Notes from Grant’s ‘Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics’

Interesting book attempting to elaborate a serial aesthetics, and a serial listening.

Some main points I’m taking away from it:

  • Rene Leibowitz may have, according to Joseph Rufer, misunderstood Schoenberg, but his own interpretation of the twelve-tone technique shows an important rift between the pre- and post-war modernisms (p. 42): “his existential understanding of the twelve-tone technique, and his belief that athematicism was its true goal” (p. 42). So there is this link between athematicism and a radical freedom: “According to Leibwoitz, in the paraphrased words of Sartre, ‘the art of composition is not protected by the immutable decrees of Providence; it is what people do, they choose it in choosing themselves'” (ibid). This basic idea of a lack of immutable law of music is something that seems to be lost for many composers today. “Leibowitz argued that there is no preceding ‘essence’ in twelve-tone music.” (ibid.)
  • Eimert’s theorisation was also important in this respect, in stressing the freedom of each individual tone, and thus of the act of composition itself, and representing a split within serialism by way of a ‘misreading’ of Schoenberg: “Eimert’s discussion [in Atonal Musiklehre] centres not on Schoenberg’s idea of ‘twelve notes related only to one another, but twelve notes which are ‘beziehungslos‘ (unconnected) and ‘selbstständig‘ (independent): ‘Atonal material is thus not based on a sequence of tones (scale), but on a number of notes (complex), in fact on the greatest possible number of different tones, i.e. the twelve-tone complex.’ This attitude stemmed from Eimert’s belief that music should be grounded on logical rather than natural processes.” (p. 44)
  • More Eimert: “for him, music is ‘natural’ as long as the ear can follow it, and otherwise has no direct correlate in nature.” (p. 45)
  • It was in this sense that electronic music was an important vehicle for and influence on compositional thinking (see pp. 50-60). It allowed the composer to strip everything away and deal with the ‘isolated tone itself. Which is basically to say that any pre-rational, social bonds that form the substance of music itself were dissolved harmony, thematics, etc, even overtone series. The point would be of course that this was the subjective dimension of what was an objective trend: all that is solid melts into air, even in music.
  • Parametric thinking, and serialist thought: “Parametric thinking has often been described as the fundamental principle of serial technique. The term ‘parameter’ derives from mathematical and acoustical discussions; its application to music was probably influenced by Meyer-Eppler, though he was not the first to use it in an artistic context. The serial practice of treating musical objects as divisible, theoretically at least, into the parameters of pitch, rhythm, duration, timbre, has been heavily criticised, since the recombination of the parameters, or the combination of several independently conceived strands, often leads to the original values of the serial organisation being destroyed – as for example when a quiet note in one strand is effectively drowned out by a simultaneous fortissimo in another. But this principle need not be chastised on the grounds of abstraction alone; it is precisely in the working through of such seeming contradictions that serial music finds its character, and the very unpredictability of parametral working is of enormous significance, both aesthetically and aurally, for our understanding of serial music.” (p. 62)
  • Problem with much analysis of serial music: “more often than not, the aesthetic categories which stand behind the serial technique and its adaptation are ignored” (p. 132). And “Most analyses cease at the exact moment where the serial preordering ends, and the piece begins: they deal primarily with the preordered material and only secondarily if at all with those parameters which are not controlled. But there is no such thing as ‘total’ serialism, and these other parameters are frequently those which make or break a serial work” (ibid.)
  • Grant essentially tries to build a serialist aesthetics on a couple interlinked and interesting claims.
    • Firstly is that serial music presents a heightened (and in a sense explicit) version of what happens in all communication: that is the Nattiez model of poietic -> neutral level <- aesthesic. (This, we could say, is a simple result of the process of commodification and alienation).
    • For Grant, this is primarily because serialism has done away so completely with thematism and its capacity to lead a listener through a work. Often the heavy serial working through of pitches and rhythms is less a matter of organisation but one of ‘disorganisation’, a constructed negation of the possibility that thematicism (and more broadly, the expectation-realisation model) may emerge. “Rather than a method of ordering, serial technique thus appears as a method of unordering. It was a method of dissolving particular ties, so that others could come to the fore; its constraint was, not so paradoxically, its freedom.” (pp. 154-155)
    • Serial works are therefore non-teleological. (This was the criticism from Adorno and others about time becoming space in this music). “Serial music is not linear, that is, there is not a logical process of events, rather a field of relations. But neither is it an undifferentiated field – it is not white noise. The important point is the statistical nature of this process, the tendency against the foreseeability of events.” (pp. 158-159)
    • Moreover, there is a degree of chance in how different parametric layers will interact, and parameters outside the ‘primary’ ones, often take priority in listening.
    • Hence, the aleatoric ‘turn’ (the ‘open form’ works) that serialism took in the late 50s and 60s, supposedly due to the intervention of Cage, was in fact the outgrowth of the essential condition of serialism itself. “It is in this sense that the ‘contradiction’ of serial and open form is invalid: serial form per se is open form” (p. 159)
    • Serial listening, then, is active, not passive, and always partial, and never a mere matter of reconstructing the ‘intentions’ of the composer, or following some ‘essential’ logic in the score. “This depends on realising that the relationship between working method and audible result is discrete rather than direct, and this is exactly where most analyses of serial music get into difficulties” (p. 155).
  • Threads: In responding to Xenakis’s criticism of serial polyphony (i.e. that it exists only as theory, and not as result), Stockhausen responded that the answer could be “to remove the voices so completely from their initial voice-function – their ‘register’ – that they simply become inextricable threads in a net; and this net can of necessity be heard only as such and as a whole [my emphasis…], not as an addition of voices. If such polyrhythmic complexes become ramified to the extent that a ‘pointillist’ hearing of the individual duration relationships must, necessarily, turn into a structuralist hearing, then the serial method deals primarily with such statistical form criteria, with average relations.” (from Die Reihe 3, quoted in Grant, p. 150). Grant notes that this metaphor of threads and nets is precisely the main metaphor in Ligeti’s analysis of Structures 1a. This is for me, hugely significant, insofar as I am interested in both statistical and properly polyphonic (that is, internally dissociated) music.
  • More on statistics, choice and automation: “It goes without saying that composers are always the first receiver of their pieces, and that this reception can influence the way the final form of the piece is composed, as Pousseur’s essay emphasises. But it is not, as a cursory reading of Ligeti’s analysis would suggest, merely a question of decision versus automation, a question which in any case concerns the composer, not the listener. Ligeti’s favourite metaphor in this analysis is the loom: serial threads are inserted into the machinery and woven into larger structures. Here too the order and indeed the observation of individual threads is much less important than the larger structure they create, the importance of individual elements being disproportional [I think Grant means ‘inversely proportional’] to the total number of elements – it is in this sense that point and mass structures are both special cases of statistical music, and ‘mobile’ or ‘open’ form merely special cases of serial form.” (p. 157)