Conversation on Schonberg and 12 Tone Music with Mark Gould

Journal entries by composer and pianist Laurie Conrad

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Conversation on Schonberg and 12 Tone Music with Mark Gould

Post by figaro » Sun Mar 16, 2008 6:40 am


Conversation on Schonberg and 12 Tone Music/ Mark Gould Responds: A Composer’s Journal: December 2-10, 2007

Sunday, December 2

Wrote Mark Gould:

Hello dear Mark! I was rereading an old e-mail of yours, and just had to respond. Hoping it will further some discussion:

You wrote: "One passing comment - Schoenberg was always stressing the equality of the twelve notes, but, so far as I can tell, no theorist has been able to prove that such an equality exists."

Perhaps not within the modes or scales, certainly not ... But isolated from a modality or tonality, from a modal or tonal center: of course all tones are equal! To write music with all notes equal, is another thing. I am not sure that it is possible. Or even a true goal. However: there is a sound one can achieve with twelve- tone music that does not exist in any other musical framework.

It’s snowing here!

Best to you, in all your endeavors

Monday, December 10

Received an e-mail response from Mark Gould today. As usual, I have added my comments:

Mark: Hello Laurie,

So glad to hear from you in these darkening winter days.

This year has been a bit of a struggle - mostly with moving, and with settling in a new place. Creatively, it has been a challenge to get myself used to a new environment for writing. Painting has not continued either - but I think I might shelve that till the new year.

Work prevents me from giving my full attention to matters musical, but I have given some thought to your question about what other topics might be of interest to the twelve-note composer. I have directed my comments more generally this time, not to be impersonal, but rather to put some ideas forward. So many books I have read on twelve-note music divide into earnest texts for a student, or are aimed at those with a developed theoretical skill. Too often the notes are lost in a haze of abstract relationships that everything to do with mathematics but little to do with the actual 'sounds' that they represent. Sometimes, I think there should be a good simple book on twelve note music - one that introduces both the music and the compositional ideas behind it - but in the manner of a proper 'guide'. Instead of presuming a great deal, this book would lead a 'young' reader onwards, developing their aural skills at the same time as developing their abilities to discern and use patterns in note groups. In effect a proper composing manual. So much theory is presented as arcane mystery, and contemporary journals do nothing to dispel this aura, which in turn further dissuades both listeners and interested musicians from pursuing their own curiosity.

LC: Well said, dear Mark - and I would like to see such a manual. I agree, music is first and foremost sound and moving voices. The rest should be left to the theorists, and after the piece is written ... Even though the innate joy of working with a 12 tone row - or a scale or mode - is how we use the row, or scale or mode, in innovative or transforming ways: that creativity or genius means little if the end result is unlistenable or aurally incomprehensible. Chaotic. The greatest works, and the ones that have survived, contain a balance and a beauty based on natural laws, both musical laws and natural laws. It is the composer’s job to fit their musical ideas within these laws - and yet only the ear can truly bring us there. For the simple reason that the laws of music must be discovered, they are hidden from us - a Mystery. I think 12 tone, as a form in itself, and atonal music, at their highest, can come close to approximating the music of manifestation, of Life itself - if not also the unseen and unheard laws of the universe. In these discussions, we have spoken of tonality as both representing and unfolding the natural law of the overtone series, of the earth itself. But in atonality, or 12 tone, the composer has an opportunity to represent or approximate the coming together of sounds - both heard or unheard - that surround us on this earth. The myriad birds that sing, the pitches of the falls and rivers and streams; the pitches of the countless insects’ wings and songs; the hum of the refrigerator and pitches of the cars on the pavement; and the more mystical pitches and perhaps songs that every living being carries within them, embedded in the soul. If we think of the birds in Nature: they have their fixed songs and pitches, songs and pitches and rhythms that overlap and intertwine - yet these sounds are so sweet, so beautiful, even when at their most intense and chaotic. For all the aural chaos on a spring or summer day in the woods - there is still an order and a natural beauty to that musical and atonal chaos. Is it because the birds themselves are weaving an order that we cannot comprehend; is it that their fixed songs and pitches are enough to create a musical order and whole; or is it that each bird is saying something very important to them. Either as a true expression of joy - or fear or concern... Now I wonder if any scientist or musician has every studied the bird songs in terms of overall harmonies - not just within each song, but if all bird songs are compared and superimposed onto every other song. That would be a most interesting study. And might give composers insight ... It can be a cacophony, the birds on a summer’s afternoon - but why is it so overwhelmingly intricate, haphazard - yet so beautiful ... That is one question I have asked myself, over and over again ...

