Don’t Need No Hateration

Here’s more evidence of the campaign to oust atonality from the concert music scene. Bernard Holland reviews a concert of new piano music at Greenwich House. He writes:

…something seemed to be whispering in my ear that the Dark Ages of postwar atonality were over and tentative reconnections to the past were under way.

To call post-war atonality “the Dark Ages” is so entirely retarded, I’m beside myself. If anything, post-war serialism (which is probably what he really means to target), exposed more light on what music was, is and can be, and was nothing short of a cultural revelation. Post-war atonality made today’s taste for oblique tonality possible. It’s like women today who disparage the hard-core feminists of the 60s and 70s, even though today’s women are reaping the benefits that those unsightly, nail-spitting bull-dykes risked social derision to gain.

And, to evoke the spirit of one of my favorite hard-core feminists, Susan Sontag, to use military metaphors to excite the aesthetic politics of music–Holland writes, “The 20th century liked to use the piano as an assault weapon”–is morally irresponsible.

Can the haters of atonal music please get a grip and stop practicing this kind of retroactive snobbery? Atonality and serialism are not inherently “dark”, nor do they service militaristic metaphors, particularly since most of the music that is written for militaristic purposes is strictly tonal and generally written in major keys.

If we’re truly living in an age of open eclecticism, then let’s be just, and take atonality for what it really offers: a method for achieving alternative musical expression.



  1. spot-on rant.

  2. What is positive about modernist trends having perhaps less influence in art music circles these days is that it seems more possible to give fuller attention to the glories that were so often missed in the 60s and 70s. I find my attention is less and less engaged by Davidovsky, Stockhausen and their contemporary cousins in the new complexity world because I’m so busy being intrigued by the melodic and emotional frankness in Tom Waits or New Buffalo. I feel like a lot of time was wasted studying modernist scores in my undergrad years when I could have been looking at what’s really going on with engaging people on levels that are connected with genuine, not Esparanto-like invented, musical perceptions and communications.

  3. Bravo!!

  4. Great rant, and excellent comment by Robert Davidson, above (even if I don’t quite agree with all of it). I was at that same concert, by the way, and was quite energized by the stylistic diversity that Joe Rubenstein (the “Keys” curator) encouraged.

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    I agree, Robert, that the conservatories can be closed off to “the present” of music, that is, what’s actually getting performed and what’s really contemporary.

    But I still feel that right now, atonality needs a public defense. Critics shape public opinion. And it seems more and more that critics are basically saying atonality (as the twentieth century defined it) is not only passe (and possibly irrelevant), but that even its historical importance should be retracted, and we can all breathe easy (“a sigh of relief” as B. Ho. put it) now that all of that nonsense is over and done with.

    There’s also this curious phrase that keeps popping up: “looking back.” Alex Ross used it in his Charlie Rose interview. And B. Ho. claims “tentative connections to the past are underway.” I mean, Schoenberg’s “Three Piano Pieces” were written in 1909. That’s like a hundred years ago! That’s past, isn’t it?

    The main thing I would like to communicate is that atonality can always be useful, and there can be as many approaches to it as there are composers who attempt to venture into the waters. Now that, as I have been writing on this site, we can see atonality as an ever-present alternative to the pandemic cultural practice of musical diatonicism, then we should be able to free atonality from even its own history, which positioned it as some kind of terminus at the end of the long, exasperating journey through chromatic innovation.

    It’s also frustrating when critics claim not to be taste-making, when they’re really just making the new taste; and the taste is against atonality.

  6. Hi, found your place via Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s The Rambler. I love what I call The Real Three B’s: Berg, Boulez and Birtwistle. :-)

    “I could have been looking at what’s really going on with engaging people on levels that are connected with genuine, not Esparanto-like invented, musical perceptions and communications”

    Ah, the old “serialism is just math exercises” trope. “Genuine musical perceptions” huh? So, tonality doesn’t have rules, it’s just *there*? Of course not! Western tonality is just as rigid and hidebound as serialism ever was, it’s just as “invented” as the 12-tone method –other cultures have other methods– it’s just a different way of organizing a musical argument.

    “even its historical importance should be retracted, and we can all breathe easy (”a sigh of relief” as B. Ho. put it) now that all of that nonsense is over and done with.”

    Sorry, B. Ho. –heh heh heh he’s a ho heh heh heh– it’s here to stay, it’s not going anywhere, it’s an infinitely muteable compositional tool, from Britten using it to underpin the Screw theme in his incredible “Turn of the Screw” to Babbit’s total serialism.

