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Serial Music

  Composers of serial music seek to remove randomness from their art by subjecting some or all of its elements—pitch, duration, volume—to external mathematical discipline. In twelve-note music, for example, the twelve notes of the octave (C, C sharp, D, D sharp, etc.) are arranged in a series (for example, 2,5,8,9, etc., where C is 1, C sharp is 2 and so on); no note may be repeated until the whole series has been played. (This style, developed by Schoenberg in the late 1910s, and formalized by him in 1923, is the single most radical innovation in 20th-century European art music, as fundamental to it as the development of cubism was to fine art.) The series can be used vertically to produce chords and harmonies, or horizontally to produce melodies and counterpoint; it can appear backwards and upside-down, and can begin on any of the twelve chromatic notes—48 permutations are thus available. In addition to pitch, many composers have experimented with rhythmic series. Olivier Messiaen used Greek poetic metres and the talas of Indian art music, Boris Blacher used irregular, rigorously repeated patterns of crotchets and quavers, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis serialized duration according to imposed mathematical rules, using, for example, number systems like the Fibonacci series, or systems generated by computer. The difficulty of playing music in which every note is a different length and pitch from all the others, and needs a different kind of attack—in some Boulez piano works, each finger is playing in a different way—led, in the 1950s and beyond, to the development of electronic and computer-played music, which eliminates the fallible humanity of the players. This art, though enthusiastically enjoyed by its devotees, has remained that of an avant-garde minority; only twelve-note serialism has proved a serious influence on music at large.

Post-serialism is a movement of the 1970s and beyond. Composers began to make selective use of serial techniques, and of the sounds and ideas of serialism, without subjecting their works to rigid mathematical organization. Serial methods, in fact, became one resource among many, instead of the chief determinant of all the material. This style has now displaced strict serialism, and is the predominant mode of ‘classical’ art music composition throughout the world. KMcL

Further reading A. Whittall, Music Since the First World War.



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