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What Does Serialism Mean In Music?

The endeavours of some Experimentalist composers in the 1950s and 1960s, including Cornelius Cardew and John Cage (parenthetically, Cage’s own quote, ‘Let the notations refer to what is to be done, not what is to be heard’1 , has resonances with the title quote) were a purposeful reaction to the determinacy of the Serialists.However, the notions of integral serialism and indeterminacy shared common elements in some eyes:

There is really no basic difference between the results of automatism and the products of chance; total determinacy comes to be identical with total indeterminacy….2 The way a piece is notated allows us to come closer to understanding ‘the musical culture within which [notations] operate, and of the ways in which our modes of thought are influenced by the nature of the systems we use’3.

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This relates to the societal view that the composer is the one who has something to say, reducing the status of the performer to that of interpreter.

However, this is not a view that has always existed; composers such as Mozart and Beethoven often expected performers of their works (including themselves, to which I shall return) to create improvised cadenzas for their concerti, while, additionally, the accompaniments were improvised to an extent. Reducing this to a basic level, is it simply the case that, harmonically and stylistically, it was not as difficult to do this in Mozart’s time? We no longer have a tradition, or such a tonal system embodying a guiding code, to respect in this way, which has contributed to the prioritising of the composer, and the score.

Through our traditional respect for the written word, one expects to perform music as it is written, which itself has consequences: ‘… it is our veneration for the urtext that leads us to the attitude that ‘whatever is not in the score must be wrong’. “4 The movement towards greater notational detail in the score in the 1950s and 1960s, along with the aforementioned elevated view of composer as ‘master’ brought performers to a situation where “interpretation” became subjugated by “execution”.

Attempts to exert compositional control over every element of a work -that is not only time-space relationships but forms of attack, articulation, dynamic shading i. e. those elements traditionally left to the musical intelligence of the player – do posses a certain futility. In every case which involves human input, something is left to the performer. They do not have to be aware of the extent that their unconscious ‘decisions’ influence a piece, which include the elements of performance out of the possible control of the composer, for example a player’s personal style, method of playing their instrument, conception of dynamic level.

Players still take latitude, however determinate the notation. Their personal mannerisms and inflections will inevitably influence the end result. When viewed in this way, such precision on the part of the composer becomes almost meaningless, except in cases where the end result being an approximation is intentionally part of the composer’s aesthetic. It arises that performers must be cautious of the primacy of the score, handling it (and the composer) with ‘kid gloves’.

It leads to narrow scope for, and range of, interpretation “… a state in which the interaction of compulsive exactitude and permissive freedom could result in simultaneous attitudes of carelessness towards the controlled elements and a confined and repetitious response to spontaneity in playing”5. Freeing oneself from the page became an important part of the experimental aesthetic. Conscientious performers feel a responsibility to the composer, and to their own integrity.

Over-complexity in notation leads to problems with the realisation of the composer’s intentions when directives are inevitably contravened through necessity. However, a performer would really have to be familiar with a composer’s aesthetic to know that this otherwise unacceptable act is part of the piece’s implicit significance. So, in a piece of huge complexity, notated or otherwise, a player who makes the ‘act of commitment’6 to study and attempt to decipher it, is likely to have a legitimate interest in actually performing the piece.

One element which appears to permeate much of Cardew’s output is a re-evaluation of the role between composer and performer. Cardew attached as much importance to the workings within the implementation of performance as the end-result in sound. His wish was to challenge accepted ways of thinking about, and making, music, which led to a notation which was action-oriented, inclusive and descriptive, not prescriptive. As suggested by the above quote, ‘… he sound [becomes] a by-product of the activity, which is therefore specified exactly, while the sound may be left to look after itself. ‘ 7 Cardew writes of ‘a notation’, as in ‘there are many notational possibilities’. How, though, can a notation really capture every conceivable piece of information about a piece? Obviously, ‘conventional’ notation, that is notation which covers time-pitch relationships, is not flexible enough to relate extended compositional requirements. “…

The whole process depends on the choice of a suitable notation to serve as a link between A [composer] and B [performer]; one which will both express what needs to be expressed and allow information to flow smoothly between the two. “8 Even so, composers are less concerned with the relationship of the score to the performer, and consequently the sounds (A to C via B), than to their own concerns with sounds, without due consideration for the act of performing these sounds (A to C).

Cardew suggests that a composer could work on their notation with the way a performer will interpret the signs in mind, thus ‘making the sounds’ you wanted as a composer. Transcribing one’s ideas in such a manner as to enable the performer to comprehend your directives, and even involve the player in decision-making, is a performance-perspective oriented view, having the added benefit of lending greater objectivity to the compositional task. ‘… A paradigm that grew up in the early twentieth century… aw the composer as some kind of absolute genius capable of imagining a perfect performance of a piece’9 The ‘tendency towards greater explicitness’10, which this comment infers, is part of a paradigm of composition far removed from the way composition was historically defined.

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Yet, the morphology of every new notation, and the consequential absence of a ‘norm of common notational practice’, meant that immediate recognition of a composer’s intentions became impracticable. 11 One underlying issue to be addressed in greater depth is that of the relationship between composer and performer.