    My first exposure to serialism (which is distinct from atonality, of course) was via my favorite rock band, ELP. They did an adaptation of a movement from Ginastera’s first piano concerto, written in the 12-tone style. I heard that in 1974 and about a year later, I was able to track down an LP of the Ginastera piece. It made no sense to me, but I stuck with it. Now, 30 years later, after so much time spent listening to Schoenberg, Berg, Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter, Birtwistle and on and on, serialism is as “normal” to me as tonality.

    I heard Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Insomnia” at a LA Phil concert last week, it was the first time I heard the piece, which is written in a conservative modernist style. Just by listening intently, I was able to grasp the form, the basic rhythmic process and some of the harmonic strains with a single listen. It’s not hard, it just takes immersion and patience.

    Love your blog, lot’s to explore!

  7. I don’t agree that tonality (if you’re defining that word as the major-minor system of Monteverdi-through-Wagner) is as invented as serialism, hence my comparison of the latter with Esperanto. I think music perception studies are bearing this out – that there are evolutionarily-endowed cognitive constraints on our musical perception that make something like serialism less fitted to our intuitions than raga, medieval modes, slendro and pelog, Zambian pentatonic melodies etc etc – William Thomson has written quite persuasively and extensively on this in “Tonality in Music: a generative theory”. I think the recent breakthroughs in evolutionary, cognitive and empirical approaches to musicology (for example, Laurel Trainor’s work with music acquisition, or Ani Patel’s recent book on music/language crossover in cognition and structure) are making harder to swallow the idea that musical cultures are just arbitrary inventions. An exception is the atonal approaches of modernism, as they proceeded directly from this assumption, and consciously worked against the perceived tyranny of “naturally” evolved musical systems as mere invention.

  8. Nice comments!

    As it’s generally taught, the principles of diatonic harmony have origins within the natural acoustics of universal physics. But the specific theoretical regulations of major/minor tonality as defined by the Common Practice Era, are similar to rules that govern strict atonality, since both make efforts to reign in the natural tendencies that music based on the tonal content of the harmonic sequence exhibits. We should also keep in mind that the harmonic series does not outline a single perfect major triad, but rather a complex, chromatic variation on a tetrad (also known as a dominant seventh chord: major triad with a diminished 7th degree added). Even nature, it seems, prefers chromaticism.

    Also, methods of tuning/intonation have evolved over the centuries, so what we identify today as naturally “in tune” is really manipulated to satisfy contemporary taste. The tuning Bach used was quite different than ours today.

    But to separate out atonal music as somehow something of a different thing altogether, that is, unnatural, isn’t accurate. There is noise in the universe. There are bird calls and barks and meows and neighs that resemble chord clusters and tritones and all kinds of harmonic collections. Organization is organization; and while one may be more appealing (generally), that doesn’t make the other any less natural.

  9. I think it’s mistaken to look to natural acoustics. The real place to find what’s “natural” is to human perceptions and evolutionary constraints (why should we particularly be tuned towards the harmonic series? It has some influence, but the evidence isn’t strong).

    We don’t just eat iron filings for breakfast – we have tastes and proclivities that have evolved. Yes, these can instantiate in ways that vary according to culture (and tunings etc are the window dressing things that do change, like spice combinations), but there are limits that are species-wide. Why should music be any different. It turns out it’s not, and I think that’s why you’ll find that Schoenberg will always be a very acquired taste – it takes a lot more work to integrate more than seven or eight basic categorical pitches.

    Maybe “natural” is the wrong word – atonality is natural sure, but at least in its pitch orientation, it works against default human perceptual tendencies, so it is harder to integrate. That’s why the butcher isn’t whisting Webern. This doesn’t make it less valuable, but it makes it harder work, and for my part, I’d rather be putting that work into music that focuses more on other aspects.

  10. “that make something like serialism less fitted to our intuitions than raga”

    I’m a huge Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan fan, and I guarantee you, having played some of their stuff for friends when we’re not stoned, to *them* there’s no difference between RS & AAK and “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”. All the 1/4 tones, the scales proceeding by 1/2 steps, the drones that aren’t truly centered on a single pitch but have major overtones going on etc. in raga are just as “out there” to them and cause “ah, turn that fucking noise off” reactions just as often.

    “Even nature, it seems, prefers chromaticism”

    Hahahahaha. I think there’s a semantic aspect to this: there’s serialism and then there’s serialism. Take a look at the piano vocal score of “Lulu”, you know what there’s pages and pages of? Augemented and diminished triads, that’s all–Berg used serialism to expand on simple triadic harmony. That’s a whole different kettle o’ fish from the pointillist serialism of “La Marteu sans Maitre”, which Boulez moved very quickly from, because he found that by completely lacking a center and becoming single notes, there was no forward momentum to the music.

