Scott Good’s love letter to 12 tone theory…
There seems to be some kind of schism between those who appreciate the inventiveness of Arnold Schoenberg’s infamous 12 tone technique, and there are those who think it stinks. Not a huge grey area in the middle. I would like to propose some rather grey thoughts on the matter, but leaning much closer to appreciation, in fact, very much adored.
First, there has to be context. When this technique was pioneered, a much more profound change had already been brought to the fore – equal temperament. It had become the widely accepted standard.
Classical music was submitting to the will, and creative potential, of unrestrained modulation. Composers had shown that it is easy to move within a single movement, between all twelve key areas – a sequence of 5ths will do the trick, or perhaps some severe harmonic cross relations to expedite the transition. With equal temperament comes the facility to coordinate cleanly between any keys – there was no restriction, or hierarchy of intonation – any tonality is game all the time. This development made easier these undertakings for performers as well – relying on static spots to place notes (this is of course not the full truth – intonation is a major subject for performing…but the equal tempered standard is how we (I think most) have learned.) A =440Hz in the key of A, F, or F#.
In some ways, the widespread inclusion of equal temperament was an admission that traditional functional tonality was on the way out. The relationship between dominant and tonic, the fundamental harmonic structure of the common era, is founded upon a relationship of harmonics. Of course, there is something quite magical about the 12 equal divisions, and it’s relationship to the harmonics – the fifths are very accurate, and the other intervals are quite close. It is a strange coincidence that this works out so well – a fluke of mathematics. But not perfect – it is a compromise. Tonality was created to use the perfect relationships, and develop a system with more flexibility. Each stage on the path added, or subtracted “atonality” to the language, chords away from the tonic, harmonic extensions, to create asymmetries for artistic expressiveness. But until the implementation of equal temperament, each stage was founded upon the relationships between a tonic key, and it’s harmonics.
Intonation was not a given. Each note had its place in relation to the tonic, and modulations were prone to distortions, adding bite to their movement. It was chaotic, so needed a stable format to work on – hence a system that functions in relation to a tonic – hierarchy from chaos.
With this change, the music of the spheres has been abandoned for music of flexibility, and convenience. Out with perfect thirds and 7ths, and in with endless modulation. We had traded a parabolic system with a linear one – calculus out, algebra in.
IMHO, the three most significant advancements due to this change were 12 tone theory, spectralism, and jazz, particularly bebop. Jazz for being able to fully implement a dynamic, modulating tonal language through improvisation. The facility of which is expressed most in bebop, peaking with pieces such as Giant Steps by Coltrain- a mammoth undertaking in extreme harmonic motion – a pillar for jazz musicians to be able to shred. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of jazz harmony with equal temperament is the tritone substitution – the most dynamic tones of the dominant 7th harmony – 3rd and 7th are “switched” – so, the G7 – G B D F, is substituted with Db7 – Db F Ab B – the common tones of B and F create this dynamic. This is the roots of the kaleidoscope of jazz harmony, only possible within equal temperament.
Spectralism (for which I include, to a degree. Debussy-Wagner-Messiaen-Xenakis- Varese to a degree + many others, maturing with Grisey, Murail and now into the future) was born from the necessity to liberate the note from any external function – to be itself the material – timbre as theme. The infinite degree of intonation had been stolen from the creative process, denying notes to exist in relations to others, but rather fixed points, with infinitely less variation. 12 points of octave equivalence. Creativity had to be liberated by the focus on sonority. Once more detailed measurements of sound spectra were available, they became a source of material, but there are a multitude of examples of how this approach has affected music making and perception. For instance, Pop music is essentially a spectral phenomenon (and should be respected as such). It is also ancient, and better explains music such as gamelan, or Noh.
But I’m not writing to talk about those theories and genres, they have their own love stories, but rather the ugly little brother, the theory of composing with twelve tones. It must be first said that such a theory was bound to happen if the notes were to be all equalized. A kind of mathematical inevitability.
My perspective is biased. I look at music as a creative discipline. I’ve been drawn to composing in the same way that many do with writing, painting, poetry etc. The compulsion/obsession to express. Therefore, in my own logical presuppositions, any technique, theory, concept, is for me, a matter of usability. I’m at heart, a utilitarian in these regards. This is the perspective I want to describe what 12 tone theory has to offer – not as a static concept that would produce certain results, but as a dynamic tool capable of a vast array of aesthetic conclusions. This is how I love it!
So what is this theory all about? The basics are quite simple – a row of pitches containing all twelve tones, producing a sequence of intervals. It is the quality of intervals that is key to the system – creating a web of possible relationships for which the composer can draw out material, and develop.
The key from my perspective is the concept of row. In most music, pitches are structured around a scale, or a mode, relating to a tonic. It is how the material is designed, and developed. But a row implies other kinds of relationships – where the sequence of intervals themselves become the basis of material., allowing musical structure to be first defined by the melodic – the motive. It is a kind of flip of roles.
At the time, there was the need for a strong push to create anew. It had to, for various reason – the wars being very close to the heart, resulting from the desire to push from cultural norms. So a system that fully embraced equal temperament was born through atonality. There is a strong need to be pure in this system. Overt references to tonality must be avoided, in order to achieve a completeness and continuity. If a tonal reference is introduced, such as any tertian reference (triads and extensions), it spoils the structural integrity.
