Atonal Music: Should We Atone?

by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

American String Teacher, 1981

It is difficult to criticize the fifth edition of anything; more so George Perle's Serial Composition and Atonality. Since its publication in 1962 the book has become a classic, winning for Perle not only critical acclaim, but the far greater satisfaction of having enlightened a generation of musicians by providing a better understanding of a significant body of twentieth-century music. More to the point, two decades later, is to view his book in the light of recent developments in music: to ask not, How is Serial Composition and Atonality (the book) holding up after twenty years? but rather, How are serial composition and atonality (the techniques themselves) doing?

In his Preface to the fifth edition Perle states (p. xiv):

If, as a result, the composition of twelve-tone music shall have become more difficult, I shall feel amply rewarded.

Twenty years later we must answer Mr. Perle, "Yes, twelve-tone composition has become more difficult." Why? Because, like pure tonality, it has largely passed into history. To this observer (admittedly, as a participant, not an impartial one) all of the concern as recently as the 60s and early 70s about such topics as "the tabulation of non-equivalent pitch-class collections," and "the verticalization of nonadjacent linear elements" seems very far away now. In his discussion of Berg's Lulu (1934), Perle states (p. 140):

The restriction of set-complexes to prime, or, at the most, prime and inversional forms, and the characterization of each series through a typical contour, limits the ambiguities that might otherwise arise, so that, with the establishment of clearly referential pitch levels and the frequently explicit presentation of sets as segmental structures, the differentiation of harmonic areas is effective even in sections of the work that do not explicitly articulate the set-segments.

Compare this with Gunther Schuller's notes to his recent (1979) Contrabassoon Concerto:

The second movement is a scherzo, pure and simple, replete with trio (somewhat more tranquil), designed to show off not only the contrabassoon's agility but its sense of humor. Towards the end – like the broom of the sorcerer's apprentice – the contrabassoon bifurcates, figuratively at least, into two contrabassoons, the soloist being joined by a colleague in the orchestra, and the movement comes to a merry double-your-pleasure ending.

Has music really changed so much? In many ways, no. Schuller's concerto remains decidedly Bergian in its use of techniques which Perle describes, again in a discussion of Lulu (p. 78), as a texture

not dependent on serial procedures but on the assumption of a pervasive harmonic atmosphere based on the preferential employment of certain sonorities, a harmonic background that exists prior to any given series just as the triadic texture of traditional tonality exists prior to any given melodic detail.

How, then, do we explain this radical difference of approach? By what happened in between Berg and the present: the "total organization" employed by many composers of the 60s, which Perle describes (p. 97) as

an autonomous twelve-tone music, in which all aspects of the work – form, the constitution and interrelation of linear and vertical details, even rhythm – will be referable to a basic set, just as these elements are referable to the triad in the diatonic tonal system.

This emphasis upon intricacy of construction rather than purely aural elements has affected the way many musicians have regarded music during the last twenty years, hence the disparity in discussions of not-so-different music. Wisely foreseeing this trap (though not always avoiding it himself), Perle warns us in his Preface to the fifth edition (p. xiii):

One group of enthusiastic polemicists for this music specializes in "analyses" that rarely consist of anything more than tabulations of the notes of the set in their ramified course throughout the composition on the assumption that the mere identification of the order numbers of the notes will establish their validity . . . this type of "analysis" is as meaningless as would be "the labeling of the notes of a tonal composition to indicate their scale degrees."

Have composers taken this advice to heart? This observer believes so. Now, in the 80s, composers appear to be moving forward from the 60s with a better idea of what serialism and atonality are all about. We are shifting towards a synthesis in which the sounds we discovered through serialism are the primary emphasis rather than the process by which we derived them. Atonal writing is thus becoming less doctrinaire and more flexible in its inclusion of a variety of techniques: perhaps more difficult, but (like both Lulu and the Schuller Concerto) also more rewarding. This assimilative approach is well illustrated by Bruno Maderna, who said to me in 1976, "My music is no longer twelve-tone, but I am twelve-tone." As for other early serial techniques (or attitudes) which have remained (or returned) in the 70s and 80s, Perle includes such headings as "Free Atonality," "Non-dodecaphonic Serial Composition," "The Incorporation of Non-dodecaphonic Elements into the Set," and even "The Incorporation of Tonal Elements into the Set."

What has been the effect of this assimilative approach upon music since 1962? The computer term "user friendly" comes to mind. Weary of alienation, composers now appear to be caring more about communicating with audiences and performers and are either using serial and atonal elements in more accessible ways (returning to romantic Bergian sounds) or abandoning them altogether. The word "experimental" is little heard these days, even in computer and electronic music. As in all periods, most results have been poor; a few have been masterpieces. We need not be surprised. What does seem surprising, however, is that since so many composers have recently re-embraced tonality, either totally, partially, or in the form of quotations, the definitions of "new" and "old" seem strangely to be switching. Today the exclusive use of strict serial techniques in virtually any context brings with it the faint but unmistakable odor of mothballs or, as the New York Times review of a recent Perle composition put it, "ground already gone over." In his preface to the fifth edition of Serialism and Atonality Perle states that

it is only in the most backward circles that the mere use of a tone row will secure a composer's position as a member of the avant-garde, as it was sure to do a few years ago.

Today for avant-garde one might well substitute au courant.

Given the present musical climate, Perle's book remains a literate and perceptive guide to the immediate past, one which by its already archaic tone points the way to a better understanding of the rapidly changing present and, therefore, the future. In his preface to the fifth edition Perle maintains that

the development of the serial idea may be viewed not as a radical break with the past but as an especially brilliant coordination of musical ideas which had developed in the course of recent history.

"Coordination" is here the key word. As this observer views the scene, we have just now emerged from what Stravinsky described as "the abyss of freedom," with serialism finally in its proper perspective: a poor master but an exquisite servant, not to be obeyed, but not to be ignored – rather to be manipulated and enjoyed alongside the other beauties of our civilization.