    “Also, methods of tuning/intonation have evolved over the centuries, so what we identify today as naturally “in tune” is really manipulated to satisfy contemporary taste.”

    Exactly, the rise of samplers and synthesizers has allowed composers to show how arbitrary the well-tempered tuning is. There’s also the A=440 thing, in Italy in Verdi’s day, there was a decree that it be A=432. I wish it would go back to A=432 (about a tone lower, I think), it would make high C’s less of an adventure for some singers! :-)

    “Organization is organization; and while one may be more appealing (generally), that doesn’t make the other any less natural.”

    Exactly. There’s always this faint undertow of moralizing in the tonality/serialism debates, that tonality is somehow “healthier” for us or something, that I find uncomfortable. To reiterate what I wrote above: I have more recordings of Stockhausen’s “Gruppen” (9) than I do of *anything* by Bach, *shudder* Haydn *shudder*, Schubert, Mozart (a recording each of “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”), Beethoven (the 9th with Bernstein & the VPO), Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner and Brahms and any other composer in that tradition. To MY ears, those composers harmonies sound flat and dull and, well, utterly predictable.

  11. In my experience, the moralising has come much more from people wanting to make us all like serialism, but that’s me.

  12. Hi Robert-

    In the past, yes, that was the case. Maybe understandably, since composers who began writing outside established aesthetics came under harsh public criticism from detractors. It became a knee-jerk trend for atonal composers to defend their work with sweeping moral dogma.

    But I think we have a new generation of composers (a younger generation) who want to use the ideas and aesthetics of atonality and serialism in new ways, without the moral obligation but because we (I’ll go ahead and commit myself) find expressive, artistic and philosophical value in the music itself.

    I don’t think the answer to a century’s worth of divisive rhetoric is to counterbalance it more of the same thing. Like many things in life, people can learn to appreciate and enjoy atonal music, and some may gravitate to it naturally. I don’t see the value in using cognitive research to demean something that’s aesthetic and enjoyable in many ways.

  13. Fair enough – good point. There is definitely gold in them thar hills (though for my ears it tends to be in spite of the pitch games rather than due to them – but there were a lot of incredibly musical people making this stuff).

    Re cognitive research demeaning things – not what I meant to do, really more to clarify things. It does seem to me that modernist dogma has muddied the waters for a long time (I’ll simply cite Pinker’s Blank Slate on this). Yes, we do have a nature, we do have proclivities and tastes, and when one consciously works against those things, don’t expect great results. That’s not demeaning, it’s just seeing things as they are.

  14. What really bugged me about Holland’s article was his being snotty about Elliott Carter. I’ve seen the documentary – “A Labyrinth of Time” – and Carter comes off as wry, ironic and humble.

    Incidentally, these discussions always seem to center on harmony and never on meter or time, and area where common practice music is actually quite weak.


  15. Oh totally. Meter is way important in that sense of disorientation that is often prevalent in modern composition. In the 20th C, when things went “total serial,” harmonic and rhythmic complexity sort of went hand in hand. But they are quite different and can be autonomous.

  16. Yes, see Reich. But metrical complexity doesn’t evoke the same bigotry. But, you know, Bernard Holland is a pretty lame critic and all one has to do is read Slominsky to know twas ever thus.

    Of course, musicians have always liked complexity and difficulty more than their audiences.

    Still, it’s very interesting that Francis Bacon, for example, enjoys general acclaim in the art world, while Schoenberg and his decedents are excoriated. Would the Times publish an art critic who regarded Bacon and Freud as irrelevant mistakes and welcomed the return of Impressionism?

  17. During the height of “postwar atonality,” Schoenberg himself said that “there is still much good music to be written in C major” (just not by him!). And now, in the era of minimalism/post-minimalism, I think it’s time someone said that there’s still plenty of good music to write (and perform, and listen to) in the serialist technique. Great post.

    3 Frequently heard claims about serialist music that really annoy me:
    1) The claim that serialist works are “difficult.” It is certainly challenging in that it asks the listener to step outside the tonal idiom, but it is not necessarily difficult to listen to. One of my friends, hearing serialist music for the first time (in the form of Schoenberg’s Op25 Piano Suite), actually described the music as being “rich, different, and kind of relaxing.” She knew nothing of the musical history or technical process behind the music, but still enjoyed it on its own terms. Ten years ago, I had a similar experience (listening to classical radio at 3 am, when they play all the stuff no one wants to listen to) in which I heard Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op31) and fell in love without knowing quite what I was falling in love with. Perhaps the listener best suited to appreciating serialist music is *not* the listener who approaches the music prepared to deal with and understand “difficult” art; perhaps it is the listener who comes in unprepared, un”warned,” willing to just hear the music.