Hugo Cole states that ‘notation evolved to meet felt but inarticulate needs’12 When new methods of notation are devised in response to the need to articulate a newly developed style of composition, composers move the hypothetical goalposts further away again from the performer, as they have to once again learn the new language, interpret again the new signs and work out what the piece (or the composer) is trying to ‘say’. This applies in equal measure to determinate music and experimental, though the degree of freedom lent to the performer in the latter case deems it in many ways a more satisfying task.

It somehow restores the performer’s role as musically intelligent interpreter, relied upon to add the nuances and subtleties that (traditional) notation cannot accommodate. The rigidity of a notation must have relevance to the playing situation. To provide contrasting examples; the notations in many works by Brian Ferneyhough are complex attempts to notate those aspects of music which would otherwise be added -unconsciously or consciously-by the performer. This style of notation does not have the effect of reducing the burden on the performer, but adds to the already substantial amount of information the performer has to transmute into sound. In music of the New Complexity: performer is subjugated and manipulated, concluding that his efforts are of secondary importance.

The act of writing, the systems and the notation take on more importance than the music it is there to serve… ’13Yet, Ferneyhough’s scores are more than mere receptacles for ‘performance directions’, they are inextricably linked to the composer’s ideology. Their complexity is wildly challenging, but, paradoxically, the goal is not to fit in every event on every note; rather, the essence of his works lies in what is omitted in performance.

This has a potent psychological effect on the classically-trained performer, accustomed to polished performances true to the composers wishes. With Ferneyhough, what he wishes is effectively equivocal, due in part to his documented changing views of his own output. Frederic Rzewski concludes that ‘… it is not the notation but the compositional position that presents the performance problem. ’14 We must additionally consider the example of those composers of equally complex, some may say impractical, music, who are also renowned performing exponents of their own scores; for example Michael Finnissy.

By the nature of their enterprise, they are forced to consider the performer and, in Finnissy’s case, continue to write music of such paradoxical complexity that, if one was to follow the score, is full of “errors” in performance, but still faithful to its essence. ‘The composer-performer [reacts] to their own notational problems, they know what idiomatic writing is being performers themselves and still choose to write music in a particular style’15 To contrast, take composer Glenn Branca’s Symphony no. 6 ‘Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven’, written in the main for electric guitars.

He employs ‘staff notation’, and no dynamic markings are evident as, naturally, the resultant dynamic of a piece of this nature will be at least fortissimo. Ironically, Branca’s use of conventional notation links to his perception of it as being ‘exact’: I had never written the pieces in staff notation until I wrote for the orchestra. Then I fell in love with the idea of having things so exact, with this notation, that I called up all my musicians [guitarists] and asked ”can you guys read music? ” It turned out that everybody could… so we just started doing everything in staff notation.

Not only did it make things clearer for me and the musicians, but it did change the music. 16 Branca’s closing comment that ‘it did change the music’ makes for interesting side-thought. For him, there were no subtleties or nuances that could not be recorded using this type of notation; in fact, it helped him to clarify and articulate his thoughts, correlating with the idea that notation must reflect the playing situation. The music of Christian Wolff embodies a similar aim to Cardew’s, encouraging performer participation in the creation of a work and devising notations which allow such interaction.

Theirs is an ‘aesthetic of non-intention’, away from the conventional burdens of music: [music] must make possible the freedom and dignity of the performers. It should have in it a persistent capacity to surprise (even the performers themselves and the composer)’17 He creates deliberate paradoxical situations where what is written cannot be executed, for example in 6 Players where he asks one of the solo violas to ‘play eight notes in a quarter of a second, including three harmonics and one pizzicato’18.

His use of indeterminacy in performance opens the work to external influences genuinely beyond the composer’s intentions, and the barrier between performer and composer is reduced. 19 This use of indeterminate operations necessarily led to new attitudes towards performance. A working example of experimental notation is Cardew’s Octet ’61 [Example 1, below], which employs ‘an ambiguous ciphered notation, the working out of which by each performer leads to unforeseeable combinations of events that could be produced neither by strict composition nor by free improvisation.

20 As we have seen, ‘simple’ notation does not necessarily equal many possible interpretations, and on the same line, an elaborate notation such as Cardew’s can permit varied interpretation. The psychological impact of how the music looks on the page invites varied readings; the printed page is a storage medium where an inevitably incomplete representation of ‘notateable’ ideas can be retained for the future.

The fact that this aspect of the work does not change over time, like a painting or a book, does not mean that the piece will not change and evolve. Art’s ability to carry societal properties, to evolve and reflect changing times is surely part of its value. The search for greater notational control led to greater complexity, yet the early influence of the possibilities of electronic music must have contributed to this pursuit.

Peter Zinofieff spoke of an early ideal, satisfied by electronic composition, where ‘we can each have our own private language specially tailored for our own machines and individual needs or frustrations’ 21 Ultimately, though, the performer’s job is ‘to make the relationships and patterns in the music clear to the listener’s mind and ear’22. This hope, though, displaces the enduring problems which lie between composers and those who are employed to realise the work, be they human or otherwise.

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