I had an interesting conversation with composer John Halle at a party last night. We were talking about how difficult it is to get information from books and articles about how certain serialist works were written. In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well, we agreed, it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself. Personally, I am far more pragmatic: in my book on Nancarrow I gave as much information as I could ferret out about how the pieces were written, exposing every process to public scrutiny. And I was told by a third party that György Ligeti considered my Nancarrow book “too American.” Lately I’ve been trying to get information, for my 12-tone class, about how Stockhausen mapped the row of Mantra onto various “synthetic” scales, and all I find is a quote from Stockhausen about how he dislikes explanation because it “takes away the mystery.” Well, taking away the mystery is precisely what I’m trying to do, to empower my young composers and show them that there are no secrets out there that they can’t use. Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices. Every time I write a microtonal piece I put the scale and the MIDI score on the internet, to make sure I withhold no secrets from those who might be interested. Perhaps it’s a foolish career move. But for me the power of the music is in the sound itself, not in the mystification one creates by keeping the generative processes of inscrutable music secret.
I will add that for Berio’s Sinfonia I used David Osmond-Smith’s Playing on Words: A Guide to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. It’s a little ponderously written, but ultimately fairly clear, with charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece. Best of all, it identifies every musical quotation in the third movement by measure and instrument. Such forthright accounts for this repertoire are rare. And why? Afraid the hoi polloi might get in on the action?