The Trouble with Serialism

Though I’ve done it in other cases, I see little point in posting the keynote address I delivered yesterday for Sacramento State’s 31st (!) annual new-music festival. The bulk of my spiel, about why the so-called American maverick composers aren’t really loners but a pretty tightly-knit group, was sewn together from bits of material already available on this blog. But toward the end I changed subject and addressed another issue that’s been on my mind lately, and I’ve been meaning to bring it up anyway. So I’ve adapted and expanded it for the virtual print medium, and I’ll add some afterthoughts at the end: 

Many composers come into music through the world of 19th-century music, and most music schools put a pretty strong focus on Romanticism, and there’s one aspect of Romanticism that survived through all the vicissitudes of 20th century style change pretty much intact: many, many composers aim in their music for a kind of organic emotional curve whereby the music spends most of its time either crescendoing or decrescendoing in intensity, with some sense of climax and often resolution, often symbolized by increasing dissonance or complexity. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, and it describes a lot of great music. But if there is a privileged paradigm that subconsciously represents normalcy to many musicians, this is how I would characterize it. The deliberate avoidance of this paradigm, the rejection of its premises, is one of the sins committed by the so-called “American Maverick” composers (Cage, Harrison, Young, Tenney) and continued by many of us, their faux maverick acolytes.  
One realizes that many classical musicians cannot understand music outside this paradigm by the criticisms they make of maverick music. Cage’s quiet, diatonic music of the late 1940s, like In a Landscape and Dream, gets dismissed in classical music quarters as mere “doodling.” Lou Harrison’s music is called aimless; it is said that it lacks a sense of urgency. Morton Feldman’s music is often considered boring, as is early minimalist music. I am proud to have joined this tradition when one of my CDs was reviewed as being “a little bit Zen for [the reviewer’s] taste.”  
I’ve been reading the autobioghraphy of Daisetz Suzuki, and I just ran across a traditional story of two monks, Baso and his student Hyakujo. Baso sees a flock of wild geese flying through the sky, and asks “What are they?” 
“They are wild geese, Master,” answers Hyakujo. 
Baso asked again, “Whither are they flying?” 
“They are all gone now,” answers Hyakujo.  
Baso turns to Hyakujo and painfully twists his nose, and then asks, “Are they really gone?” And Hyakujo suddenly achieves satori. 
Suzuki explains: 

The Hyakujo now crying, now laughing, does not lose sight of the Absolute Present. Before his satori his crying or laughing was not a pure act. It was always mixed with something else. His unconscious conciousness of time urged him to look forward, if not thinking of the past. As the result, he was vexed with a feeling of tension, which is unnecessarily exhausting. (A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered, p. 41)

Suzuki goes on to criticize serialism – and I love this, because of course Suzuki isn’t talking about 12-tone music, but rather uses the word serialism to describe the state of mind that lies outside the Absolute Present – that is immersed in the ordered series of events that constitute linear time. It’s the state of mind in which “We regret the past and worry about the future… The future and past overlay the present and suffocate it.”

“A feeling of tension, which is unnecessarily exhausting,” is precisely what I try to escape in my best music. The most accurate way to describe it, based on the way it feels to me while composing, is the avoidance of musical karma. Of course sometimes my music increases in intensity and heads for a climax, and when it does so I have to time the climax well and lead to it smoothly, and make sure the effect isn’t mitigated by extraneous elements. It’s a matter of skill. It also imposes a certain feeling of obligation on the composing process. And I find as the years go by that I enjoy composing more when I can feel that what I’m writing in measure 185 doesn’t commit me to writing anything particular in measure 202. I might suddenly want to take a left turn. I might be writing in B-flat, and suddenly think, “I think now I’ll switch to A-flat.” I love the description Feldman gave of his First (?) String Quartet, in which at one point he just suddenly decided to quote a Webern tone row in the violin – he wanted “a moment of symmetry.” Later in the piece he threw in the retrograde. 

To many composers, the determination to avoid creating a feeling of tension may seem absolutely crazy. But Cage’s chance music, the sensuous early minimalism of Harold Budd, Peter Garland’s never-repeating melodies that all lie within a few never-changing triads, Brian Eno’s ambient music, are all attempts to capture an Absolute Present, in which the sounds of the moment are not suffocated by the future or the past. This is a very different music from the more traditional classical attempt to draw a metaphor for an emotional experience. When composing a metaphor for human emotions, the skill of the music is judged by whether the climax is reached effectively and at the right moment, whether the emotional curve is smooth, motivated, and convincing. For many traditional composers, all these signs of competence are paramount, and the composer who does not exhibit skill in them is “not serious,” of no importance.