Mark: We have covered a lot of ground in relation to the twelve notes and the way it interacts with our perception of tonality. Beyond that, lies a vast area of musical land, largely uncharted. Let us take twelve-note harmony, for example.

For any given chord, how might we understand it in the twelve-note context? From moment to moment, a vertical combination of any from two to twelve different notes may occur, with any distribution of those notes in registral space. Not only do we have a problem of classification, but also a problem with connection. And this is only in relation to stating one row at a time. Suppose two rows are being used at once - polyphonically - how might we understand chords, possibly derived from differing numbers of notes from each row?

Some theoretical studies have indicated that so long as the chord can be found 'within the row', then that does not violate Schoenberg's postulates for his method. Others have suggested that inversional symmetry has a strong part to play - coupling a row with an inversion and deriving harmonic elements from one row in combination with melodic material from the other row. This includes distinctly complex schemes, such as those to be found in Babbitt's work (All Set) where a special row is used because it has the property of combining with transpositions and inversions in equal measure to produce a twelve- part texture where every part is a row and every vertical 'slice' through the music is also a series (i.e. like a hocket, passing from note to note). Of course, one could argue that these are mere displays of 'technical virtuosity' rather than 'musical creativity'.

But still this leaves both questions unanswered. What chords are contained in a row, and how might they be connected together?

LC: Beautifully done, Mark. As you know, I consider even overlapping the initial row to be watered-down 12 tone technique, much less using several rows simultaneously ... However, I see your points, and they are good ones. Yet, is finding the chords within the row really the main question for the 12 tone composer? Always? There are so many styles of 12 tone composition and technique - all depends on how the row is constructed and used. And what is in the mind and heart of the composer as he approaches that sheet of blank manuscript paper. Some composers wish only to imply chordal movement, or even chordal existence, within their composition. In other words, some composers do not have chords or chordal movement as a goal - and polyphony vs harmonic movement has been a composer’s choice throughout history.

Earlier in my work as a composer, I more wished to hide the harmonic movement, make it more subtle, more mysterious, ineffable - to achieve this, harmony was the result of the polyphonic movement of voices. As I get older, the chordal structures become more and more simple and recognizable in my music - but this was not my earlier intent as a pure 12 tone composer. And to achieve that new goal I set my row up differently, i,e, harmonically rather than thematically - and break rules whenever I wish, generally to repeat harmonic segments of the row to my heart’s content before changing to the next segment of the row. But if using more than one row, the harmonies can be found in other ways - or in ways you yourself suggest in this communication, either within one row or several rows. Not always an easy task ...

Mark: Balancing the chords and their natures is a sophisticated art in twelve note music. Too often the series is used as a 'panacea' for building an unconvincing creative work. One only has to look to 'total serialism' to see how the twelve-note idea can become purely a technique rather than a 'method'.

LC: Yes, I see your point. Still: doesn’t this depend on the sound the composer is seeking? “Total serialism” - no matter how the row is constructed - has its own sound and feeling.

Mark: Consequently, I don't hold with the position that the series guides the harmony completely, and the composer is bounden to use whatever notes the row or rows demand next. Rather the harmony should both flow from the possibilities of the row and control the usage of the row.

LC: This is your right and your prerogative as a composer. I must admit that I have not always precisely followed the row, for reasons similar to the ones you gave.

