened with any other music. The 12-tone pieces that do possess immediate appeal - Stravinsky's Threni and Requiem Canticles, for instance - are usually so atypical as to almost constitute a separate genre. One feels instinctively that they are great pieces despite their use of 12-tone technique, not because of it - and once you admit that, how do you present 12-tone technique sympathetically?

For instance: In Dallapiccola's Piccola Musica Notturna, the second row statement begins with E and the third ends with E. In between, Dallapiccola reiterates and dwells on row fragments in a languorous, non-Schoenbergian manner. The result is, about 12 slow measures go by in which the pitch E doesn't appear, and then, when the orchestra suddenly hits a unison E after a short pause, it has a fresh, invigorating effect that is rare in 12-tone music. But if you have to torture and subvert a technique that much to make it yield an effect so modestly gratifying, what is the use of the technique? The obvious implication is, if Dallapiccola could achieve so much manacled to the 12-tone row, imagine how much he could have achieved freed from it! The composer and the piece are easy to praise, but how do you justify the absurd limitations of the method?

Let those whose feathers are hereby ruffled please humor me by considering one question: why do the Second Vienna School seem to have a privileged position when it comes to feather-ruffling? I could say, I find Copland overrated, or Hindemith, or Varèse, and I'm not going to teach him as though he's very important, and every composer would reply, "Well, to each his own." I know lots of musicians who consider Ives overrated, and I just shrug, even though he's my favorite. Composers are not shy about considering Cage or Phil Glass overrated. But when someone considers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg overrated, there's an outcry, as though some pact with the profession has been betrayed, as though when I signed up to be a composer I signed a paper pledging to stand fast with my colleagues against the concertgoing public on those three cases. To find Schoenberg overrated isn't allowed. It's too threatening to the profession somehow, and this fact in itself leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why is that opinion more heinous to my fellow composers than any other I could express? Unless, maybe - and I'm just speculating here - I've tapped into some guilty, unconscious self-deception on their part? Just asking.

As David Mamet says concerning Stanislavsky technique in Some Freaks (and I paraphrase because I can't put my hands on the book right now), "Whenever a method is claimed by its adherents to be the only and universal and eternal method, you can be sure that that method doesn't work." Or Feldman:

In art, it is the system itself that holds out the false promise, that deceives. We might almost say that art is in pain, because it is unable to believe this deception is taking place. The artist feels his work is going badly because he is not reaching technical perfection. Actually, he is looking into the eyes of a deceiver, who constantly throws him back into the dilemma - the paradox. Is it lying to me or not, he asks himself. He ends by believing the lie, in the face of all evidence against it, because he needs this lie to exist in his art.

In other words, now that 12-tone music's promise to create a new, enduring musical language has been revealed to be a hoax to all but the most blinkered cultist, how do we honestly promote to students the few 12-tone pieces for which we've learned to feel some affection?

AFTERTHOUGHT: Perhaps by adding the Dallapiccola example I've answered my own question, and perhaps this will be my last written word on this weary subject (one can only hope). Maybe the value of 12-tone method for certain composers is its extreme limitation, which if understood that way can inspire creativity against obstacles, like writing an augmentation canon, or a novel that doesn't use the letter "e." The rhetoric of 12-tone music claimed to offer something: unity, organicism, consistency. Instead, it denies something, and only the composer clever enough to outwit it can make anything of it. That deposes 12-tone technique from the level of an analogue for tonality to the level of a technical device, like a canon, and while canons are fascinating (I collect them), they are not considered one of the major musical genres. They are valued not because they are often great music, but for what they achieve despite absurd limitations. (I'll anticipate you: Nancarrow's canons are often great music, but his aren't particularly rule-based.) I've been teaching 12-tone music as a language, and perhaps it's more aptly treated as a technical genre, like canon, fugue, passacaglia - which is just the slighter position I wanted for it, and justifies teaching only the exceptional examples, not the normative ones.

UPDATE: I found the David Mamet quote I wanted, on page 71 of Some Freaks:

We may assume that a school of thought is useless when it is universally accepted as being the only and exclusive possessor of truth.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

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