Twelve-Step Programs Revisited

For various reasons I’ve found myself immersed in 12-tone music the last couple of months, and rethinking what it means. Most radically, in Berlin I found two CDs of the music of Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), the Viennese composer who claimed independent credit for having invented 12-tone technique, along with Schoenberg. Hauer is known for having a stamp with which he stamped all his correspondence from 1937 on, calling himself: “The creative originator and (despite many imitators!) still the only authority and expert in the field of 12-tone music.” Hauer was a peculiar creative type. The musicologist H.H. Stuckenschmidt recounts a visit to him, quoted in the liner notes to the Ensemble Avantgarde’s recording of his Zwölftonspiele (12-tone pieces) on MDG. Stuckenschmidt looked through some manuscripts of just-finished works, which Hauer urged him to take home with him:

“Do take it with you if you want to read it,” Hauer said. I did not want to take the responsibility upon myself. “What do you mean?” he wanted to know. “When you’ve read it,” [Hauer explained,] “just throw it away. I write something new every day.”

Listening to the music, you can sort of hear this attitude reflected in it. The pieces are brief – I’ve yet to find a Hauer composition longer than eight minutes, and few are over five – and they resemble each other, as if churned out by a system. Even so, I have to voice the heterodox (or perhaps not so surprising) opinion that, on the average, I find Hauer’s works more attractive than Schoenberg’s. Hauer’s use of 12-tone technique is not really row-oriented. His textures, whether slow, fast, or often both at once on different levels, are somewhat motoric and unvarying, resembling some brands of minimalism in their momentum, and even more presciently resembling postminimalism in their systematic changes of harmony.

Hauer seems to have been very, very, very fond of the major seventh chord (C-E-G-B, for instance), and many of the pieces take it as a starting point. In the only score I have of his, Labyrinthischer Tanz for two pianos (which I copied when Sarah Cahill and Joseph Kubera performed the piece recently at Bard), the piece starts with C-E-G-B chords and then adds a new pitch on each beat, also subtracting one, in the order of the 12-tone row, recycling the row over and over without transposition. The result is, rather than a dissonant and rather abstract rotation of the 12 pitches, a succession of mildly impressionistic harmonies. Hauer’s works are always heavily polyphonic, but the individual lines are constricted and somewhat mechanical, and the changing harmony is the most prominent impression. The result is a then-new kind of texture as innovative as Webern’s (whose works were equally brief), and palpably more pleasant. I’d been intrigued by Hauer ever since Charles Amirkhanian played me a rare tape of his music in 1982, and given today’s postminimal idioms, his music, if undeniably modest in its ambitions, seems nevertheless more relevant than ever – perhaps due for a major rediscovery.

My other most intense 12-tone activity has been analysing what I think of as the most perfect and satisfying 12-tone composition, Luigi Dallapiccola’s little-known Piccola Music Notturna (“A Little Night Music” – cute, huh?). Dallapiccola (1904-1975) developed a method of proceeding through the row in slow increments and almost minimalistically: playing the first three notes, repeating them and adding the fourth, repeating notes 2 through 4 and adding the fifth, and so on, so that it might take as many as five, seven, ten measures to complete one statement of the row. In addition, he would sustain out certain notes of the row to slowly build up drone-like harmonies that often had nothing to do with contiguous notes of the row: 12-tone music played with the sostenuto pedal, so to speak. It allows him to achieve effects of harmonic subtlety that are pretty rare in 12-tone music. For instance, in Piccola Music Notturna the second row statement starts with the pitch E and the third ends with E. There are 12 measures in between, and when he gets to the end of the third row, much of the orchestra comes in strongly on that E, which gains a certain freshness from not having been heard in awhile. Atmosphere is a quality that 12-tone technique generally militates against, and Piccola Music Notturna is uncharacteristically dripping in atmosphere. (I’ve often thought that the Italians – Dallapiccola, Maderna, Berio, Nono – found much better ways to make the 12-tone idea effective than any of the Germans or French did.)

And if you were to cross Hauer’s harmonic textural technique with Dallapiccola’s additive note technique, you might come up with something like the final movement of Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, which slowly builds up a 12-tone row over some ten minutes.

I’ve never written a 12-tone piece. I tried many times in my youth, and just couldn’t complete one. I felt exactly as John Cage did, who complained, “You run up and down that row matrix like a rat caught in a trap.” But I’ve always felt that Schoenberg started the 12-tone language off totally on the wrong foot, and that there must be some interesting way to make it work. Hauer’s music was just too radical for his lifetime: the 1930s and ’40s must have found his rhythmic momentum and textural consistency bizarre, though after minimalism they begin to sound charming. And by the time Dallapiccola developed his own 12-tone usage, the serialists were set to take the style off in another direction, so Dallapiccola’s idea fell by the wayside (except perhaps in the work of his student George Rochberg). I don’t find the premises of 12-tone music very promising, but perhaps we’re due, today, for a revisionist history that might discover its more provocative features and make it inherently alluring, instead of presenting it as a dutiful, even fascistic historical mandate.