Mark: Both Hindemith's 'Craft of Musical Composition' and Reginald Smith Brindle's 'Serial Composition' show how we might evaluate any arbitrary combination of notes, if only in the context of strong and weak intervals. This at the least provides a guide for developing our sense of how a given chord may be balanced to bring out its different qualities. But neither books suggest means for connecting chords except in terms of creating an arch of tension flow.

Elements of the problem of twelve-note harmony keep recurring in theoretical writings. There is even a book on Schoenberg's twelve-note harmonic practice - Schoenberg's Twelve-Tone Harmony, by Martha Hyde, Ann Arbor 1982. I have not read this book, but I gather that some of its conclusions are derived from a faulty idea. Nevertheless, that books are devoted to the harmonic practice of one composer hints at a fundamental issue with 'the Method'.

Of course, Schoenberg wanted it no other way. For him, harmony was an intrinsic element of composition including twelve-note music; that every work using a row will necessitate its own harmonic profile, and different composers will respond to a given row in markedly different ways. To attempt to write a book detailing the available harmonies and their connections seems superfluous: twelve note music is pure 'expression' - every chord is possible, every connection. What defines harmony here is the needs of that expression. Even in tonal music we find this problem - the balance between consonance and dissonance is finely judged - and can easily be upset by an inappropriate chord even if it is a simple consonance. What in one place is an ugly dissonance is in another an expressive and beautiful sonority.

LC: Beautifully said, Mark. Schonberg’s vision, in my mind, was the greatest theoretical musical contribution of this century. And that is not to say one should be a twelve tone composer. No, his theory - as stated above - goes beyond all techniques and forms, and can be applied to any of them. However, as you say, the problem of dissonance in 12 tone music is not always easily solved ... And the fluctuations between consonance and dissonance, between rest and tension - help define both the composer and the meaning of the piece. Mozart’s Sonata in a minor was written shortly after the death of his mother (if I remember correctly) - and in the slow movement of that Sonata, Mozart used essentially what we would call tone clusters to express his grief. Many consider this his most beautiful and most profound Sonata, I among them.

Mark: Of course, that doesn't 'help' a composer.

LC: Thank you for the chuckle. I agree, you are right. Schonberg’s extraordinary vision of music does not give the composer the ways or the means to find it within his system. Or even the surety that it exists within the 12 tone system. We would have to redefine “harmony”. As I see it, Schonberg handed the world a new concept: that every single tone, when extracted from a tonal system, itself contained a harmonic system. A universe unto itself. Now whether this can be translated into music within his system, is an unending experiment for composers ... As for actual harmonies, triads, seventh, ninth, eleventh, - chords and their progressions - wouldn’t that be up to the composer? Schonberg handed composers a blank check in terms of harmony and harmonic progression. And depending on how the row is set up and used - every chord is possible, every connection, within the system ... Much like modal chant. Within the strict laws that govern chant - anything is possible, any harmony, melody - or progression. In writing chant, one chooses those first notes very carefully - for the rest of the chant will be governed and restricted by those initial choices. In twelve tone, all depends on the row, i.e. the choice of the order of those twelve tones of the chromatic scale.

Mark: But, unlike tonal harmony where some rules can be used to generate satisfactory but uninspired music, the 'Method' requires the composer to use their inner and outer ear constantly in building the interplay of sounds in a composition. Hence the comparisons between twelve note music and modern architecture - the balancing of voids and masses, the relative sizes and disposition of elements - come easily to mind. In this regard, twelve-note music is more sonic sculpture than music, but this should not distract us from the fundamentally *thematic* quality of twelve-note music. The series is a theme without rhythm. Harmony is therefore, as Hauer put it, 'vertical melody'.