The assumption is that, conversely, to capture an Absolute Present requires no skill. This is untrue, though perhaps in context skill is not the right word for what’s needed. I find that keeping my music centered in every measure, free from the implications of what has come before and not accumulating any musical karma toward what will come after, is an enormously absorbing balancing act – and withal a tremendous pleasure. Boredom and pointlessness can legitimately ensue, and keeping the thread without a long-term throughline requires concentration. And so, for instance, my piece Kierkegaard, Walking (played at the festival here last night and this Sunday) moves from one thing to the next without any causality. The texture might continue and the key quietly change, or a ripple of triplet 16ths might suddenly enliven the momentum for a moment. The piece does contain passages that crescendo to high points – but the high points aren’t real climaxes, because afterward the music goes on to something else unrelated, so the climaxes are really representations of climaxes, not metaphors for an emotional process. One could say that the little moments of heightened emotion are ironic, or, more accurately, that the music remains detached from them. They may be analogues for the pain Hyakujo felt when his nose was twisted, but they are divorced from any sense of before and after. 

[In fact, entre nous, it’s seeming more and more to me that the perfect compositional model is the psychotherapy session. In therapy, you just start talking about what’s on your mind, and wander anywhere you want through free association. But anyone who’s been in therapy will tell you – I gather this is universal – that every therapy session ends up having a theme, often one that is unintentionally announced in the opening sentences. You think you’re just chatting at random, but as you go it becomes clear that the entire session is really about just one topic, explored on many levels and through deceptively unrelated-seeming metaphors. Sort of like blogging, except that in blogging the mind retains too much conscious control.]

What I’m saying is that this flatness, this charge of boredom leveled at many of the maverick composers and their quasi-maverick acolytes, is a common feature of that musical world from which the mavericks emerge. I don’t compose music that way because I’m from Texas and a tough hombre who can’t be bothered to write mainstream music and I’m one of those outlaws who touch ladies deep down in their souls. I write it because I picked up that musical paradigm early in life from Erik Satie and John Cage and Morton Feldman and Harold Budd and John Luther Adams and I dearly treasure it. It doesn’t make me a maverick, neither does it make me, in itself, incompetent. It makes me rather typical of a different musical world which is now evident in the new pluralism that contains both it and what we used to call the classical European mainstream. There is plenty of room in that pluralism for music that acts as emotional metaphor, and also music that seeks an Absolute Present.


[He-he – gave you a pretty good sucker punch with that headline, didn’t I?]

Now, obviously I am not presenting alarmingly new thoughts here. When I was in college, and Cage’s influence was still fairly novel, we young composers discussed exactly this issue of the Eternal Musical Present among ourselves and in academic forums. People wrote about it over the years, and the climax of attention came with Jonathan Kramer’s fantastic book The Time of Music, which has never received enough attention. I admit, though, that I haven’t heard it discussed in many years, and that may well be because I teach at a kind of Uptown bastion where the agenda gets set by Grawemeyer Award winners. The Time of Music has been out of print for many years. Perhaps this issue of divergent experiences of musical time is more taken for granted than I realize, but it is my experience, and that of many colleagues, that it never hurts to re-present what seems like old news to yourself to the new generation that may well have never gotten wind of it from anywhere else.

The thing is, Cage’s music and writings advocated for a different experience of musical time. A lot of people didn’t buy it. Then minimalism came along and made some of those Absolute Present ideas a little more seductive. My generation got into Drumming, and early Glass, and those slowly evolving Phill Niblock drones, and a whole new repertoire emerged – but mostly underground. Publicly, the New Romanticism came along, the classical musicians sighed with relief when John Adams and Louis Andriessen diverted the minimalist impulse back into more acceptably entertaining channels, and orchestral life returned to normal. So I think it might not be simple insularity on my part, or my chronic paranoia, to assume that the idea of music existing in a kind of timelessness is a less familiar idea now than it was in the oh-so-liberal-and-never-to-cease-being-regretted Golden Days of my youth.

In the meantime, the repertoire of unconventionally nonlinear music has vastly expanded. It’s easier to recognize now what could have been more obvious then, that pieces like Satie’s Socrate represented a vivid precedent for what Cage brought to the surface. I had a student sing Socrate a couple of years ago, and was amazed when a couple of my colleagues admitted that they found it pointlessly boring. And in Morton Feldman, Phill Niblock, John Luther Adams, Meredith Monk, Arvo Pärt, and quite a few others, the music of the Absolute Present – and I’m not going to take the responsibility for coming up with a term for it this time – has its major figures, its unignorable repertoire. It has thousands and thousands of fans who would be bored stiff listening to Brahms or Bartok or John Corigliano. It has its defenders in the public world. It needs, perhaps, more advocates within academia, so that young musicians drawn to it are not discouraged and confused by the uncomprehending faculty – whose effect overall, I think, is to keep the academic music world pointlessly alienated from a seminal musical tradition whose importance will only increase.