Thus, tone rows were designed for maximum atonality, and were always all 12 notes – no less, no more. The system needed this kind of dogma in order for it to manifest, and harmony looses it’s function, becomes subordinate to motive. Of course, the music of the western classical tradition till that time was always dependant on harmonic movement to shape form. This left a gap to be filled.
What is it like to hear when blind? What kind of sensitivity is induced through sound, or touch, to understand the world around when there are no “colours”? This to me is a good metaphor – music in 12 tone style becomes blind to functional harmony, and thus needs to exploit other parameters of musical expression – timbre, melody, density, tessitura to name some prominent categories. These are all, of course, part of all music – but what I am discussing is emphasis.
Many of the early uses of 12 tone composition were quite routed in traditional musical structures – take this charming little example of a musette by Schoenberg:
The pedal tone of G throughout gives a sense of a kind of tonality, over which a kind of wave of pitch undulates above. I find all of the chords quite gratifying – funny…but really humorous, not mocking or ironic.
But it became clear to the composers that a new kind of form would suit the new kind of pitch relationships – pieces would express different qualities of rows, and the structure surrounding would also compliment said row.
Schoenberg often used very angular and irregular rows – non symmetrical – suggesting a more fantasia like structure – expressionistic, and somewhat whimsical – playful at times, moody in others. A lovely example is his Fantasie for violin and piano:
However, Webern tended towards more symmetrical row structures, complimented with symmetry in form. His works have a sense of calm and proportion quite distinct from the exuberance and fantasy of Schoenberg. It is a music that fully embraces equality and atonality, allowing it to flourish in it’s own implied language. The motive is everything in this music – with pitch, and timbre – a synthesis. He is addicted to the major 7th and the minor 9th. I think he does this as they are the most crystalline of diads. In order to love this music, one must embrace these sounds as a kind of tonic sonority – a home base from which the rest of the material is spun.
Although no other composer inspires me more for creative thinking than Schoenberg – from the Chamber Symphony – Book of the Hanging Gardens – Ewartung – Pierrot – 5 Orchestra Pieces, (and we aren’t even at the invention of 12 tone!) Concertos – Chamber Pieces. Treatment of voice. For me he is an endless encyclopedia of incredible sonorities and instrumental writing…
…and the great gift Webern did by showing an entirely new path of musical syntax and expression…
…no piece of music has ever given me such sublime emotion on first hearing/seeing, than Berg’s Wozzeck.
It is no coincidence that these three composers are grouped. They form a web of variety within a system. Although Wozzeck was not 12 tone, Berg’s Violin Concerto shows a new path through this system – a reaching towards a new framing. In this work, tonality, and the sonority of the violin rule the row’s structure. This synthesis exposes a row’s structure mingling with tonal reference. The integrity of the row is compromised for sentimental reasons…primarily. But I think it is also important to acknowledge the timbre shift. Simply put, Berg is attempting to find commonality between diatonic sonority and atonal theory within the row construction.
Here is the most “radical” section of the Concerto, in which a Bach choral finds it’s way into the music:
I find it quite a fascinating story of classical music’s evolutionary history – one of the richest creative developments. As strict as this system may seem to be, it seems from just the output of these three early pioneers to be capable of extreme differences in aesthetic quality and emotional effect.
For my own craft, it has been an important tool for building scores. The liberation of tones from a static hierarchy to dynamic interrelations works well for the kind of music I want to compose. My direction is much more aligned with what Berg began, but I still find great inspiration from the others, and for this, I am very grateful.
I fear some times, that 12 tone theory is not understood as a seed, but rather a rock. Schoenberg, along with others, formed a system with a specific purpose that required certain parameters and conditions – it was of it’s time, and beautifully so. But I worry that the future of its influence is clouded by political blindness and aesthetic miss-understanding. The logic behind the system can be opened, as was hinted at by Berg, to re-invigorate the classical tradition into new territory – applying motive based row structures to define material, but allow for any resonance to exist in the structure. We need to think of “atonality” not as a fixed aesthetic, but as a tendency of expressiveness – to distort from symmetrical fixed points to evoke artistic impetus.
Like visual stimulation, symmetry shows purpose and power – early humans would need exceptional skill to recognize symmetries in order to know what to pay attention to, as symmetry implies purpose or physical laws – the animals face, or a seed, fruit ,or vegetable – the orbits and cosmic proportions. We are deigned to pay attention to these phenomenon, as they are key to our survival. And thus, symmetry and grouping have been staples of artistic theory.
Sound also has similar functionality. We are able to identify sounds through the thickness of white noise chaos of our natural surrounds – wind, rain, running water, and so on. Sounds that have deliberate qualities of tonality, and strongly defining envelope, a kind of parabolic symmetry through the harmonic structure imply importance and purpose – animal sounds or snapping branches, earth quakes, lightning etc. Everything has resonance, and music exploits our perception of the ringing of sounds. I see no incompatibility with harmonic resonance and row structure, and in fact, can serve as a bridge between the tonal and the atonal with unifying thematic material. I think the theory should be presented to students as a much more plastic and malleable than it seems to be now – this will not only aid creative endeavours, but help the audience focus on the unique quality each composer brings to it. This is the most important part of what the theory is for – a structure on which to build unique works of art – no more, no less.