LC: Hmm ... I would say that this could be said of all music: “the balancing of voids and masses, the relative sizes and disposition of elements.” As for Hauer’s “vertical melody”: that could be said of all polyphonic music, with the moving lines forming the harmonies. I very much like “sonic sculpture”, and now I am inwardly hearing the Brahms Reqiuem ... Of course, to truly have this discussion, we should be citing specific 12 tone compositions in these analytical descriptions and comments. Otherwise, there is no true point of reference. As you yourself point out, the row can be a theme, but not necessarily. And harmony, in any form of music, is not always “vertical melody”. It depends on whether the composer is writing polyphonically or harmonically.

Mark: If there were any advice I'd give - start with the row - even if it's only a sketch of a row - and divide it into two groups of six notes, or better still, take every segment of two to eleven notes from the row, and play the chords, changing the octave of notes, and see how they sound. Combine the row with a transposition or an inversion - listen to the pairs of notes, or two from each row, or three, or more - all of these combinations will reveal flashes of colour contained within the row. Eventually, you will hear into the twelve notes, as they are arranged for that row - and you will also detect when perhaps a pair of notes needs exchanging - or some other minor variation of the row. For each change, check the new harmonies formed, and eventually a row will emerge that captures the essence of the creative impulse that brought it into being.

Sometimes a row may emerge from a harmony - in which case start with a chord, and follow it with one or more chords that use up the twelve notes without repetition. These chords can be embedded in the row as I have suggested earlier, or explicitly. A row will again emerge from these sonic 'moments'.

LC: Valuable advice and well written.

Mark: One good exercise is to find two six note chords that make up the twelve notes, two chords that are interesting in their own right but also have some interest in their joining together, and alternate them, using rhythm and octave displacement of notes only as variation. No transpositions, no inversions. Just let the music flow, enjoying the subtle changes in colour with the changes in the disposition of the notes in time and registral space.

Next, divide this or another row into three groups of four notes, and write another study, varying only rhythm and register - we are only looking at the chords, remember. Next, more complex ideas can be considered: Divide the row into four groups of three notes, but then, split the music into two streams - one using notes 1 2 3 and 7 8 9, and the other 4 5 6 and 10 11 12. Consider them to be independent strands of music, but each strand is a pair of three note chords. In that way, vertical combinations of notes will be any of 1 2 3 4 5 6 or 4 5 6 7 8 9 or 7 8 9 10 11 12. Try to avoid the combination of 1 2 3 with 10 11 12, or if it occurs, move to one of the 'accepted' combinations immediately. Harmony is therefore always a six note segment of the row, but you have two lines of music. I leave it as an exercise for the willing composer to try other ways of dividing the row and alternating elements to achieve similar textures - all the while keeping to the rule that whatever sounds vertically is a segment of the row. Try it with transpositions or inversions combined with the original form - here you will learn how to use different numbers of notes in harmonies - again to achieve a vertical harmony which is a segment of the row.

LC: An interesting technique, to do this after the row is written. Perhaps you object to chords repeating their order throughout a piece - although the inversion and retrogrades give the composer variation - as do the transpositions, or “modulations”. I personally do not object to the set harmonic patterns. Twelve tone music is so complicated in so many other respects, for me the repeating harmonic structure adds a needed simplicity. Or perhaps I have misunderstood what you have written ... It has been a long day ...

Mark: These are just suggestions - maybe these are too simple to consider - but I find them worthwhile, and sometimes, when I am not feeling inspired, I will give them a try with a row from another composer's work.

Exercises such as these give insight into a row, and in the manner of chorale harmonisations, act as a grounding in twelve-note harmony. The two-strand idea can be made into a three or four strand idea very simply, and it can be very instructive to try these with other composer's rows to see how they are inwardly constructed.

Notice how rhythm has become important in forming chords - time has become an element of harmony, which is as it should be in twelve-note music - not only vertical melodies but 'horizonal harmonies' too.


LC: Just a fine bit or writing and thinking Mark. In my mind, twelve tone music has so many potentialities, limitless potentialities - just as does tonal music. There should be as many styles and genres of 12 tone as there are composers - and even within the life of one composer. I hope my various comments will help further this very interesting and valuable discussion - and thank you for all your thoughts and your willingness to share them.


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