  1. says

    I’m particularly taken with your analogy to the therapy session as that seems to describe pretty well how I have always written music, yet I’m someone who works decidedly in the mainstream to which the “doodlers” seem to be estranged (especially, as you say, in academia). It is one thing for academia to come to embrace this process as it relates to “doodling”; it may be quite another for them to come to embrace this process as it relates to the music they already teach. That, I think, may be just as important, but ultimately more elusive.

  2. says

    Interesting article thanks, I have a couple of points/questions (sorry).
    Twelve tone serialism is not necessarily a linear art in perceptual terms, i.e. many listeners experience a suspension of normal harmonic implication or tension and release, the ‘being and going’ as Lansky calls it (he wrote an essay on that topic, it’s online somewhere).
    Think of Webern’s Op21 (1st movement) or Boulez’s Douze Notations (e.g. no1, and no5). The row seems to function as a means of neutralising the harmony (a term Ligeti uses for some of his harmony also I seem to recall).
    Tension and release or the varying of intensity or whatever you want to call it could be introduced by other means: e.g. Ligeti’s Atmospheres, no clear harmonic sense of closure to my ears, but a narrative is achieved via gesture, dynamics and timbre and so on.
    However this is not necessary or generally the case with twelve tone serial music and I think in the two pieces I mentioned first (the Webern and Boulez) have a static quality which is in part achieved via a series.
    I agree with the idea that linear or serial time is the enemy of this ‘absolute present’ concept, all I am suggesting is that ironically or paradoxically the twelve tone is row is sometimes used or experienced as a means of methodically removing the relationship of tones to one another (by using them all equally, more or less). We don’t hear it as serial time.
    This is of course one criticism of twelve tone serial harmony (it ‘goes nowhere’).
    If the series was shorter (e.g. 5 tones) then the argument would make more sense, we as listeners could keep track of those pitches and experience this linear/serial time (tonal harmony is probably the best at this linear narrative, or ‘being and going’, in that sense a tonally organised twelve tone row with triads etc could do the job, e.g. Berg).
    Final point, the argument that an emotional curve can be contrasted with an unemotional ‘absolute present’ (by implication) is a bit misleading perhaps, calm is an emotion too, it could be said humans cannot escape emotion, we are always in one state or another (unless we are dead/comatose or something).
    In general though I agree that a more static (?) sort of music is not appreciated enough or not well understood enough in or outside of academia (in the West anyway, not sure about other cultures).
    It seems to present something of a challenge to conventional post-romantic thinking as you suggest, whereas the two approaches should (and do for many) complement and inform each other.
    KG replies: We’re in complete agreement. In fact, I think serialism (standard definition, not Suzuki’s) ushered in some interesting new formal paradigms (especially in Europe), and when everyone lost faith in the 12-tone language, the kind of post-Romantic emotional curve paradigm was one of the things many American composers fell back on. In general, 12-tone music seemed more big-c Classic than big-R Romantic, since internal coherence of the musical language usually trumped any more programmatic concerns. I really have the New Romantics and especially their semi-atonal middle-of-the-road ilk in mind, not whatever 12-tone holdouts are still out there. And I would hate for my own music to be considered unemotional. The point isn’t that we can or should escape emotion, but that music need not be structured according to the increase and resolution of tension that parallels a difficult emotional situation. I have known composition teachers whose main focus is on the “realistic” shaping of transitions and climaxes. Then a student wants to write a nice, flat, meditative piece, and they can’t deal with it.
    Or to put it as bluntly as possible, I’m just frickin’ sick and tired of modern pieces that are constantly building up tension and going somewhere, and never sitting on a good idea long enough to let you enjoy it.

  3. says

    I’m on a big Christopher Small kick and might as well continue that here: I just finished reading “Music, Society, Education,” in which he talks about how the scientific world view has dominated music, resulting in this kind of goal-oriented, progress-obsessed music that has had less than positive repercussions in the rest of society. If you haven’t read anything by him, Kyle, I think you’d find a kindred spirit.
    KG replies: Yeah, I read Musicking a few years ago, liked it, and should look into it again. He’s definitely a well-grounded musical intelligence.