    2) The claim that serialism can only express dark, chaotic ideas. This is IMO quite plainly contradicted by pieces like the first movement of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto (Op42) or the Dance Scene from the Serenade for Orchestra (Op24).

    3) The claim that the serialist technique is “too mathematical”/”a computer could do it.” Why “mathematical” should be an insult to art is really beyond me (listen to a mathematician speak about the beauty of numbers!). The people making these claims also seem not to realize that a computer could create tonal music too. People who criticize the systematic nature of twelve tone works all too often ignore the systematic nature of tonality. Of course it is a different sort of system — hierarchy in tonality vs equality in serialism (more or less — many serialist works still gravitate towards a central pitch, but in a different manner from that used in tonal works).

    Okay, rant over. But these things really get on my nerves.

  18. And seriously…why does Holland applaud “newfound complexities of altered time-schemes, cross-rhythms and opposing meters” yet breath a sigh of relief at the prospect of turning one’s back on the harmonic complexities of serialism?

    I also hate, HATE, the following turn of phrase in Holland’s article: “I may have been imagining a collective sigh of relief.” It would be one thing if Holland were breathing a personal sigh of relief, but here he’s practically telling us to do so as well with the word “collective.” Maybe he thought he was just being descriptive of the general public’s feelings about serialism, but this sort of pronouncement can easily turn into the worst kind of prescriptive criticism.

    Ugh, I fear that that article has raised my blood pressure a few notches. I should just go to sleep and forget about it….

  19. These are all good points.

    Particularly the charge that the music is too difficult. I mean, has anyone tried to play Liszt recently, or Ravel? Serialist music–as it came to be defined–was difficult in many new ways, yes, but, composers have always had a penchant for complexity. Christ, even take Bach fugues!

    In the end, it really does just come down to aesthetics. People don’t have to like atonality and serialism, but they should respect the valor of the ideas and expressions behind these kinds of music, not derride them for the sake of their own ego, which is what Holland does. But he’s a critic, so, that’s kind of part of the game.

  20. I personally love the complexity in serialist music — recently I’ve been going through in Schoenberg’s Opus 25 looking at the use of the tone row, just for fun, and it’s really gratifying to see the creative ways in which he used it, creating very interesting harmonies by playing the three four-note segments of the row in various permutations and rhythmic configurations on top of each other, etc. It’s the same kind of complexity that draws me to Bach — music which can be enjoyed with no knowledge of the structural complexities, but which is even more enjoyable when one learns a thing or two about those structures.

    What really bothers me about Holland’s bashing of serialism (and you’re right, it is about ego more than anything else) is that he stands in the way of his readers’ ability to enjoy this music. Of course not everyone will like it, and that’s fine — but for critics like Holland to prejudice people against the music before it even has a chance, with phrases like “breathe a collective sigh of relief” and “dark ages of post-war atonality” (which war does he mean, anyway? I’m actually kind of confused about that) is terribly unfair and in a way even immoral. Especially since newspaper criticism is such a one-sided conversation — at least on a blog, the reader can talk back to the critic if he disagrees or feels that another point of view isn’t being represented, but in Holland’s articles Holland has the first and last word on the matter.

    Of course some of the polemics of the likes of Schoenberg and Boulez probably weren’t exactly helpful either, and probably did more harm than good in increasing people’s ability/willingness to like serialist music. But that doesn’t justify an equally negative reaction. If Holland & others just wanted to point out all the good tonal music being written, that would be fine — no need to condemn atonality/pantonality/serialism in order to bring tonal music to light. (An either/or mindset that probably *was* reinforced by aforementioned serialist polemics, to the detriment of the contemporary music scene.)

    Also annoying to me is that people sometimes conflate Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, whose musical styles are incredibly different, and so if someone doesn’t like (for example) Schoenberg, they might not expect to like Webern or Berg either. But serialism is IMO a technique more than a musical genre, and one need look no further than these three to see the diversity of expressive possibilities within that technique. People do a similar thing with minimalism (a musical area I am just beginning to try to explore, after realizing that was holding a prejudiced attitude towards minimalism similar to that I decry in other’s views of serialism) and it’s really unfortunate.

    You know what I would love to see? Something combining serialism & minimalism. It seems difficult but possible….maybe it has been done and I’m just not aware of it.

    Okay, I’m done with my obsessive ramblings on serialism. It’s just something I feel very passionately about :).

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